History of the IRA

What follows is part of an honors thesis submitted by Ryan McCarthy to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Those interested in this article might also be interested in the first portion of his thesis on the effectiveness of terrorism

The late 1960s in Ireland were a time of social and political turmoil. After the collapse of the original IRA (itself an offshoot of the Easter Rising), those individuals still interested in pursuing a unified Ireland shifted their focus to nonviolent alternatives, at least for a short time. After the failure of the IRA to realize their agenda through political violence, members of the IRA instigated a civil rights campaign, albeit one contained “within a radical republican ideological framework.”[1] The impetus for this movement was the poor treatment of Catholics in the north, who were demanding civil status on par with that which their Protestant counterparts enjoyed. These demands, rooted in the militant republican movement that had collapsed only a few years earlier, were perhaps more contentious than they would have otherwise been, considering that for many Protestants the demand for these rights was tied to a movement that was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Protestants and British loyalists.[2] The perceived intractability of this conflict led each of these two communities to maintain a sense of irreconcilability when thinking about resolving the conflict.

This tension has a noteworthy basis in the theoretical literature on violent conflict. In “Rationalist Explanations for War,” James Fearon argues that one possible cause of conflict between two groups is issue indivisibility, or the idea that “some issues, by their very natures, simply will not admit compromise.” [3] The underlying assumption here is that some issues lead to conflict because both sides perceive them as zero-sum in a way that does not allow for negotiation. In other words, a gain for one side is necessarily a loss for the other. It is important to note that this difficulty is almost never the case in reality, and that this tension is instead brought about by the perceptions of each group. Claims such as “We will never negotiate with terrorists,” one often made by governments, highlight that these perceptions are very real. The fact that a group has resorted to violence in order to extract concessions from a government indicates that the issue or issues that drive them are important enough to fight for. On the other hand, the willingness of governments to fight back and their unwillingness to grant the concessions that terrorists are interested in indicates that issue indivisibility is a very real perceptual problem hindering conflict resolution. This problem can also help to explain why the civil rights movement eventually turned violent again — and why another incarnation of the IRA eventually surfaced

The emergence of the Provisional IRA from the IRA can be explained in a number of ways. Indeed, no one factor can fully encapsulate why the Provisionals decided to split from their parent organization. However, a few different factors taken together can explain this event in a satisfactory way. The first, and probably the most important factor that helps explain the formation of the PIRA[4] is the mounting tensions that the civil rights movement caused in the late 1960s. During this period, sectarian friction had been increasing, with people “coming out to defend their homes… so you had then the formation really of the defence, a defence mentality, and everyone was looking for guns to defend their areas.” [5] This situation illustrates a small-scale security dilemma, in which two sides that both have a mutual interest in not fighting one another end up arming anyway, because they cannot credibly commit to refrain from attacking each other. English argues that “the maintenance of internal discipline, of training and of a military sharpness [within the IRA] had seemed important to dissidents before the August 1969 attacks on northern Catholics; after the events of that month, they seemed essential.” [6] These attacks served to reinforce the notion that the IRA was acting as the necessary defenders of the Catholic community. Liam McAnoy, an ex-IRA soldier, explains how “the police had withdrawn from Catholic communities” in August of 1969, leaving the security vacuum to be filled by Catholic and nationalist paramilitaries.[7] Part of the reason the Provisional IRA formed at the time that it did was the growing sentiment among Catholics that sectarian tension in Northern Ireland mandated a defense force that was capable of holding its own against British forces and its loyalist supporters.

Another factor that helps explain the formation of the Provisional IRA was disagreement over whether Irish nationalists in political positions should boycott parliamentary positions that were being offered to them by the British government. The more hardline Irish republicans believed that sending representatives to parliament would be to “legitimize the illegitimate.” These hardliners believed that to participate in the British government would be to tacitly acknowledge its authority over Ireland. Interestingly, many of these nationalists believed that agreeing to take seats in the British parliament would undermine the military capability and legitimacy of the IRA.[8] Perhaps their belief was that their fight would be delegitimized even further if they agreed to take seats, because the use of violence would be seen as being at odds with their political involvement. By abstaining from participation, they could at least make the claim that they viewed British political institutions as illegitimate and foreign. Those individuals who felt that the nationalist Irish community should abstain completely from political participation with the British were the same individuals responsible for the formation of the Provisional IRA.

