Irish Republican Army
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The Irish Republican Army, or IRA, is an Irish nationalist terrorist organization whose goal is a united Irish republic independent of British rule. Formed in 1919 to be the armed forces of the Sinn Fein government democratically elected the previous December, they fought to free Ireland using guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics, until a cease-fire was declared, followed with a treaty resulting in partition. The southern five-sixths of Ireland was made into a self-governing Dominion like Canada or Australia, called the Irish Free State (later declared the Republic of Ireland in 1949), while the northeastern sixth, comprising most of the historic Ulster province, became Northern Ireland. Unsatisfied, many in the IRA rejected the treaty setting this up, and fought a brutal civil war before their defeat by the Free State government.
In the decades following the civil war, a much diminished IRA continued an armed campaign against both British and Irish governments, neither of which they regarded as legitimate. Notable actions during this time include the 1939 bombing in the English city of Coventry, which killed five people. The special internment powers granted to police forces in the United Kingdom following the country's entry into the Second World War enabled a particularly effective crackdown on the organisation, with much of leadership in the north ending up imprisoned. Around the same time, the Republic of Ireland initiated similar measures against the IRA, prompted by the organisation's "Christmas raid" of an entire army fort's ammunition stock. As a result, the IRA came out of the 40s in poor shape militarily, with few members and fewer weapons. In an attempt to renew its fortunes, the IRA initiated a campaign along the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic in 1956, attacking military, police and infrastructure targets. This period saw relatively few fatalities, with 8 IRA men and 6 Royal Ulster Constabulary officers dying in the course of the campaign. The biggest single loss of life came when an IRA bomb detonated prematurely, killing 4 volunteers. The border campaign was largely regarded as a failure and drew little support from the nationalist community, as even the IRA essentially admitted when they announced an end to the campaign in 1962, citing "the attitude of the general public whose minds have been deliberately distracted". In the same year, the IRA came under new leadership with sought to take a different approach.
The new leadership was dominated by Communist sympathisers who took the organisation in a Marxist direction, as was common amongst many revolutionary movements of the time. They eschewed further violent actions in favour of marching alongside trade unionists and talked of gaining support from the KGB. Members more in line with the organisation's conservative and Catholic traditions balked at this. With a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland by Catholics that was often attacked viciously by police and Protestant rioters, renewed conflict and heightened sectarian tensions drew the divide to a breaking point. The leadership, based primarily in the Republic, insisted that deploying armed volunteers to defend the Catholic populace would make the situation in the north worse, as it would further obfuscate the class divisions which they saw as the real problem, pitting working class Catholics and Protestants against each other. The relative inaction of the IRA at this time led to hostility from the Catholic communities on the receiving end of the violence, who saw themselves as having been abandoned, leading to the infamous slogan, reportedly graffitied across West Belfast walls of the late 60s: "IRA=I Ran Away". When the British Army was deployed by the UK government, they were initially welcomed by large parts of the nationalist community. This state of affairs, in which the role of defending the community which the IRA regarded as "its people" fell to their perceived enemy and occupier, caused much frustration within the ranks of the organisation.
Following a particularly bad spate of anti-Catholic violence in the summer of 1969, a group of IRA volunteers in Belfast announced that they would no longer be taking orders from the Dublin leadership, or the Belfast commanders who aligned with them. By December, tensions came to a head leading to a split within the organisation, with the dissatisfied northerners ("allegedly" including future Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams) breaking off to form the Provisional IRA (PIRA), which would become one of the main actors in the The Troubles which would plague Northern Ireland for the next three decades. Those who stayed loyal to the Dublin Marxist leadership became known as Official IRA, which attracted fewer members than the more active Provisionals in the following years. Martin McGuinness, future Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, reportedly joined the officials mistakenly before switching to the Provisionals within weeks. The Official IRA declared a ceasefire in 1972, with members of a more militant orientation going on to form the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in 1974. The INLA would prove a relatively minor player in the Troubles, remembered mostly for their assassinations of British MP and mentor to Margaret Thatcher Airey Neave in 1979 and the prominent loyalist leader Billy Wright in 1997.
