A profile of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) including the IRA’s history, IRA leadership, IRA terrorism, lethality and relationship with dissident republican terrorists.
From the late 1960’s and for almost 3 decades, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) waged a bloody terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland, Britain and Europe. Thousands were killed, injured or displaced in a brutal and complex campaign of violence. PIRA’s aim was the unification of Ireland, driving out the British presence by physical force and political guile.
In this regard, it considered itself the legitimate continuation of revolutionary Irish nationalist movements tracing a lineage through the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen, the Young Irelander rebellion of 1848, the Fenian rising of 1867, the Irish Volunteers and the Easter Rising of 1916 (Coogan, 2000, p. 6). PIRA’s campaign would not end in military victory over the British, but rather in a peace process and constitutional settlement, codified in the 1998 Belfast agreement (Powell, 2009, pp. 90-107).
In constructing a profile and understanding of PIRA, it is helpful to begin by examining its principal antecedents and origins, its key ideologies, as well as its leadership, structure, modus operandi and threat profile. The methods by which PIRA’s key strategies were executed are categorised, examining the threats posed to a broad range of referent objects.
The impact and lethality of PIRA’s campaign is then critically assessed. With the emergence of dissident republican splinter groups (Taylor and Currie, 2011, pp. 43-63), it is important to further consider the future of revolutionary nationalism in general and the impact this could have on peace in Northern Ireland.
History of the IRA
The Home Rule Crisis of 1912 provides a useful entry point to begin assessing the origins of the IRA (Coogan, 2000, pp. 3-37). The Liberal government’s introduction of the 3rd Home Rule Bill (a mechanism to effectively establish self-government in Ireland) was robustly opposed by unionists.
Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson raised an armed militia of 100,000 men (the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)) to physically resist any imposition of Dublin rule. In response and with influence and encouragement from the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) was formed in 1913 (Taylor, 1998, p. 13). The IVF would play a central role in the Easter 1916 rising against the British, and the foundations of the IRA thereafter.
Irish Civil War
A united IRA fought against the British during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), a campaign incorporating terrorist violence in Great Britain (Fitzpatrick, 2012, pp. 236-245). The signing of a peace treaty by IRA leader Michael Collins and others led to a split in Irish nationalism and the IRA. The resulting Irish Civil War (1922-1923) led to brutal conflict with former comrades becoming deadly foes. The victory of pro-treaty forces saw the eventual demise of anti-treaty IRA factions and the regularisation of Irish forces within the Free State army.
Michael Collins was ambushed and killed by IRA opponents in 1922, a high price for pragmatism. The historical cost of settlement and the risk of splitting the movement were undoubtedly considerations for PIRA and Sinn Fein in contemporary negotiations. Following the partition of Ireland in 1921, the relevance of the IRA in the Free State and latterly (after 1948) the Republic, dwindled.
The IRA did however continue to conduct terrorist operations against Britain during WWII and some were even willing to collude and plot against Britain with the Nazis (McCausland, 2016). From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, the IRA conducted Operation Harvest a largely unsuccessful and poorly supported campaign along the Northern Ireland border (Treacy, 2014, pp. 9-26).
The rise of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, civil unrest and significant inter-communal violence culminated in the deployment of the British army in 1969 to restore public order. The IRA seeking to assert their role as defenders of Roman Catholic communities became ascendant, although they were poorly equipped and poorly organised (English, 2007, pp. 371-372).
The Official IRA under the leadership of Cathal Goulding (in Dublin) was stridently Marxist in ideology (Hanley and Millar, 2010). They viewed conflict in the north as a symptom of class repression, with the need for the Protestant and Roman Catholic working class to unite, rise and overthrow their bourgeois oppressors. Unsurprisingly, others with a more traditional ethno-nationalist outlook advocated armed conflict against the British and the destruction of the Northern Ireland state.
Key republicans including Billy McKee, Joe Cahill, Seamus Twomey and Seán Mac Stíofáin became the founding fathers of PIRA. By the mid-1970s, the Official IRA had largely abandoned armed conflict and focused on political activities through the Workers Party. By contrast, PIRA chose the path of violence with the political realm very much ceded to the constitutional nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). It would be over a decade before Sinn Fein would make a serious impact in the political sphere, catapulted into position by the republican hunger strikes of 1981 (Beresford, 1994).