A final reason bears mentioning — and it is one that should not be taken lightly. The primary goal of the IRA was to combat the British presence in Ireland. It is only fitting that the subsequent armies that emerged from it would view this as their primary goal as well. That is to say, the perceived need to combat British troops helps explain the emergence of the PIRA. Seamus Lynch, another former member of the IRA, alludes to the idea that the British were seen as “the imperialist enemy”[9] by many in Northern Ireland, especially Irish citizens who were actively involved with the IRA. This point is important because it helped to legitimize the conflict for a larger swath of the population. While the number of individuals who believed that terrorism would be acceptable in fighting the British was quite low, the number of citizens who could be persuaded to support violence in opposition to an occupying force was much higher. This distinction in terms was achieved by appealing to notions of nationalism and self-defense. Indeed, IRA propaganda apparatuses found it politically prudent to portray the British as the initiators of the conflict by virtue of their illegitimate occupation of Northern Ireland. Tommy Gorman, an IRA soldier who joined the struggle in 1970, describes the goal of the Provisionals in a way that is both tactical and strategic at once: 

“We were creating this idea that the British state is not your friend … and at every twist in the road they were compounding what we were saying, they were doing what we were saying, fulfilling all the propaganda … the British Army, the British government, were our best recruiting agents.”[10]

Pointing out the acts of violence committed by the British while in Northern Ireland was a powerful strategic decision. By inundating Irish citizens with stories of dead Catholic citizens and families torn apart, the struggle with Britain was thoroughly legitimized in the minds of the Irish citizenry. 

In its infancy, the Provisional IRA emphasized the importance of defending the Catholic community. Importantly, though, the perception of the British army that the IRA was working hard to create essentially conflated “defence and anti-imperialist offence,” which helped the IRA to justify the offensive campaign that it was initiating. [11] By October of 1970, the Provos had begun a new bombing campaign in Ireland. After the leadership of the Provisional IRA sanctioned attacks on the British Army in the early weeks of 1971, the bombing campaign eventually escalated into systematic attacks on military personnel stationed in the north. By February 6th, the British soldier Robert Curtis had become “the first British soldier to be killed in the modern troubles.”[12] Perhaps counterproductively, these attacks reiterated to the British army that their presence was still needed in Northern Ireland. As the PIRA shored up its forces and strength in relation to the British military, they began to feel more confident in both their attacks on the British and their political goals, eventually “demanding a complete British withdrawal from Ireland and saying that they would replace both states with a 32-county socialist republic.”[13] The rise of the Provisionals saw the beginning of attritional campaigns on both sides of the conflict, with each party “holding that the other’s atrocities demanded a response in kind.” [14] 

Hostilities toward the British Army were stoked by these retaliatory shootings, and anger directed at the British eventually led to the introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland, a power that the Northern government held and invoked for a period with the permission of the British government. The emphasis of these internments was on Catholics and suspected members of the IRA, although some loyalists were rounded up as well.[15] The treatment of Catholics by the British military stoked Catholic rage and led to an increase in IRA attacks, with thirty British soldiers being killed in the last few months of 1971.[16] For many Catholics, this period cemented the idea that the conflict was unequivocally sectarian, with the British Army’s main goal being to repress Catholics and to strengthen the power of the loyalist majority in Northern Ireland. It didn’t help the situation that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in Northern Ireland, were largely Protestant and worked with the British to hinder the military progress of the PIRA, providing another highly visible target for the Provos. One motive for these attacks was to discourage people from joining organizations with whom the Provisionals disagreed politically, or who actively antagonized the Provisionals, such as the RUC.[17]

By the beginning of 1972, terrorist activity in Northern Ireland had increased to an all-out offensive, with the incidence of the use of car bombs rising. Car bombs were particularly effective because they made the transportation and detonation of explosives much simpler and less suspicious. After three months of bombings, the PIRA offered a brief military truce to the British and offered them terms for an end to the conflict.[18,19] However, the British, predictably, did not meet the Provisionals’ demands to completely remove their military presence in Northern Ireland, abolish the pro-British Stormont government of the north, and grant amnesty to political prisoners.[20] These clearly contentious demands were hardly even taken seriously by the British government. Indeed, it is difficult to say whether the Provos leadership genuinely believed that they had an appreciable chance to receive these concessions or if they were simply posturing to show that they had a strong set of demands that they were willing to publicly call for. There would be a sort of perverse logic to the PIRA issuing demands that they knew would not be met, as doing so would indicate that they perceived themselves to be in an advantageous bargaining position. However, after 72 hours the two sides could not reach an agreement, and the Provisional IRA resumed its campaign.

