Irish Republican Army (IRA)

Irish Republican Army (IRA)
Irish Republican Army (IRA)

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is a clandestine para-military organization that devoted itself to the removal of the British presence from Northern Ireland and the ending of the partition of the island.

Though it was active since the Anglo-Irish War (1920–21), it gained international notoriety only in the last four decades of the 20th century. This campaign was waged against a number of (Protestant) loyalist militias, as well as the British army itself.

The group’s aims were shared by the Sinn Féin political party, which was labeled the IRA’s “political wing” but that always officially disavowed any such connection. Although both groups claimed to speak for all of Ireland, neither enjoyed the support of more than a minority of Northern Ireland’s Catholic population.

The roots of the IRA can be traced back to 1919. In that year, nationalist leader Michael Collins melded the various nationalist militias who had participated in the 1916 Easter Rising into a guerrilla army that would supplement the parliamentary maneuverings of the Sinn Féin–dominated Irish Daíl (parliament).

Collins ordered the IRA against, first, the British intelligence and police forces in Ireland, and then the “Black and Tan” auxiliary forces that were deployed against them by the British government. Ultimately the IRA succeeded in forcing a truce with the British, the result of which was the negotiation of an Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921.

Unhappy with the terms of this treaty, a minority of deputies, led by President Éamon de Valera, walked out of the Daíl and vowed to continue fighting for a republic. The IRA split as well. This led to the Irish Civil War (1922–23), in which the pro-treaty Free State forces defeated the anti-treaty Republicans.

After the civil war the Free State forces became the regular Irish army; the IRA was driven underground. This situation did not improve when de Valera and his new political party, Fianna Faíl, entered the Daíl in 1927 and were elected to power in 1932.

Relations between de Valera, now a constitutional Republican, and the IRA worsened until finally, in 1935, the de Valera government declared the IRA an illegal organization. The 1938 Irish constitution achieved many of de Valera’s (and the IRA’s) stated objectives. However, it did not end partition, and thereafter the IRA’s sole raison d’être would be directed toward that end.

The organization engaged in a bombing campaign on the British mainland during the late 1930s and gave some material support to German agents operating both in Britain and in the republic during World War II. Neither of these actions proved successful, and by the 1950s it was hard to view the IRA as anything but a spent force.

The IRA was reborn out of the crisis that beset Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. Inspired by the U.S. Civil Rights movement, Catholics in Ulster began to demonstrate for better access to housing and fairer wages.

In August 1969 the demonstrations deteriorated into rioting, police repression, and the eventual deployment of the British army. Initially the IRA was caught unawares, as the Belfast graffiti “IRA = I Ran Away” testifies. Largely as a result of this embarrassment, the IRA split in 1970.

A group calling itself the “Provisional IRA” (or “Provos”) broke off and rededicated itself to a united Ireland through terrorist activity. Within two years the Provos had far surpassed the Officials in popular support, and the three-decades-long war that came to be known euphemistically as “the Troubles” had begun.

In August 1971 the British government introduced a policy of internment of IRA suspects without charge for up to seven days. When by 1972 these methods had not deterred the IRA or contained the crisis, the Loyalist parliament at Stormont fell; Britain introduced direct rule of Northern Ireland from London, and internment was phased out.

Beginning with the Troubles, IRA prisoners had enjoyed the status of political prisoners. In 1976 this status was abolished. The IRA turned to hunger strikes. Bobby Sands’s 66-day-long hunger strike, which lasted until his death on May 5, 1981, attracted international publicity.

Any lasting benefit that might have resulted for the IRA was canceled out by the negative reaction to the IRA’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten of Burma in August 1979, and its near miss of Margaret Thatcher in October 1984.

Away from the world stage the cycle of attacks by, and reprisals against, the IRA continued apace. Hope for an end to the struggle surfaced in 1994, with a cease-fire brokered by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, British prime minister John Major, Irish taoiseach Albert Reynolds, and U.S. president Bill Clinton.

After the ratification of the Good Friday accords in 1999 and the progress of the Northern Irish peace process, the relevance of the IRA was called into question. In 2005 the provisional IRA announced the end of its armed campaign. The organization surrendered its weapons under the supervision of United Nations inspectors.