In its infancy, PIRA’s aims included the ‘grand strategy’ of forcing an immediate and full British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and the formation of an all-Ireland socialist republic. In so doing, it was attempting to reclaim the mandate of the Easter 1916 Proclamation (BBC, 2014). More immediately, becoming the dominant republican revolutionary movement and securing wide-spread support in nationalist communities was central to its ethos, if not survival.
Competition with the Official IRA and INLA
The Official IRA and other violent republicans such as the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) were potential rivals. Attracting recruits, acquiring funds, weapons, skills and intelligence were immediate priorities. Community support was essential in providing safe houses, intelligence networks, money, weapons hides, arms transportation and other tacit assistance.
Provisional IRA Leaders, Structure and Modus Operandi
Structurally, PIRA was a vertical terrorist organisation, hierarchical in nature and controlled by a 7-man Army Council. It was subdivided into Northern Command (broadly operating across the 9 counties of the Province of Ulster) and Southern Command (based in Dublin). In line with traditional military structures, PIRA was originally organised into companies, battalions and brigades.
Such a structure, whilst having some benefits of traditional military organisation is notoriously susceptible to infiltration and compromise by informers and other covert agents. To prevent (or at least minimise) compromise, PIRA restructured into a more cellular organisation utilising Active Service Units (ASUs) providing better opportunity to protect against informers and loose talk (Mobley, 2012, pp. 20-62).
An internal security unit conducted investigations into failed operations, interrogated and often executed suspected informers (Toolis, 1996, pp. 192-257). Female volunteers also operated within the ranks of PIRA, tracing a link back to the traditions of Cumann na mBan and the role of women in the Irish Volunteers and in the Easter 1916 rising.
Key players in PIRA, directing the trajectory of the republican movement have included Gerry Adams a former commander of Belfast Brigade (consistently denied by Adams) and Martin McGuinness a former Derry Brigade Commander and IRA Chief of Staff, both having served at the very top of the organisation, as part of the IRA Army Council.
IRA Strategies and Tactics
PIRA employed several key strategies, hybridising their capabilities and threats. Principally, they set out to delegitimize and collapse the Northern Ireland state. This was to be achieved though armed resistance and wide-spread civil disobedience, economic warfare, domestic and international political and diplomatic pressure. The local police were demonised and PIRA sought to usurp their authority in nationalist areas. Roman Catholic members of the security forces were at very high risk of attack, singled out to prevent others from joining or otherwise providing support. Wide-spread disorder was fermented to make the state ungovernable and stretch local police and security force resources.
Civilian and military targets in England and across Europe were also attacked, demonstrating PIRA’s reach beyond Northern Ireland. Attacks against Irish state forces in the Republic of Ireland were rare, although bank robberies and other criminality including kidnapping and extortion were a significant feature. PIRA used a range of communications and propaganda tools, notably the republican newspaper, An Phoblacht which dates back in various forms to the early 1900’s.
Economic and civil infrastructure was targeted to disrupt commerce and increase the financial burden on UK government. The Irish diaspora, particularly in the United States was engaged in the formation of lobby groups and on occasion arms trafficking. Political status for prisoners was a central demand, PIRA attempting to portray the conflict as war, not as criminality. Prison protests including hunger strikes were used to raise grievances and build sympathy in the domestic nationalist as well as international community.
International Terrorism Links with ETA, FARC and Colonel Gaddafi
Links with state sponsors of terrorism including Libya (Harnden, 2011) and with other terrorist groups (such as the FARC in Colombia and ETA in Spain) further illustrate PIRA’s strategy of internationalising their campaign and sharing capabilities with likeminded revolutionary actors. PIRA on occasion used cover names including Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) to intimidate and kill drug dealers and others they considered social miscreants (McDonald, 2015).