Bloody Sunday, an incident in January 1972 when British paratroopers opened fire on civil rights marchers in Derry/Londonderry, killing 13, provoked a massive Catholic backlash that ended peaceful attempts at change and saw IRA support rise, gaining thousands of new recruits. Violence increased throughout the 1970s, with the IRA conducting bombings on the British mainland that shocked and infuriated the public, the first of their kind since World War II. Even apart from their violence against British government forces and Protestants, IRA members used vicious tactics in areas they dominated to punish criminals. Despite taking an anti-crime stance so brutal it involved shooting people in the knees for theft (so-called "kneecapping"), the IRA got involved with international crime itself (such as drug-running) as a source of funds. Many Irish Americans supported the IRA, not only in spirit but with donations. Warsaw Pact states, Libya and China all supplied weapons at various points. A particularly despicable tactic created by the IRA in the '70s was proxy bombings, wherein people would be forced into driving explosives-laden vehicles (usually by threats to their families) and in some cases ended up as unwilling IRA suicide bombers.
Terrorist prisoners were given "Special Category" status in British prisons originally, meaning they could wear civilian clothes while not being required to do work in prison, receiving one parcel and one letter per week from relatives. However it was decided to end this policy in the late '70s, since the British government felt it damaged their position for them to be given privileges not afforded ordinary prisoners. In protest, IRA prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms, wrapped themselves in blankets, smeared their excrement on the walls of the cells as the guards prevented them from "slopping out," (i.e. emptying their chamber pots) and, when this did not work, began hunger strikes. A hunger strike in 1980 ended when the government promised to consider their demands for political status, but immediately reneged. Therefore, a further hunger strike occurred in 1981, led by IRA commander Bobby Sands. Sands, who was elected to the British Parliament during the strike, eventually starved to death after 66 days (setting a record) along with nine other men before it was called off, with the British government reinstating Special Category status in all but name. Sands has been honored with monuments and streets named after him around the world, while victims of his organization receive no such international honors. The British Parliament subsequently passed a law preventing any other prisoner from being elected to office.
The conflict dragged on with no end in sight during the 1980s, with the IRA even attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and nearly succeeding. In 1994, a cease fire was declared, the first since the 1970s, but it lasted less than two years. When the Labour Party swept into power in 1997 after 18 years of being the opposition, the Irish peace process at last began to find ground. The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement in 1998 finally ended the long conflict after nearly 30 years of bloodshed, with a cease-fire by the IRA and other terrorist organizations, plus decommissioning of their weapons by the early 2000s. However, a number of members refused to accept this, forming the Real IRA, which committed further terrorist actions such as the bombing of Omagh. While intended to reignite the fighting, Omagh ended up being one of the biggest catalysts for an end because everyone else realized just how senseless it was to keep blowing each other to smithereens (that several of the dead and several more of the injured happened to be Spanish tourists, and one of the people killed was pregnant with twins, further bolstered this conclusion). An earlier split in 1986 over the leadership's decision to end Sinn Fein's (the political counterpart of the IRA) abstention from taking seats in any parliament spawned the Continuity IRA from members that opposed this. Both are still listed as terrorist groups by the United States Bureau of Counterterrorism as of 2012. Otherwise, the peace has held aside from acts by marginal extremists, and the future of Northern Ireland at last seems to be looking up.
- BBC News: Coventry IRA bombing: The 'forgotten' attack on a British city
- Joanne McEvoy. The Politics of Northern Ireland. Edinburgh University Press, 2008. p. 34.
- BBC News: Reporting the last IRA 'Stand Down'
- Der Spiegel: British Military Leaves Northern Ireland
- Conflict Archive on the Internet Chronology of the Conflict: 1979
- Conflict Archive on the Internet Chronology of the Conflict: 1997
- U.S. Department of State: Foreign Terrorist Organizations