Despite the fact that processions were forbidden in the north, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association organized an anti-internment march that took place on 30 January. The British decided to deploy troops to contain the march rather than shut it down, possibly because of the fact that several thousand people turned out. An altercation ensued at a barricade, with some of the march participants climbing over and allegedly attacking the soldiers with stones. [21] The British responded by opening fire on the crowd and killing numerous protestors. An inquiry performed four decades later by Lord Saville of Newdigate suggests that the shooting of the unarmed protestors was entirely unjustified, as they were not posing any direct threat to the British Army.[22] This is not to suggest that the British were entirely at fault for the events of Bloody Sunday. As the report goes on to note, it is unclear if the soldiers thought that perhaps they were addressing a preemptive threat by opening fire. This incident instead shows that, with or without good reason, the pressure on the British soldiers in Northern Ireland had reached a fever pitch, with acts of violence occurring spontaneously and frequently. Thirteen individuals were killed that day, with a fourteenth dying later from fatal injuries.

The other side of this relationship is the British government and Army. With Operation Banner the British government began a campaign to repress dissident and terrorist groups in Northern Ireland. Troops were surged into the North beginning in 1969 in order to supplement the security forces and British troops already operating there. The specifics of the operation are covered in a review conducted by the British military entitled “Operation Banner: An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland.” The purpose of this report is to discuss the successes and failures of a campaign that was one of “the longest to date; one of the very few waged on British soil; and one of the very few ever brought to a successful conclusion by the armed forces of a developed nation against an irregular force.” Indeed, the Troubles comprised “the largest deployment of infantry and infantry-roled troops [by the British Army] since the Second World War.”[23] The Troubles represented a significant resource sink for the British Army; at the beginning of the campaign only three battalions had been deployed in the North, but by the peak of Operation Banner over 28,000 soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland.[24] While the technical military result of the campaign was a stalemate, it is important to note that the operation was a success in that it demonstrated that the IRA could not hope to win its campaign through violent means.[25] I will give a brief overview of the progression of the operation and then proceed to the next section.

The official British report on Operation Banner divides the campaign against the IRA into four phases that they believe are clearly partitioned in retrospect. The first phase, they claim, was characterized by “wide public disorder” and took place from the beginning of the attacks by the Provisionals until the summer of 1971. During this period, the PIRA seems to have been making their presence known more than anything else with the use of “marches, protests, rioting, and looting.” The second phase can be described best as the beginning of an insurgency. During this period, both the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA engaged in firefights with British troops and Northern Irish security forces. Indeed, both of these organizations were structured in the style of conventional militaries, giving this phase of the conflict the impression of a civil war. The British military launched Operation Motorman in response in an effort to disrupt both campaigns and regain control over the regions. The Official IRA eventually issued a ceasefire, which it has not broken since, while the Provisional IRA took the mid-1970s to begin their transition into a terrorist organization. The third phase encompasses the longest and most successful period for the IRA, with their campaign of terrorist violence in Ireland, Britain, and mainland Europe, in addition to the involvement of Sinn Fein in British and Irish politics, demonstrating the rapid rise of their cause. While neither side won a definitive victory, the British military considers the Provos to be “one of the most effective terrorist organisations in history.” The PIRA declared a ceasefire in 1994, and the Good Friday Agreements of 1998 brought the majority of serious fighting to a definitive close.[26]


[1] Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2003), 88.

[2] Ibid. 81-82.

[3] James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations For War,” International Organization 49,

  1. 3 (1995), 382.

[4] The abbreviation “PIRA” will be used to refer to the Provisionals to avoid confusion

with the IRA, despite the fact that the Provisional IRA is often referred to as the “IRA.”

[5] Rogelio Alonso, The IRA and Armed Struggle (New York: Routledge, 2003), 42.

[6] English, Armed Struggle, 107.

[7] Alonso, The IRA and Armed Struggle, 47.

[8] English, Armed Struggle, 107.

[9] Alonso, The IRA and Armed Struggle, 41.

[10] English, Armed Struggle, 122.

[11] Ibid. 124.

[12] Ibid. 137.

[13] Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament (London:

Pluto Press, 2011), 73.

[14] English, Armed Struggle, 137.

[15] Ibid. 139-142.

[16] M. L. R. Smith, Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican

Movement (London: Routledge, 1995), 101.

[17] Ibid. 99.

[18] Ibid. 103.

[19] Edgar O’Ballance, Terror in Ireland: The Heritage of Hate (Novato, CA: Presidio

Press, 1981), 169.

[20] Ibid.

[21] English, Armed Struggle, 149.

[22] Mark Oliver Saville, William L. Hoyt, and John Toohey, Report of the Bloody Sunday

Inquiry (London: Stationary Office, 2010), Vol. I, Ch. 3, para. 3.79.

[23] Ministry of Defense, Operation Banner: An Analysis of Military Operations in

Northern Ireland, prepared under the direction of the Chief of the General Staff, Army

Code 71842, Whitehall, Westminster, London: July 2006, i.

[24] Ibid., 1 – 2.

[25] “Army Paper Says IRA Not Defeated,” BBC News, July 6, 2007.

[26] Ministry of Defense, Operation Banner, 1 – 3.

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