Armalite and ballot box
Extortion, bank robbery, licit and illicit business such as drinking dens and taxi firms formed part of PIRA’s funding model. Cash was also provided along with extensive weaponry by Gaddafi’s regime in Libya (BBC News, 2017). The ‘Armalite and ballot box’ was latterly PIRA’s signature ‘military’ and political strategy, with their political wing Sinn Fein capitalising on rising grievances, particularly in the wake of the 1981 republican hunger strikes, a truly pivotal event in shaping Sinn Fein’s political fortunes.
IRA Terrorist Attacks
In considering PIRA’s terrorist attack record it is helpful to enumerate key categories of actors that it considered legitimate targets. Firstly, uniformed members of the crown forces including men and women were targeted. This included reserves and those on and off duty. Undercar bombs, culvert bombs and ambushing loan off-duty security force members were favoured tactics. Unionist politicians were targeted as were prison officers, judges, high ranking civil servants and royalty.
Loyalist paramilitaries and rival republicans were occasionally attacked. Internal IRA feuds were rare. PIRA was ruthless in its dealing with informers, many were tortured before execution, and it has been acknowledged that false confessions were beaten out of those wrongly accused (Harkin and Ingram, 2004).
Threats to Catholic Communities
PIRA posed a significant threat to its host nationalist communities. It was responsible for more deaths of Roman Catholics than were loyalist paramilitaries. Kangaroo courts, savage beatings and kneecappings (McKenna and Melaugh, no date) were not only reserved for adult offenders (Hamill, 2011). Women and children would be shot (McConville, 2014) if they violated PIRA directives.
Roadside Bombs and IEDs
Examining PIRA’s attack record against the key categories outlined, several incidents are particularly illustrative of its capabilities and lethality. A roadside bomb attack in Warrenpoint in 1979 (Taylor, 2002, pp. 218-226) killed 18 soldiers, 16 from the Parachute Regiment. The ambush carried out by PIRA’s South Armagh brigade used large fertiliser (ammonium nitrate) based bombs, detonated by remote control from across the Irish border. PIRA killed 6 soldiers with the initial roadside bomb and a further 12 in a secondary explosion. PIRA’s engineering capability became highly advanced and the manufacture of large homemade explosive devices, mortars and the use of remote control detonation was significant.
Murder of Lord Mountbatten
PIRA, particularly in South Armagh and around urban centres attempted to create ‘no go’ areas for the police and British army. They were so successful that military patrols could not travel by road in some rural districts. This allowed terrorists freedom of movement and ability to control certain inner-city areas and rural townlands. On the same day as the aforementioned attack on the Parachute Regiment, PIRA killed the Queen’s Cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten in a remote-controlled bomb attack on his boat in Co. Sligo (Davies and McDonald, 2015). Prince Charles and Princess Diana were also targeted by PIRA in 1983, in a planned bomb attack at a gala concert in London’s Dominion Theatre (O’Callaghan, 1999, p. 197).
The Brighton Bomb
The Grand Hotel bomb attack in Brighton in 1984 killed 5, with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other cabinet members having a ‘close escape’ (Bingham, 2013). The attack demonstrated the magnitude of PIRA’s growing audacity, as well as the ingenuity of its bomb makers (in the use of timers adapted from video recorders). Other political figures were targeted for assassination. Members of Parliament killed by PIRA include Reverend Robert Bradford (Borders, 1981), Sir Anthony Berry (in the Brighton bomb) and Ian Gow (Anderson, 2010). Semtex high explosive used in the Brighton bomb (English, 2012, p. 248) as well as the undercar booby trap device that killed Ian Gow was likely supplied by the Libyan government. A mortar bomb attack on Downing Street in 1991 (Whitney, 1991) was a further attempt by PIRA to kill a British Prime Minister (in this case John Major) and members of his cabinet.
Major bomb attacks in England including the Docklands (Black, 2016) and Manchester (Williams, 2016) bombs, demonstrated PIRA’s ability to prepare and transport huge quantities of explosives throughout the UK without detection. It also underscored their willingness to continue the use of large-scale violence to further their political aims. PIRA gave coded telephone warnings in attacks against commercials targets, although these were often woefully inadequate.
