The Irish Republican Army: a brief guide

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is the name that has been used by a number of paramilitary groups in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Find out more about the aims, actions and existence of the IRA through the 20th century to the present day, with this guide from BBC History Revealed

British troops guard a wall during the Irish War of Independence, which bears a nationalist message

What is the IRA and what has it fought for?

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is the name that has been used by a number of paramilitary groups in Ireland and Northern Ireland, all with the aim of ending British rule and establishing an independent republic within a unified Ireland. Willing to use violence – even regarding it a necessary tactic – the IRA has been classified as illegal and a terrorist organisation by the British and Irish authorities.

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When was the IRA formed?

The movement for ‘home rule’, or self-government of Ireland, gained momentum in the 19th century, and gave way to revolutionary efforts in the 20th century. Following the Easter Rising of 1916 – a failed uprising in Dublin against British rule – existing paramilitary groups such as the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army were succeeded by a new group, the IRA, in 1919.

What does Sinn Féin have to do with the IRA?

Today, Sinn Féin is one of the largest political parties in Northern Ireland. Formed in 1905, it first rose to prominence after the Easter Rising to become the political wing of the republican movement. While separate from the IRA, it shared the same goal, as well as many members.

In December 1918, Sinn Féin won a landslide electoral victory, claiming nearly three-quarters of the 105 Irish seats in the British Parliament, leading to the establishment of an independent parliament, named Dáil Éireann. This emboldened the IRA, which, under the leadership of Michael Collins, fought the British Army in the guerrilla-style Irish War of Independence 1919–21.

Sinn Féin split many times throughout the 20th century, including in 1970 when the dominant faction became closely associated with the IRA.

When was Northern Ireland created?

The Irish War of Independence ended in 1921 with a ceasefire and the partition of Ireland. A resulting treaty established the self-governing Irish Free State containing 26 of Ireland’s historic 32 counties, as well as the creation of Northern Ireland from the six remaining northern counties of Ulster, which were to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Many members of the IRA (now known as the ‘Old IRA’) opposed the treaty. Led by Éamon de Valera, they split from Sinn Féin and, from 1922–23, fought a civil war against the provisional government. The pro-treaty forces won thanks to British support, but de Valera turned to the political arena and created a new party, Fianna Fáil, in 1926. He would later become Taoiseach, or prime minister, in 1932.

Éamon de Valera at a rally in 1920
Éamon de Valera at a rally in 1920. He later founded Fianna Fáil and became Taoiseach. (Image by Alamy)

What did the IRA do next?

Despite being declared illegal in the 1930s and its members facing imprisonment without trial, the IRA continued to recruit. During World War II, some members even attempted to collude with Adolf Hitler to help drive out the British. The leaders were caught and executed.

Despite being declared illegal in the 1930s and facing imprisonment without trial, the IRA continued to recruit

In 1949, Ireland – so-called since 1937 – officially withdrew from the Commonwealth and became a republic, so the IRA focused all efforts on Northern Ireland. It launched its border campaign in 1956, but failed to secure mass support. Many in Northern Ireland were unionists or loyalists (they wished Northern Ireland to stay within the UK), and the division had seismic religious implications as Northern Irish unionists were mainly Protestant while republicans were overwhelmingly Catholic.

What were ‘the Troubles’ and how was the IRA involved?

Beginning in the late 1960s and lasting until 1998, the Troubles was one of the bloodiest chapters in Northern Irish history, in which around 3,600 people died and tens of thousands were injured.

Civil rights campaigns protesting against Catholic discrimination – especially concerning housing, jobs and voting rights – had emerged in the 1960s, but, despite being non-violent, came into regular conflict with loyalists and the Protestant-dominated police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Clashes escalated until 12 August 1969, when three days of fighting broke out in the city of Derry/Londonderry over a parade of Apprentice Boys (a Protestant society) marching past the Catholic Bogside area. The so-called battle of the Bogside ended with British troops being sent in and building ‘peace walls’ to separate Catholics and Protestants. This was the beginning of an almost 38-year deployment called Operation Banner.

A weakened IRA rallied in the chaos, but soon divided over the use of violence. In 1969, it split into two factions: the Official IRA committed to peaceful means while the Provisional IRA (the ‘Provos’) believed militancy was the only way forward. The Provos became dominant in the Troubles and started its guerrilla campaign – the Long War – in 1970. Through bombings, assassinations and ambushes, the Provos hoped to make Northern Ireland ungovernable. The British and unionists retaliated by arresting suspected IRA members or supporters in droves, interring them without trial, and perpetrating their own attacks.

What happened on Bloody Sunday?

