Irish Republican Army: 10 questions to understand how the IRA works

1. Did the IRA exist before the conflict in Northern Ireland?

Yes. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), born in Dublin, at the heart of the independence uprising of Easter 1916, was formalized after the victory of the republican party Sinn Féin in the elections of 1918. It then took part in the civil war of 1922, following the Anglo-Irish treaty providing for the separation of Ireland into two countries. “The IRA remains a unique case, between a political party and an armed organization”, summarizes Agnès Maillot, author of The IRA and the Northern Irish conflict (ed. Caen University Press, 2018). Decimated in 1945 after an unsuccessful collaboration with Nazi Germany, it was reconstituted during the increasingly violent clashes between Catholic and Protestant communities on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, from 1956 to 1962.

2. Why did violence take hold in the ranks?

The IRA, originally united, actually split into two branches. After the clashes in Derry/London- derry in the summer of 1969, following a march by Protestants in a Catholic district, the walls of the city were covered with the slogan ” IRA = I Ran Away (“IRA = I ran away”). The organization was seen as incapable of defending Catholics. Its direction was then divided between political action and armed struggle. The rupture was irreversible. Two entities then faced each other: the official IRA, advocating political mobilization, and the Provisional IRA, whose course of action was harsher: the destruction of the Anglo-Northern Irish system and the reunification of the island. As the conflict progressed, this armed wing eventually took over, since the official IRA disappeared in 1972.

3. How was the Irish Republican Army organized in the field?

In a very structured way. From the split, the Provisional IRA retained the historical military hierarchy of the organization. This body elected seven officers to an Army Council, whose authority rested with brigades controlling a town or region. “Belfast, for example, belonged to a brigade comprising three battalions, which grouped together seven companies”, explains Roger Faligot, author of The Irish Resistance, 1916-2000 (ed. Land of mist, 1999). But the incessant infiltration of British agents caused a restructuring in 1977. The companies were replaced by isolated cells made up of only four members. Hooded, most kept their anonymity. If a member of a cell was unmasked by the British, he had no information about his brothers in arms… An opaque organization which made the work of MI5, the British secret services, difficult. In addition, “each cell specialized in a specific area, such as financing, attacks or robberies”, adds Agnès Maillot.

4. What were its numbers at the height of the Irish Civil War in the 1979s?

The figures are still difficult to establish. All historians agree that the organization experienced an influx of volunteers after the bloody sunday, the shooting that took place on Sunday January 30, 1972 in Derry/Londonderry, where fourteen demonstrators were killed, targeted by British army paratroopers. Roger Faligot thinks that the Provisional IRA had 2,500 active members and 3,000 reservists that year. In the 1980s, the Republican army will have fewer members, but more professionals, who notably developed expertise in the field of attacks. “A coordinated attack in downtown Derry or Belfast was decided at the highest level of the hierarchy,” explains Roger Faligot.

⋙ Half a century later, Derry commemorates “Bloody Sunday”, the thirst for justice intact

5. Where did the Irish Republican Army’s impressive arsenal come from?

Mainly from Libya. At the start of the conflict, the IRA relied on arms networks from Irish immigrants in the United States. But from 1972, the paramilitary organization wanted to strike harder. To obtain heavy weapons (machine guns, Armalite or Kalashnikov assault rifles, solar missiles, flamethrowers), it then turned to the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi. On October 30, 1987, French customs officers intercepted, near the island of Batz, in Brittany, a cargo ship coming from Tripoli heading for Northern Ireland. On board: 150 tons of weapons, and five Irish, members of the IRA. Until 1982, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) provided rocket launchers, a highly prized weapon for urban combat. In parallel, the IRA developed its know-how in the manufacture of bombs.

6. Who funded the IRA?

Without money, the IRA could never have waged war for twenty-nine years. Its resources came mainly from the financial networks of the Irish diaspora living in the United States. David O’Connell, one of the few known members of the IRA’s Army Council, landed in New York in the spring of 1970 with the mission of activating transfers of funds from Irish industries established in the States -United. “A network of financing based on organized crime, ranging from extortion to kidnapping via burglary, also developed”, underlines Agnès Maillot. The needs of the guerrillas were indeed very great. According to estimates by British General James Glover, in charge of the Northern Irish Troubles from 1970 to 1987, the Provisional IRA would have spent, during each year of the conflict, 950,000 pounds sterling, or more than one million euros.

7. Was it considered a full-fledged terrorist group?

Yes and no. As early as 1974, London placed the IRA on the official list of terrorist organizations. Initially limited to a five-year prison sentence, the penalty for supporting or belonging to this “banned group” was quickly doubled by the British authorities. On the other hand, the Irish Republican Army was not registered on the official lists of terrorist groups in Europe and the United States. The fact remains that the organization was responsible for a large number of deaths during the conflict, from 1969 to 1998. In the collective work Lost Lives (ed. Mainstream, 2007), the journalists who co-authored this survey estimated the number of victims during the civil war at 3,636 people. Of these, 1,771 are believed to have lost their lives to the IRA.

8. Why did she end up signing the Good Friday Peace Accords in 1998?

Triggered by Dublin and London in the 1990s, the peace process forced Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists to open dialogue. The report was indeed without appeal: the conflict was getting bogged down. After endless negotiations, the IRA decided on a ceasefire in 1997, before accepting the Good Friday Peace Agreement. A surprising gesture. Seeing that the armed solution was a dead end, the IRA preferred to take a political path by giving Sinn Féin elected representatives the possibility of sitting in the Westminster Parliament, which was one of the clauses of the peace agreement. . “The proposal to set up Irish institutions represented, for the IRA, a symbolic step towards a united Ireland”, deciphers Lison Ducastelle, author of The Provisional IRA, from armed violence to disarmament (ed. Caen University Press, 2019).

⋙ When the IRA allied with Hitler’s Germany

9. Was the IRA disarmed at the end of the conflict?

No. While she had refused the principle of disarmament during the Good Friday agreement, she undertook, despite everything, to discuss it a year later. On May 6, 2000, the Republican army accepted that its arms depots be inspected by an independent international commission. Five years later, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, then asked him to take a “courageous initiative”. On July 28, the IRA ordered its volunteers to cease all activity and destroy all weapons. Thus, she left the military scene with her head held high. “The IRA has achieved the tour de force of transforming its disarmament into victory. The republican myth seemed to feed on his action, as murderous as it was in the past, ”analyzes Lison Ducastelle.

10. What remains of the IRA today?

Like the phoenix, a mythical bird rising from its ashes, it comes back to life. In 2015, Georges Hamilton, Chief of Police in Northern Ireland, created amazement by claiming, after the assassination of a former British soldier, that certain IRA structures still existed. An invisible presence confirmed, in 2019, by a car bomb attack in Derry/Londonderry. Action claimed by an organization called… New IRA. This newborn nationalist took over the initial project of the Republican army: to put an end to British authority in Northern Ireland. And Brexit, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union on January 31, 2020, has reshuffled the cards. “The border between the two Irelands is now a customs between Europe and the United Kingdom,” explains Agnès Maillot. And to conclude: “A good number of Irish people, in the south as well as in the north, think that the solution would be to reunify the island so that it becomes an integral part of the European Union. Blessed bread for the IRA.

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The article is in French

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