A litany of attacks such as La Mon (Little, 2013), Kingsmills (Belfast Newsletter, 2017), Tullyvallen (Little, 2016), Teebane (McNeilly, 2017), the Shankill Bomb (Black, 2013) and the Enniskillen bomb (Rainey, 2012) were regarded by many in the Protestant community as prima facie evidence of PIRA’s inherent callousness and sectarian ruthlessness. Mass casualty attacks against civilians included Bloody Friday (Rowan and McKeown, 2012), the Birmingham (BBC News, 2014) and Guildford pub bombings (Allen, 2017), resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries.
Northern Ireland Peace Process
In arriving at peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, there was a significant recognition within PIRA that a military defeat of the British was not a credible aim. Lethal force operations such as those conducted by the Special Air Service (SAS) at Loughgall in 1987 (Urban, 1996, pp. 220-237), successes by British intelligence in developing agents within PIRA such as Stakeknife (Harkin and Ingram, 2004) and a general ‘war weariness’ within the organisation and the nationalist community pointed to the possibility and attractiveness of a negotiated settlement.
IRA Weapons Decommissioning
The culmination of these negotiations was the Belfast Agreement of May 1998. As part of the process of paramilitary weapons decommissioning, PIRA’s arsenal was estimated to comprise 2 tonnes of Semtex, a thousand detonators, a small number of surface to air missiles and heavy machine guns, a thousand assault rifles, assorted handguns and a large supply of ammunition (BBC News, 2005). It terms of military hardware, PIRA was equipped to fight on for years.
Death toll and injuries from IRA terrorism
In quantifying the overall lethality of PIRA’s campaign, they killed 1,822 people including 467 members of the British army, 285 police officers, 190 members of the UDR, hundreds of civilians (many Roman Catholic) and 59 alleged informers (Sutton, 1994). In killing and bombing their way to the negotiating table, PIRA was arguably somewhat successful. In achieving their objective of forcing the British from Ireland and creating an all-Ireland socialist republic they undoubtedly failed. As democracy demands, the right of self-determination for the people of Northern Ireland is now an accepted principle across all communities.
In accepting political compromise, in ending their armed campaign and in decommissioning weapons, Sinn Fein and PIRA are seen by some as betraying their fundamental republican roots. Splits within the IRA at end of the Irish War of Independence provided historical reasons for caution. It was therefore essential that as much of the republican movement agreed to the peace talks and their outcome as possible (Mallie and McKittrick, 2001, p. 163). Nonetheless, spoiler groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA), the Real IRA (RIRA) and other offshoots (including the New IRA) have emerged as dissident republicans seek to seize the revolutionary mantle (as they see it) laid aside by PIRA.
The Omagh bomb atrocity (which killed 29 people in August 1998) carried out by the RIRA highlights the dangers. Dissidents however lack public support and their operations have been regularly disrupted, indicating good intelligence flows and community rejection of their campaigns. They are also small in numbers and capability, consisting of a few dozen diehards. Nonetheless, with access to weapons including Semtex and small arms and with a continuing desire to kill police and prisoner officers they must not be discounted as toothless.
An enduring danger is the romanticism and mythology of nationalism could reignite the spirit of a ‘revolution in every generation’ (to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson). Dissidents will try to keep the pilot light of republican violence burning, hoping for a new wave of public disaffection. As the Northern Ireland peace process matures, this seems less and less likely to occur, with every step in political and security normalisation mitigating against a return to violence.
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Further Reading on Terrorism and Counter Terrorism
- Tracing the links between failed states and international terrorism
- Security Developments in Northern Ireland since the end of the Cold War
- Military counter-terrorism techniques: suitability and effectiveness as policy instruments
- Designing Ethical and Effective Counter-terrorism Policy
- Counter Terrorism Policing in Canada – an examination
- Countering violent extremism and radicalisation leading to terrorism – key issues
- Deconstructing violent dissident Irish republicanism
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the body of this post and in the bibliography are Amazon “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the book, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend books that informed our research and which we genuinely believe will add value to our readers.
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