On 30 January 1972, British soldiers opened fire on unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry/Londonderry protesting against internment without trial – 13 people died (another would die from his injuries several months later). The ensuing investigations exonerated the soldiers and it wasn’t until 2010 that an inquiry concluded the killings on Bloody Sunday as “unjustified and unjustifiable”, as stated by then British prime minister David Cameron to parliament. In the immediate aftermath of the events of 1972, anger among nationalists led to a surge in IRA recruitment.

What were the worst attacks committed by the IRA?

Later in 1972, the Provos set off more than 20 bombs in Belfast, timed for just an 80-minute window on 21 July. Bloody Friday left nine dead and around 130 injured, many of them civilians. In retaliation, the British launched Operation Motorman to retake the ‘no-go zones’ – areas of the city usually controlled by republicans. That year also saw the dissolving of the Northern Irish parliament and the British taking direct rule once more.

In 1973, the IRA campaign escalated with the targeting of the British mainland. Bombs went off on a bus carrying soldiers in Yorkshire; at the Tower of London and Houses of Parliament; and in cities such as Bristol. The most devastating were the bombings of two pubs in Guildford on 5 October, and two pubs in Birmingham on 21 November, killing five and 21 people respectively. At a time of particularly high tension, British police were under pressure to act and made quick arrests – only for it to be later proven that the socalled Guildford Four and Birmingham Six were wrongfully convicted.

The IRA claimed its highest-profile casualty on 27 August 1979 when it planted a bomb on the boat of Lord Mountbatten, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. He died along with three others. Just a matter of hours later, an IRA unit ambushed British soldiers close to the border, killing 18.

The aftermath of an IRA bombing at the Mulberry Bush pub in central Birmingham
The aftermath of an IRA bombing at the Mulberry Bush pub in central Birmingham, November 1974. (Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How was the IRA funded and armed?

As an illegal organisation, the IRA had moneymaking opportunities through criminal means, such as armed robberies, extortion and smuggling. Members who owned businesses also helped raise money, but a chief source of funding during the Troubles came from wealthy Irish-American sympathisers through an organisation known as NORAID, or the Irish Northern Aid Committee. Weapons were imported from other countries, including the US, regions of Eastern Europe and Libya.

Who was Bobby Sands?

Imprisoned at the notorious Maze Prison, IRA member Bobby Sands began a hunger strike on 1 March 1981 to protest the removal of ‘special category’ status – meaning he and his comrades were treated as criminals rather than political prisoners. Other acts of resistance had included wearing blankets instead of uniforms and taking part in ‘dirty protests’, where they refused to wash and smeared their cells with excrement.

Prisoners took part in ‘dirty protests’, where they refused to wash and smeared their cells with excrement

Sands’s hunger strike lasted 66 days before he died, but not before he had made global headlines and was elected to Westminster. Hailed as a martyr, some 100,000 attended his funeral procession and nine other inmates would die from their own hunger strikes.

A nationalist mural on Belfast’s Falls Road honours the hunger striker Bobby Sands
A nationalist mural on Belfast’s Falls Road honours the hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died in 1981. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

What was the Good Friday Agreement and how did it come about?

Attacks continued throughout the 1980s, including an IRA bombing of a Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen, which killed 11 civilians, and an ambush of the SAS in Loughall – both in 1987. But political manoeuvrings started bearing fruit too.

In 1985, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the Irish government a role in Northern Ireland affairs on the condition that they recognised that unification could not happen unless it was supported by a majority of citizens. This was met with mixed reactions, being opposed by unionists and the IRA alike, but was a first step in seeking peace.

Sinn Féin grew in influence under the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who instigated talks with the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, John Hume. By August 1994, enough progress had been made that the IRA declared a “complete cessation of all military activities”, although this was temporarily broken with a bombing in London amidst frustrations that Sinn Féin was being excluded from talks. It was only by agreeing to IRA decommissioning and committing to non-violence that Sinn Féin was allowed to participate in September 1997.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness (centre) and Gerry Adams (right) did not take their seats when elected MPs in 1997 (Image by DAVID THOMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

On 10 April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Widely seen as the end of the Troubles, it established new institutions: a devolved government and the Northern Ireland Assembly, where power had to be shared by parties on both sides. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was also replaced by the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Did the IRA disband after the agreement?

Deep-seated distrust meant that many in the IRA, led by Michael McKevitt, opposed the decommissioning. He formed his own political party and an armed unit dubbed the Real IRA, which was responsible for several bombings. The worst came on 15 August 1998 when a car bomb exploded in Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring hundreds.

While the British deployment in Northern Ireland ended in 2007, dissident republican groups who oppose the peace agreements are still active, including the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and the so-called New IRA. Every group claims to be the only rightful successor to the Original IRA of 1919.

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This article was first published in the February 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine