Tag Archives: Military Reaction Force

Military Reaction Force – Counter Insurgency Unit

The Military Reaction Force

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The views and opinions expressed in this documentary and page are soley intended to educate and provide background information to those interested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

They in no way reflect my own opinions and I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or factual errors

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The Military Reaction Force, Military Reconnaissance Force or Mobile Reconnaissance Force (MRF)[1] was a covert intelligence-gathering and counter-insurgency unit of the British Army active in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles/Operation Banner. The unit was formed during the summer of 1971[1] and operated until late 1972 or early 1973. MRF teams operated in plain-clothes and civilian vehicles, equipped with pistols and sub-machine guns. They were nominally tasked with tracking down and arresting, or killing, suspected members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The MRF also ran double agents within the paramilitary groups and ran a number of front companies to gather intelligence.[2] In October 1972, the Provisional IRA uncovered and attacked two of the MRF’s front companies—a mobile laundry service and a massage parlour—which contributed to the unit’s dissolution. One former member of the unit has described it as a “legalised death squad“.[3] It has also been accused of colluding with illegal loyalist paramilitaries and carrying out false flag attacks. The MRF was succeeded by the SRU (or 14 Intelligence Company) and, later, by the FRU

Origins and structure

The MRF was established in the summer of 1971. It appears to have its origins in ideas and techniques developed by British Army Brigadier Sir Frank Kitson, who had created “counter gangs” to defeat the Mau Mau in Kenya. He was the author of two books on counter-insurgency tactics: Gangs & Counter Gangs (1960) and Low Intensity Operations (1971). From 1970 to 1972, Kitson served in Northern Ireland as commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade. It has been claimed that he was responsible for establishing the MRF and that the unit was attached to his Brigade.[1]

The MRF was based at Palace Barracks in the Belfast suburb of Holywood.[4] The MRF’s first commander was Captain Arthur Watchus.[5] In June 1972, he was succeeded as commander by Captain James ‘Hamish’ McGregor.[4] It was split into squads, each of which was led by a Senior NCO who had served in the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), the Royal Marines or the Parachute Regiment.[6] The unit consisted of up to 40 men, handpicked from throughout the British Army.[7] It also included a few women.[8] According to military sources, the MRF would have up to nine soldiers deployed at any one time, with nine more on standby and the others resting.[6]

Modus operandi

In March 1994, the UK’s Junior Defence Minister Jeremy Hanley issued the following description of the MRF in reply to a parliamentary written question: “The MRF was a small military unit which, during the period 1971 to 1973, was responsible for carrying out surveillance tasks in Northern Ireland in those circumstances where soldiers in uniform and with Army vehicles would be too easily recognized”.[9]

Martin Dillon described the MRF’s purpose as being “to draw the Provisional IRA into a shooting war with loyalists in order to distract the IRA from its objective of attacking the Army”.[10]

Many details about the unit’s modus operandi have been revealed by former members. One issued a statement to the Troops Out Movement in July 1978. In 2012–13, a former MRF member using the covername ‘Simon Cursey’ gave a number of interviews and published the book MRF Shadow Troop about his time in the unit. In November 2013, a BBC Panorama documentary was aired about the MRF. It drew on information from seven former members, as well as a number of other sources.

The MRF had both a “defensive” surveillance role and an “offensive” role.[4][1] MRF operatives dressed like civilians and were given fake identities and unmarked cars equipped with two-way radios.[8] They patrolled the streets in these cars in teams of two to four, tracking down and arresting or killing suspected IRA members.[8][7] They were armed with Browning pistols and Sterling sub-machine guns. Former MRF members admitted that the unit shot unarmed people without warning, both IRA members and civilians,[7] knowingly breaking the British Army’s Rules of Engagement.[6] Former MRF members claim they had a list of targets they were ordered to “shoot on sight”,[8][4] the aim being to “beat them at their own game”[8] and to “terrorise” the republican movement.[6] According to Cursey, the unit was told that these tactics had British Government backing, “as part of a deeper political game”.[8] He said his section shot at least 20 people: “We opened fire at any small group in hard areas […] armed or not – it didn’t matter. We targeted specific groups that were always up to no good. These types were sympathisers and supporters, assisting the IRA movement. As far as we were concerned they were guilty by association and party to terrorist activities, leaving themselves wide open to the ultimate punishment from us”.[6] Cursey mentions two occasions where MRF members visited pubs and “eliminated” IRA members.[6] One member interviewed for the BBC’s Panorama, Soldier F, said “We were not there to act like an army unit, we were there to act like a terror group“.[7] Soldier H said “We operated initially with them thinking that we were the UVF“, to which Soldier F added: “We wanted to cause confusion”.[5] Another said that their role was “to draw out the IRA and to minimise their activities”.[7] They said they fired on groups of people manning defensive barricades, on the assumption that some might be armed.[4] The MRF member who made a statement in 1978 opined that the unit’s role was one of “repression through fear, terror and violence”.[11] He said that the unit had been trained to use weapons favoured by the IRA.[11]

Republicans argued that the MRF deliberately attacked civilians for two main reasons: firstly, to draw the IRA into a sectarian conflict with loyalists and divert it from its campaign against the state; and secondly, to show Catholics that the IRA could not protect them, thus draining its support.[12]

The MRF’s surveillance operations included the use of front companies (see below) and disguises. Former members claim they posed as road sweepers, dustmen and even homeless meths-drinkers while carrying out surveillance.[7] The MRF is known to have used double agents referred to as ‘Freds’. These were republican or loyalist paramilitaries who were recruited by British Military Intelligence. The Freds would work inside paramilitary groups, feeding back information to the MRF. They were also ferried through Belfast in armoured cars, and through the gunslit would point-out paramilitary individuals of note. Through this method the MRF compiled extensive photographs and dossiers of Belfast militants of both factions.[13]

According to Cursey, the MRF also abducted and interrogated people for information. They used shock treatment on prisoners to force them to give information. This involved immediately breaking one of the suspects’ arms and threatening to break their other arm.[8] Cursey says that they then “dropped them off at the roadside for the uniformed forces to pick up later”.[6]

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BBC Panorama – Shoot to kill, lethal force

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Attacks on civilians

In 1972, MRF teams carried out a number of drive-by shootings in Catholic and Irish nationalist areas of Belfast, some of which had been attributed to Ulster loyalist paramilitaries.[2] At least fifteen civilians were shot. MRF members have affirmed the unit’s involvement in most of these attacks. There are also allegations that the unit helped loyalists to carry out attacks.

McGurk’s Bar bombing

On 4 December 1971, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) detonated a time bomb at the door of McGurk’s public house in Belfast. The pub was frequented by Irish Catholics/nationalists.[14] The explosion caused the building to collapse, killing fifteen Catholic civilians and wounding seventeen more. It was the deadliest attack in Belfast during the Troubles.[15] The book Killing For Britain (2009), written by former UVF member ‘John Black’, claims that the MRF organized the bombing and helped the bombers get in and out of the area.[16] Two days before the bombing, republican prisoners had escaped from nearby Crumlin Road Prison. Security was tightened and there were many checkpoints in the area at the time. However, locals claimed that the security forces helped the bombers by removing the checkpoints an hour before the attack.[17] One of the bombers—Robert Campbell—said that their original target had been The Gem, a nearby pub that was allegedly linked to the Official IRA. It is claimed the MRF plan was to help the UVF bomb The Gem, and then blame the bombing on the Provisional IRA. This would start a feud between the two IRA factions, diverting them from their fight against the security forces and draining their support. Campbell said that The Gem had security outside and, after waiting for almost an hour, they decided to bomb the nearest ‘Catholic pub’ instead. Immediately after, the security forces claimed that a bomb had accidentally exploded while being handled by IRA members inside McGurk’s.[18]

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‘Secret British Army hits’ on IRA Watch extracts from BBC expose

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Whiterock Road shooting

On 15 April 1972, brothers Gerry and John Conway—both Catholic civilians—were walking along Whiterock Road to catch a bus.[19][11] As they passed St Thomas’s School, a car stopped and three men leapt out and began shooting at them with pistols.[19][11] The brothers ran but both were shot and wounded.[19] Witnesses said one of the gunmen returned to the car and spoke into a handset radio. Shortly after, two armoured personnel carriers arrived and there was a conversation between the uniformed and the plainclothes soldiers.[19] The three vehicles then left, and the brothers were taken by ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital.[19] The British Army told journalists that a patrol had encountered two wanted men, that one fired at the patrol and that the patrol returned fire.[19] In a 1978 interview, a former MRF member claimed he had been one of the gunmen.[11] He confirmed that the brothers were unarmed, but claimed his patrol had mistaken the brothers for two IRA men whom the MRF were ordered to “shoot on sight”.[11]

Andersonstown shootings

On 12 May 1972, the British government announced there would be no disciplinary action against the soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday. That night, MRF teams shot seven Catholic civilians in the Andersonstown area.

Patrick McVeigh

 

 

An MRF team in an unmarked car approached a checkpoint manned by members of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association (CESA) at the entrance to Riverdale Park South.[1] The CESA was an unarmed vigilante organization set up to protect Catholic areas.[20] The car stopped and then reversed. One of the MRF men opened-fire from the car with a sub-machine gun, killing Catholic civilian Patrick McVeigh (44) and wounding four others.[1][19] The car continued on, turned, and then drove past the scene of the shooting.[19][21] All of the men were local residents[21] and McVeigh, who was shot through the back,[7] had stopped to chat to the CESA members as he walked home.[21] He was a married father of six children.[21] The British Army told journalists that gunmen in a passing car had fired indiscriminately at civilians and called it an “apparently motiveless crime”.[19] The car had come from a Protestant area and had returned the same way. This, together with the British Army statement, implied that loyalists were responsible.[19]

An inquest into the attack was held in December 1972, where it was admitted that the car’s occupants were soldiers belonging to an undercover unit known as the MRF.[21] The soldiers did not appear at the inquest but issued statements to it, claiming they had been shot at by six gunmen and were returning fire. However, eyewitnesses said none of the CESA members were armed and this was supported by forensic evidence.[19] The MRF members involved were never prosecuted.[1][19] Former MRF member ‘Simon Cursey’ claimed the unit fired on the men because they included IRA members who were on their ‘wanted’ list.[8] However, there is no evidence that any were in the IRA.[22] An MRF member stated in 1978 that the British Army’s intention was to make it look like a loyalist attack, thus provoking sectarian conflict and “taking the heat off the Army”.[11]

Minutes before the shooting at the checkpoint, two other Catholic civilians had been shot nearby by another MRF team.[4] The two young men—Aidan McAloon and Eugene Devlin—had got a taxi home from a disco and were dropped off at Slievegallion Drive.[4] As they began walking along the street, in the direction of a vigilante barricade, the MRF team opened fire on them from an unmarked car.[4] The MRF team told the Royal Military Police that they had shot a man who was firing a rifle. Witnesses said there was no gunman on the street and police forensics experts found no evidence that McAloon or Devlin had fired weapons.[4]

Two weeks later, on 27 May, Catholic civilian Gerard Duddy (20) was killed in a drive-by shooting at the same spot where Patrick McVeigh was killed. His death was blamed on loyalists.[23]

Killing of Jean Smith

Jean Smith

 

 

On the night of 9 June 1972, Catholic civilian Jean Smith (or Smyth) was shot dead on the Glen Road. Jean was a 24-year-old mother of one.[24] She was shot while sitting in the passenger seat of a car at the Glen Road bus terminus. As her male companion turned the car, he heard what he thought was a tyre bursting. When he got out to check, the car was hit by a burst of automatic gunfire. Smith was shot in the head and died shortly after.[24] Her companion stopped a passing taxi and asked the driver to take her to hospital. However, the taxi was then stopped by police and diverted to Andersonstown RUC base, where they were held for several hours.[25]

The security forces blamed the killing on the IRA. In October 1973, however, the Belfast Telegraph published an article suggesting that Smith could have been shot by the MRF.[24] Documents uncovered from the British National Archives reveal that the MRF fired shots in the area that night. They claim to have fired at two gunmen and hit one of them.[25][26] The Belfast Telegraph article also suggested that Smith could have been shot by the IRA, who fired on the car thinking it was carrying MRF members.[24] The IRA deny this and claim that it was not in the area at the time of the shooting.[25]

Two weeks after Smith’s killing, the MRF fired on a car at the same spot, wounding four people.

Glen Road shooting

On 22 June 1972, the Provisional IRA announced that it would begin a ceasefire in four days, as a prelude to secret talks with the British Government.[27] That afternoon, MRF members in an unmarked car shot and wounded three Catholic men standing by a car at Glen Road bus terminus. A man in a nearby house was also wounded by the gunfire.[28] Shortly after, the MRF unit’s car was stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and they were arrested. Inside was a Thompson sub-machine gun, “for years the IRA’s favourite weapon”.[1] One of the MRF members—Clive Graham Williams—was charged with attempted murder. He told the court that two of the men had been armed and one had fired at the MRF car. He claimed he was returning fire. Witnesses said that none of the civilians were armed and that it was an unprovoked attack.[28] Police forensics experts found no evidence that the civilians had fired weapons.[4] However, key witnesses were not called to give evidence in person[4] and Williams was acquitted on 26 June 1973.[1] He was later promoted and awarded the Military Medal for bravery.[4]

St James’s Crescent shooting

On the night of 27 September 1972, the MRF shot dead Catholic civilian Daniel Rooney and wounded his friend Brendan Brennan.[19][29] They were shot from a passing car while standing on a street corner at St James’s Crescent, in the Falls district.[30] The British Army told journalists that the two men fired at an undercover patrol and that the patrol returned fire.[30] It further claimed that the two men were IRA members.[30] The IRA, the men’s families, and residents of the area denied this, and Rooney’s name has never appeared on a republican roll of honour.[30] An inquest was held in December 1973. The court was told that forensic tests on the men’s hands and clothing found no firearms residue.[30] The six soldiers involved repeated the British Army’s claim, but they did not appear at the inquest. Their statements were read by a police officer and they were referred to by initials.[30] In 2013, former MRF member ‘Simon Cursey’ again claimed that they were returning fire, but said that only one of the men was armed.[8]

New Lodge Six

There are also allegations that the MRF was involved in a drive-by shooting in the Catholic New Lodge area on 3 February 1973. The car’s occupants opened fire on a group of young people standing outside a pub on Antrim Road, killing IRA members James Sloan and James McCann and wounding others. The gunmen drove on and allegedly fired at another group of people outside a takeaway. In the hours that followed, a further four people—an IRA member and three civilians—were shot dead in the area by British snipers. The dead became known as the “New Lodge Six”.[31][32][33]

In June 1973, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association issued advice on how to behave in the event of being “shot by MRF/SAS squads”, saying for example that people should “pretend to be dead until the squad moves away”.[34]

Front companies

The MRF ran a number of front companies in Belfast during the early 1970s.[35] They included Four Square Laundry (a mobile laundry service operating in nationalist West Belfast) and the Gemini massage parlour on Antrim Road.[36]The MRF also had an office at College Square. All were set up to gather intelligence on the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish nationalist movement.

A Four Square van visited houses in nationalist West Belfast twice a week to collect and deliver laundry.[37] One “employee” (a young man) drove the van while another (a young woman) collected and delivered the laundry. Both were from Northern Ireland.[37] Four Square initially gathered customers by offering “discount vouchers”, which were numbered and colour-coded by street.[38] Clothes collected for washing were first forensically checked for traces of explosives, as well as blood or firearms residue. They were also compared to previous laundry loads from the same house—the sudden presence of different-sized clothes could indicate that the house was harbouring an IRA member.[39] Surveillance operatives and equipment were hidden in the back of the van or in a compartment in the roof. Further intelligence was gathered by staff observing and “chatting” to locals whilst collecting their laundry.[39]

Kevin McKee

 

 

However, in September 1972 the IRA found that two of its members—Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee—were working for the MRF as double agents.[40] Under interrogation, McKee told the IRA about the MRF’s operations, including the laundry and the massage parlour.[41] The leaders of the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade ordered that the companies immediately be put under surveillance. This surveillance confirmed that McKee’s information was correct.[42] The IRA later took Wright and McKee to South Armagh, where they were “executed” as spies.[43] Their bodies have not been recovered and were cases considered by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains.

October 1972 attacks

Following these revelations, the leaders of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade planned an operation against the MRF, which was to take place on 2 October 1972. The 2nd Battalion would attack the Four Square Laundry van and the office at College Square, while the 3rd Battalion would raid the massage parlour.[44] At about 11:20AM[37] on 2 October, IRA volunteers ambushed the Four Square Laundry van in the nationalist Twinbrook area of West Belfast. Four volunteers were involved: one drove the car while three others did the shooting.[44] They shot dead the driver, an undercover British soldier of the Royal Engineers, and machine-gunned the roof compartment where undercover operatives were thought to be hiding.[44] The other Four Square employee—a female operative from the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC)—was collecting and delivering laundry from a nearby house at the time. The residents, who thought that loyalists were attacking the van, took her into the house and kept her safe.[44] The woman was later secretly invested at Buckingham Palace with an MBE.[40]

About an hour later, the same IRA unit raided College Square but found nobody there.[44] Meanwhile, a unit of the 3rd Battalion made for the room above the massage parlour, which they believed was being using to gather intelligence. They claimed to have shot three undercover soldiers: two men and a woman.[44] According to some sources, the IRA claimed to have killed two surveillance officers allegedly hidden in the laundry van,[45] and two MRF members at the massage parlour.[39] However, the British military only confirmed the death of the van driver on that day.[46] Brendan Hughes said that the operation “was a great morale booster for the IRA and for the people that were involved”.[44]

The MRF, realising its undercover operations were blown, disbanded the units and was itself disbanded shortly afterwards.[44] Nevertheless, the incident was believed to have prompted the establishment of a new undercover intelligence unit: the 14 Intelligence Company (also known as “The Det”).[47]

 

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Irish Republican Army. (I.R.A) – History & Background

Irish Republican Army. (I.R.A) – History & Background

The views and opinions expressed in this page and  documentaries are soley intended to educate and provide background information to those interested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

They in no way reflect my own opinions and I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or factual errors.

Provisional Irish Republican Army

The IRA were responsible for approx.  1,823 deaths

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IRA Bombers (IRA Documentary

 


Gaddafi and the IRA – Full

 


The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA or PIRA) was[5][6][7][8] an Irish republican paramilitary organisation that sought to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and bring about an independent republic encompassing all of Ireland.[9][10] It was the biggest and most active republican paramilitary group during the Troubles. It saw itself as the successor to the original IRA and called itself simply the Irish Republican Army, or Óglaigh na hÉireann in Irish.[11] It was also widely referred to as such by others. The IRA is designated an unlawful terrorist organisation in the UK and an unlawful organisation in the Republic of Ireland.[12][13]

The Provisional IRA emerged in December 1969, following a split in the republican movement. The Troubles had begun a year before, when a Catholic, nonviolent civil rights campaign was met with violence from both Ulster loyalists and the police, culminating in the August 1969 riots and deployment of British troops.[14]

Secret Undercover British Army Terrorist Force – Military Reaction Force Disclosed

 

The IRA initially focused on defence, but it began an offensive campaign in 1971 (see timeline). The IRA’s primary goal was to force the British to negotiate a withdrawal from Northern Ireland. It used guerrilla tactics against the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary in both rural and urban areas. It also carried out a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland and England against what it saw as political and economic targets. Telephoned warnings were usually sent before such bombings. The IRA called a final ceasefire in July 1997, when Sinn Féin were re-admitted into the Northern Ireland peace talks. It supported the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in 2005 it disarmed under international supervision.

Overview of strategies

The IRA’s initial strategy was to use force to cause the collapse of the government of Northern Ireland and to inflict enough casualties on British forces that the British government would be forced by public opinion to withdraw from the region.[15] This policy involved recruitment of volunteers, increasing after the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident, in which the British military killed unarmed protesters, and launching attacks against British military and economic targets.[16][17] The campaign was supported by arms and funding from Libya[18] and from some groups in the United States.[19][20]

The IRA agreed to a ceasefire in February 1975, which lasted nearly a year[21] before the IRA concluded that the British were drawing them into politics without offering any guarantees in relation to the IRA’s goals (as well as launching an intelligence offensive),[22] and hopes of a quick victory receded.[23] As a result, the IRA launched a new strategy known as “the Long War”. This saw them conduct a war of attrition against the British and increase emphasis on political activity, via the political party Sinn Féin.[24]

The success of the 1981 Irish hunger strike in mobilising support and winning elections led to the Armalite and ballot box strategy, with more time and resources devoted to political activity. The abortive attempt at an escalation of the military part of that strategy led republican leaders increasingly to look for a political compromise to end the conflict, with a broadening dissociation of Sinn Féin from the IRA. Following negotiations with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and secret talks with British civil servants, the IRA ultimately called a ceasefire in 1994 on the understanding that Sinn Féin would be included in political talks for a settlement.[25] When the British government, dependent on Ulster Unionist Party votes at Westminster, then demanded the disarmament of the IRA before it allowed Sinn Féin into multiparty talks, the IRA called off its ceasefire in February 1996.

This demand was quickly dropped after the May 1997 general election in the UK. The IRA ceasefire was then reinstated in July 1997 and Sinn Féin was admitted into all-party talks, which produced the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The IRA’s armed campaign, primarily in Northern Ireland but also in England and mainland Europe, caused the deaths of approximately 1,800 people. The dead included around 1,100 members of the British security forces, and about 640 civilians.[26][27] The IRA itself lost 275–300 members[28] and an estimated 10,000 imprisoned at various times over the 30-year period.[1][29]

On 28 July 2005, the IRA Army Council announced an end to its armed campaign, stating that it would work to achieve its aims using “purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means”,[30] and shortly afterwards completed decommissioning. In September 2008, the nineteenth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission stated that the IRA was “committed to the political path” and no longer represented “a threat to peace or to democratic politics”, and that the IRA’s Army Council was “no longer operational or functional”.[31][32] The organisation remains classified as a proscribed terrorist group in the UK and as an illegal organisation in the Republic of Ireland.[12][33] Two small groups split from the Provisional IRA, the Continuity IRA in 1986, and the Real IRA in 1997. Both reject the Good Friday Agreement and continue to engage in paramilitary activity.

On 26 July 2012, it was announced that some former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army were merging with the Real Irish Republican Army, other independent republican paramilitary groups and the vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (but, notably, not with the Continuity Irish Republican Army) into a unified formation known simply as the “Irish Republican Army”.[34][35] This new IRA group is estimated by Police Service of Northern Ireland intelligence sources to have between 250 and 300 active militants and many more supporting associates.[36]

Origins

An IRA badge – the Phoenix is frequently used to symbolise the origins of the Provisional IRA.

In August 1969, a confrontation between Catholic residents of the Bogside and police Londonderry ollowing an Apprentice Boys of Derry march led to a large communal riot now referred to as the Battle of the Bogside – three days of fighting between rioters throwing stones and petrol bombs and police who saturated the area with CS gas.

Protests and riots organised by NICRA in support of the Bogsiders began elsewhere in the Province sparking retaliation by Protestant mobs; the subsequent burning, damage to property and intimidation largely against the minority community forced 1,505 Catholics from their homes in Belfast in what became known as the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969, with over 200 Catholic homes being destroyed or requiring major repairs[14] and a number of people were killed on both sides, some by the forces of law and order. The Irish Republican Army had been poorly armed and unable to adequately defend the Catholic community, which had been considered one of its traditional roles since the 1920s.[37]

Veteran republicans were critical of the IRA’s Dublin leadership which, for political reasons, had refused to prepare for aggressive action in advance of the violence.[38][39] On 24 August Joe Cahill, Seamus Twomey, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Billy McKee and several other future Provisional leaders came together in Belfast intending to remove the Belfast leadership and turn back to traditional militant republicanism.[40] Although the pro-Goulding commander Billy McMillen stayed in command, he was told it was only for three months and he was not to have any communication with the IRA’s Dublin based leadership.[40]

Traditional republicans formed the “Provisional” Army Council in December 1969, after an IRA Army convention was held at Knockvicar House in Boyle, County Roscommon.[41][42][43] The two main issues were the acceptance of the “National Liberation Strategy” and a motion to end abstentionism and to recognise the British, Irish and Northern Ireland parliaments. While the motion on the “National Liberation Strategy” was passed unanimously[43] the motion on abstentionism was only passed by 28 votes to 12. Opponents of this change argued strongly against the ending of abstentionism, and when the vote took place, Seán Mac Stíofáin, present as IRA Director of Intelligence, announced that he no longer considered that the IRA leadership represented republican goals.[44] However, there was not a walkout. Those opposed, who included Mac Stíofáin and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, refused to go forward for election to the new IRA Executive.[45]

While others canvassed support throughout Ireland, Mac Stíofáin was a key person making a connection with the Belfast IRA under Billy McKee and Joe Cahill, who had refused to take orders from the IRA’s Dublin leadership since September 1969, in protest at their failure to defend Catholic areas in August.[46][47] Nine out of thirteen IRA units in Belfast sided with the Provisionals in December 1969, roughly 120 activists and 500 supporters.[48] The first “Provisional” Army Council was composed of Seán Mac Stíofáin, Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Paddy Mulcahy, Sean Tracey, Leo Martin, and Joe Cahill,[49] and issued their first public statement on 28 December 1969, stating:

We declare our allegiance to the 32 county Irish republic, proclaimed at Easter 1916, established by the first Dáil Éireann in 1919, overthrown by forces of arms in 1922 and suppressed to this day by the existing British-imposed six-county and twenty-six-county partition states.[50]

The Sinn Féin party split along the same lines on 11 January 1970, when a third of the delegates walked out of the Ard Fheis in protest at the party leadership’s attempt to force through the ending of abstentionism, despite its failure to achieve a two-thirds majority vote of delegates required to change the policy.[51] Despite the declared support of that faction of Sinn Féin, the early Provisional IRA was extremely suspicious of political activity, arguing rather for the primacy of armed struggle.[52]

There are allegations that the early Provisional IRA received arms and funding from the Fianna Fáil-led Irish government in 1969, resulting in the 1970 “Arms trial” in which criminal charges were pursued against two former government ministers. Roughly £100,000 was donated by the Irish government to “Defence Committees” in Catholic areas and, according to historian Richard English, “there is now no doubt that some money did go from the Dublin government to the proto-Provisionals”.[53]

The Provisionals maintained the principles of the pre-1969 IRA; they considered both British rule in Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Ireland to be illegitimate, insisting that the Provisional IRA’s Army Council was the only valid government, as head of an all-island Irish Republic. This belief was based on a series of perceived political inheritances which constructed a legal continuity from the Second Dáil.[54][55]

The Provisionals inherited most of the existing IRA organisation in the north by 1971 and the more militant IRA members in the rest of Ireland. In addition, they recruited many young nationalists from the north, who had not been involved in the IRA before, but had been radicalised by the communal violence that broke out in 1969. These people were known in republican parlance as “sixty niners”, having joined after 1969.[56] The Provisional IRA adopted the Phoenix as symbol of the Irish republican rebirth in 1969. One of its common slogans is “out of the ashes rose the provisionals”.[57]

Organisation

The Provisional IRA was organised hierarchically. At the top of the organisation was the IRA Army Council, headed by the IRA Chief of Staff.

Leadership

All levels of the organisation were entitled to send delegates to IRA General Army Conventions (GACs). The GAC was the IRA’s supreme decision-making authority. Before 1969, GACs met regularly. Since 1969, there have only been two, in 1970 and 1986, owing to the difficulty in organising such a large gathering of an illegal organisation in secret.[58][59]

The GAC in turn elected a 12-member IRA Executive, which selected seven volunteers to form the IRA Army Council.[58] For day-to-day purposes, authority was vested in the Army Council which, as well as directing policy and taking major tactical decisions, appointed a Chief of Staff from one of its number or, less commonly, from outside its ranks.[60]

PIRA re-enacment in Galbally, County Tyrone (2009)

The Chief of Staff would appoint an adjutant general as well as a General Headquarters (GHQ), which consisted of heads of the following departments:

  • Armory
  • Finance
  • Engineering
  • Training
  • Intelligence
  • Publicity
  • Operations
  • Security

Regional command

Republican colour party in Dublin – March 2009. The blue flag being carried at the front is that of “Dublin Brigade IRA”

The IRA was divided into a Northern Command, which operated in the nine Ulster counties as well as County Leitrim and County Louth, and a Southern Command, operating in the rest of Ireland. The Provisional IRA was originally commanded by a leadership based in Dublin. However, in 1977, parallel to the introduction of cell structures at local level, command of the “war-zone” was given to the Northern Command. According to Ed Moloney, these moves at reorganisation were the idea of Ivor Bell, Gerry Adams and Brian Keenan.[61]

Brigades

The IRA refers to its ordinary members as volunteers (or óglaigh in Irish). Up until the late 1970s, IRA volunteers were organised in units based on conventional military structures. Volunteers living in one area formed a company as part of a battalion, which could be part of a brigade, although many battalions were not attached to a brigade.

For most of its existence, the IRA had five Brigade areas within what it referred to as the “war-zone”. These Brigades were located in Armagh, Belfast, Derry, Donegal and Tyrone/Monaghan.[62] The Belfast Brigade had three battalions, respectively in the west, north and east of the city. In the early years of the Troubles, the IRA in Belfast expanded rapidly. In August 1969, the Belfast Brigade had just 50 active members. By the end of 1971, it had 1,200 members, giving it a large but loosely controlled structure.[63]

The Derry Brigade had two battalions – one based in Derry City, known as the South Derry Brigade, and another in Donegal. The Derry Battalion became the Derry Brigade in 1972 after a rapid increase in membership following Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed demonstrators at a civil rights march.[64] Volunteers based in Donegal were a part of the Derry Brigade as well. County Armagh had three battalions, two very active ones in South Armagh and a less active unit in North Armagh. For this reason the Armagh IRA unit is often referred to as the South Armagh Brigade. Similarly, the Tyrone/Monaghan Brigade, which operated from around the Border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is often called the East Tyrone Brigade. Fermanagh, South Down and North Antrim had units not attached to Brigades.[65] The leadership structure at battalion and company level was the same: each had its own commanding officer, quartermaster, explosives officer and intelligence officer. There was sometimes a training officer or finance officer.

Active service units

Ulster Defence Association – Hunting The IRA (Documentary

 

From 1973, the IRA started to move away from the larger conventional military organisational principle owing to its security vulnerability.[66] A system of two parallel types of unit within an IRA brigade was introduced in place of the battalion structures. Firstly, the old “company” structures were used for tasks such as “policing” nationalist areas, intelligence gathering, and hiding weapons. These were essential support activities. However, the bulk of actual attacks were the responsibility of a second type of unit, the active service unit (ASU). To improve security and operational capacity, these ASUs were smaller, tight-knit cells, usually consisting of five to eight members. The ASU’s weapons were controlled by a brigade’s quartermaster.[67] By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was estimated that in the late 1980s the IRA had roughly 300 members in ASUs and about another 450 serving in supporting roles.[65]

The exception to this reorganisation was the South Armagh Brigade, which retained its traditional hierarchy and battalion structure and used relatively large numbers of volunteers in its actions.[68]

The IRA’s Southern Command, located in the Republic of Ireland, consists of a Dublin Brigade and a number of smaller units in rural areas. These were charged mainly with the importation and storage of arms for the Northern units and with raising finances through robberies and other means.[69]

Details on strategy 1969–1998

Initial phase

Following the violence of August 1969, the IRA began to arm and train to protect nationalist areas from further attack.[70] After the Provisionals’ split from the Official IRA the Provisional IRA began planning for an all-out offensive action against what it claimed was British occupation.[71]

The Official IRA were opposed to such a campaign because they felt it would lead to sectarian conflict, which would defeat their strategy of uniting the workers from both sides of the sectarian divide. The IRA Border Campaign in the 1950s had avoided actions in urban centres of Northern Ireland to avoid civilian casualties and resulting sectarian violence.[72] The Provisional IRA, by contrast, was primarily an urban organisation, based originally in Belfast and Derry.

The Provisional IRA’s strategy was to use force to cause the collapse of the Northern Ireland administration and to inflict casualties on the British forces such that the British government be forced by public opinion to withdraw from Ireland. According to journalist Brendan O’Brien, “the thinking was that the war would be short and successful. Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stíofáin decided they would ‘escalate, escalate and escalate’ until the British agreed to go”.[15] This policy involved recruitment of volunteers and carrying out attacks on British forces, as well as mounting a bombing campaign against economic targets. In the early years of the conflict, IRA slogans spoke of, “Victory 1972″ and then “Victory 1974″.[16] Its inspiration was the success of the “Old IRA” in the Irish War of Independence (1919–1922). In their assessment of the IRA campaign, the British Army would describe these years, 1970–72, as the “insurgency phase”.[73]

The British government held secret talks with the IRA leadership in 1972 to try and secure a ceasefire based on a compromise settlement within Northern Ireland after the events of Bloody Sunday when IRA recruitment and support increased. The IRA agreed to a temporary ceasefire from 26 June to 9 July. In July 1972, Seán Mac Stíofáin, Dáithí Ó Conaill, Ivor Bell, Seamus Twomey, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met a British delegation led by William Whitelaw. The Irish republicans refused to consider a peace settlement that did not include a commitment to British withdrawal, a retreat of the British Army to its barracks, and a release of republican prisoners. The British refused and the talks broke up.[74]

Éire Nua and the 1975 ceasefire

The Provisionals’ goal in this period was the abolition of both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland states and their replacement with a new all-Ireland federal republic, with decentralised governments and parliaments for each of the four Irish historic provinces. This programme was known as Éire Nua (New Ireland). The Éire Nua programme remained IRA policy until discontinued by the Army Council in 1979.[75] Éire Nua remained Sinn Féin policy until 1982.[76]

By the mid-1970s, the hopes of the IRA leadership for a quick military victory were receding. The British military was unsure of when it would see any substantial success against the IRA. Secret meetings between Provisional IRA leaders Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Billy McKee with British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees secured an IRA ceasefire which began in February 1975. The IRA initially believed that this was the start of a long-term process of British withdrawal, but later came to the conclusion that Rees was trying to bring them into peaceful politics without offering them any guarantees.[23] Critics of the IRA leadership, most notably Gerry Adams, felt that the ceasefire was disastrous for the IRA, leading to infiltration by British informers, the arrest of many activists and a breakdown in IRA discipline resulting in sectarian killings and a feud with fellow republicans in the Official IRA. At this time, the IRA leadership, short of money, weapons and members, was on the brink of calling off the campaign. The ceasefire, however, broke down in January 1976.[21]

The “Long War

IRA political poster from the 1980s, featuring a quote from Bobby Sands – “There can never be peace in Ireland until the foreign, oppressive British presence is removed, leaving all the Irish people as a unit to control their own affairs and determine their own destinies as a sovereign people, free in mind and body, separate and distinct physically, culturally and economically”.

Thereafter, the IRA evolved a new strategy which they called the “Long War”. This underpinned IRA strategy for the rest of the Troubles and involved the re-organisation of the IRA into small cells, an acceptance that their campaign would last many years before being successful and an increased emphasis on political activity through Sinn Féin. A republican document of the early 1980s states, “Both Sinn Féin and the IRA play different but converging roles in the war of national liberation. The Irish Republican Army wages an armed campaign… Sinn Féin maintains the propaganda war and is the public and political voice of the movement”.[77] The 1977 edition of the Green Book, an induction and training manual used by the IRA, describes the strategy of the “Long War” in these terms:

  1. A war of attrition against enemy personnel [British Army] based on causing as many deaths as possible so as to create a demand from their [the British] people at home for their withdrawal.
  2. A bombing campaign aimed at making the enemy’s financial interests in our country unprofitable while at the same time curbing long term investment in our country.
  3. To make the Six Counties… ungovernable except by colonial military rule.
  4. To sustain the war and gain support for its ends by National and International propaganda and publicity campaigns.
  5. By defending the war of liberation by punishing criminals, collaborators and informers.[78]

Confidential documents released on 30 December 2008 from the British state archives show that the IRA leadership proposed a ceasefire and peace talks to the British government in 1978. The British refused the offer. Prime Minister James Callaghan decided that there should be “positive rejection” of the approach on the basis that the republicans were not serious and “see their campaign as a long haul”. Irish State documents from the same period say that the IRA had made a similar offer to the British the previous year. An Irish Defence Forces document, dated 15 February 1977, states that “It is now known that feelers were sent out at Christmas by the top IRA leadership to interest the British authorities in another long ceasefire.”[79]

1981 hunger strikes and electoral politics

Insight: The 1981 Hunger Strike 20 Years On – 2001

 

IRA funeral, 1981

IRA prisoners convicted after March 1976 did not have Special Category Status applied in prison. In response, over 500 prisoners refused to wash or wear prison clothes (see Dirty protest and Blanket protest). This activity culminated in the 1981 Irish hunger strike, when seven IRA and three Irish National Liberation Army members starved themselves to death in pursuit of political status. The hunger strike leader Bobby Sands and Anti H-Block activist Owen Carron were elected to the British Parliament, and two other protesting prisoners were elected to the Irish Dáil. In addition, there were work stoppages and large demonstrations all over Ireland in sympathy with the hunger strikers. Over 100,000 people attended the funeral of Sands, the first hunger striker to die.[80]

After the success of IRA hunger strikers in mobilising support and winning elections on an Anti H-Block platform in 1981, republicans increasingly devoted time and resources to electoral politics, through the Sinn Féin party. Danny Morrison summed up this policy at a 1981 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (annual meeting) as a “ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other”.[81]

Peace strategy

The success of the 1981 Irish hunger strike in mobilising support and winning elections led to what was referred to by Danny Morrison as, “the Armalite and ballot box strategy” with more time and resources devoted to political activity. The perceived stalemate along with British government’s hints of a compromise[82] and secret approaches in the early 1990s led republican leaders increasingly to look for a political agreement to end the conflict,[83][84] with a broadening dissociation of Sinn Féin from the IRA. Following negotiations with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and secret talks with British civil servants, the IRA ultimately called a ceasefire in 1994 on the understanding that Sinn Féin would be included in political talks for a settlement.[25] When the British government then demanded the disarmament of the IRA before it allowed Sinn Féin into multiparty talks, the organisation called off its ceasefire in February 1996. The renewed bombings caused severe economic damage, with the Manchester bombing and the Docklands bombing causing approximately £500 million in combined damage. After the ceasefire was reinstated in July 1997, Sinn Féin was admitted into all-party talks, which produced the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The IRA’s armed campaign, primarily in Northern Ireland but also in England and mainland Europe, caused the deaths of approximately 1,800 people. The dead included around 1,100 members of the British security forces, and about 630 civilians.[26][27] The IRA itself lost 275–300 members,[28] of an estimated 10,000 total over the 30-year period.[1]

According to author Ed Moloney, the IRA made an attempt to escalate the conflict with the so-called “Tet Offensive” in the 1980s, which was reluctantly approved by the Army Council and did not prove successful. On the other hand, public speeches from two Northern Ireland Secretaries of State, Peter Brooke[85] and Patrick Mayhew[86] hint that, given the cessation of violence, a political compromise with the IRA was possible. Gerry Adams entered talks with John Hume, the leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1993, and secret talks were also conducted since 1991 between Martin McGuinness and a senior MI6 officer, Michael Oatley.[82][84][87] Thereafter, Adams increasingly tried to disassociate Sinn Féin from the IRA, claiming they were separate organisations and refusing to speak on behalf of the IRA.[88] Within the Republican Movement (the IRA and Sinn Féin), the new strategy was described by the acronym “TUAS”, meaning either “Tactical Use of Armed Struggle” or “Totally Unarmed Strategy”.[89]

Weaponry and operations

The Armalite AR-18, obtained by the IRA from an IRA member in the United States in the early 1970s, was an emotive symbol of its armed campaign

An AK-47 assault rifle (over 1,000 of which were donated by Muammar Gaddafi to the IRA in the 1980s)

Heckler & Koch G3. 100 of these, stolen from the Norwegian police, finished up with the IRA

In the early days of the Troubles the IRA was very poorly armed, mainly with old World War II weaponry such as M1 Garands and Thompson submachine guns, but starting in the early 1970s it procured large amounts of modern weaponry from such sources as supporters in the United States, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi,[21] and arms dealers in Europe, America, the Middle East and elsewhere. The Libyans supplied the IRA with the RPG-7.

The RPG-7

In the first years of the conflict, the IRA’s main activities were providing firepower to support nationalist rioters and defending nationalist areas from attacks. The IRA gained much of its support from these activities, as they were widely perceived within the nationalist community as being defenders of Irish nationalist and Roman Catholic people against aggression.[90]

Grand Hotel following a bomb attack

 
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Thatcher and the IRA Dealing with Terror BBC Documentary 2014 Full

 

From 1971–1994, the IRA launched a sustained offensive armed campaign that mainly targeted the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), and economic targets in Northern Ireland. In addition, some IRA members carried out attacks against Protestant civilians.[91]

The IRA was chiefly active in Northern Ireland, although it took its campaign to England and mainland Europe. The IRA also targeted certain British government officials, politicians, judges, establishment figures, British Army and police officers in England, and in other areas such as the Republic of Ireland, West Germany and the Netherlands. By the early 1990s, the bulk of the IRA activity was carried out by the South Armagh Brigade,[citation needed] well known through its sniping operations and attacks on British Army helicopters. The bombing campaign principally targeted political, economic and military targets, and approximately 60 civilians were killed by the IRA in England during the conflict.[92]

It has been argued that this bombing campaign helped convince the British government (who had hoped to contain the conflict to Northern Ireland with its Ulsterisation policy) to negotiate with Sinn Féin after the IRA ceasefires of August 1994 and July 1997.[93][94]

Ceasefires and decommissioning of arms

On 31 August 1994, the IRA declared an indefinite ceasefire. However, from February 1996 until July 1997, the IRA called off its 1994 ceasefire because of its dissatisfaction with the state of negotiations. They re-instated the ceasefire in July 1997, and it has been in operation since then.[95]

The IRA decommissioned all of its remaining arms between July and September 2005. The decommissioning of its weaponry was supervised by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD). Among the weaponry estimated (by Jane’s Information Group) to have been destroyed as part of this process were:

A “Sniper at Work” sign in Crossmaglen. The PIRA used snipers as a tactic in south Armagh to disrupt foot patrols

Having compared the weapons destroyed with the British security forces’ estimates of the IRA weaponry, and because of the IRA’s full involvement in the process of destroying the weapons, the IICD arrived at their conclusion that all IRA weaponry has been destroyed.[97]

Since the process of decommissioning was completed, unnamed sources in MI5 and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have reported to the press that not all IRA arms were destroyed during the process. This claim remains unsubstantiated so far.[98] In its report dated April 2006 the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) stated that it had no reason to disbelieve the IRA or to suspect that it had not fully decommissioned. It believed that any weaponry that had not been handed in had been retained locally and against the wishes of the IRA leadership.[99] The Russian and British Intelligence services alleged that during the decommissioning process the IRA secretly purchased a consignment of 20 Russian special forces AN-94 rifles in Moscow.[100][101][102]

In mid-July 2013, the Gardaí displayed arms and explosives (Semtex) recently recovered from dissident republicans in the Dublin area. The Gardaí believe this Semtex to have come from the Libyan connection back in the 1980s and therefore should have been decommissioned.[103][104][105]

Other activities

Apart from its armed campaign, the IRA has also been involved in many other activities.

Sectarian attacks

IRA, purely sectarian, calculated slaughter of Protestants at Kingsmill

 

The IRA publicly condemned sectarianism and sectarian attacks.[106] However, some IRA members became involved in sectarian tit-for-tat violence and attacked Protestants in retaliation for attacks on Catholics.[106] Of those killed by the IRA, Sutton classifies 130 (about 7%) of them as sectarian killings of Protestants.[107] Unlike loyalists, the IRA denied responsibility for sectarian attacks and the members involved used covernames, such as Republican Action Force.[108][109] Many in the IRA opposed these sectarian attacks, but others deemed them effective in preventing sectarian attacks on Catholics.[110]

Some unionists allege that the IRA took part in “ethnic cleansing” of the Protestant minority in rural border areas, such as Fermanagh.[111][112] Many local Protestants allegedly believed that the IRA tried to force them into leaving. However, most Protestants killed by the IRA in these areas were members of the security forces, and there was no exodus of Protestants.[113]

Alleged involvement in organised crime

The IRA have allegedly been involved in criminal activities, including racketeering, bank robbery, fuel laundering, drug dealing and kidnapping.[114][115][116]

In 2004, £26.5m was stolen from the Northern Bank‘s vaults in Belfast city centre. The British and Irish governments agreed with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s report blaming the robbery on the IRA.[117] On 18 January 2005, the IRA issued a statement denying any involvement in the robbery.[118] In February 2005, the Independent Monitoring Commission’s Fourth Report stated their belief that the robbery was carried out with the prior knowledge and authorisation of the IRA’s leadership.[119] Commentators including Suzanne Breen have stated that the IRA was the only organisation capable of carrying out the raid.[120] In May 2009, two men were arrested in Cork, and charged with IRA membership and offences relating to the robbery.[121]

According to several sources, the organisation has also been involved in the Irish drugs trade. A 1999 report by John Horgan and Max Taylor cited Royal Ulster Constabulary reports, alleging that this involves the “licensing” of drug operations to criminal gangs and the payment of protection money, rather than direct involvement.[114][122][123] However, Chief of the RUC Drugs Squad Kevin Sheehy notes “the Provisional IRA did its best to stop volunteers from becoming directly involved [in drugs]” and noted that on one occasion an IRA member caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis for personal use was “disowned and humiliated” in his local area.[124] According to Horgan and Taylor’s report, the IRA are also involved in several legitimate businesses including taxi firms, construction, restaurants and pubs. The IRA have also been involved in racketeering, which involves the extortion of money from legitimate businesses for “protection”.[125]

Speaking at Sinn Féin 2005 Ard Fheis, Gerry Adams stated that “‘There is no place in republicanism for anyone involved in criminality”. However, he went on to say “we refuse to criminalise those who break the law in pursuit of legitimate political objectives”.[126]

In 2013 it was reported that an Italian police investigation had revealed links between the IRA and the Mafia in a €450m money laundering scheme.[127]

Vigilantism

The IRA saw itself as the police force of nationalist areas of Northern Ireland during the Troubles instead of the RUC.[128] This was made possible by a feeling of mistrust by some members of the community against the police force and army. The feeling, that the RUC, B-Specials, UDR, British Army and other arms of the Governmental apparatus in Northern Ireland were biased against the nationalist community was not new; it predated the Troubles and took in organisations like the Ulster Defence Volunteers, a home guard body of World War II, who were also widely considered sectarian.[129] Catholics did, however, serve in the UDV,[130] Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Also, the RUC and other forces of the authorities were, in some instances, reluctant to enter or patrol certain Nationalist areas unless it was in armoured Land Rovers and in convoy. Police stations were also heavily armoured because of persistent attacks from the IRA. This gave them the appearance of being fortresses. This vacuum in policing was functional for the IRA because it stopped the local community being in contact with the police which may have posed a threat if information was passed.[131] Therefore, the community would turn to the IRA first to deal with troublemakers or those practising what came to be called “anti-social behaviour”.[132] In efforts to stamp out “anti-social behaviour” and alleged instances of drug dealing reported to or noticed by the organisation, the IRA killed or otherwise attacked suspected drug dealers and other suspected criminals. These attacks varied in severity and depended on various factors. In the first instance, the IRA may warn their intended victim, with further transgressions escalated to an attack known as a “punishment beating”. The process which the IRA went through to determine an offender’s “guilt” or “innocence” was never open to debate or scrutiny.[citation needed] The IRA also engaged in attacks that broke the bones of alleged offenders, or involved shooting through the hands, or knees for persistent offenders of activities such as joyriding or drug dealing. In certain cases, for persistent offenders the IRA would intimidate the individual into leaving the country; this was known as being “put out” of the community/country, and the clear message given to individuals served with these notices was that if they returned to the community/country they would be killed. This practice was frequently criticised by all sections of the political establishment in Northern Ireland as “summary justice“.[citation needed]

Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, speaking in the Dáil Éireann, challenged Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, over allegations of sexual abuse cover up by Sinn Féin/IRA. In the same debate Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said victims of sex abuse by IRA members were sworn to silence. Adams denied there was any Sinn Féin cover up and accused Kenny and Martin of politicising the issue.[133] Adams also apologised to abuse victims who he said were “let down” by the IRA’s failure to properly investigate their claims of abuse.[134]

Killing of alleged informers

IRA execute suspected informer | South Armagh | 20th July 1991

 

In an effort to stamp out what the IRA termed “collaboration with British forces” and “informing”, they killed a number of Catholic civilians, such as Joseph Fenton. Purges against these individuals, whom the IRA considered traitors to their own community and to the cause of nationalism, were most prevalent when the IRA found itself persistently vulnerable to infiltration. Investigations into informers and infiltration are suspected to have been dealt with by an IRA unit called the Internal Security Unit (ISU), known colloquially as the “Nutting Squad”. This unit is said to be directly attached to IRA GHQ. Where a confession was solicited, the victim was often exiled or executed with a bullet in the back of the head. The body was either buried or, later in the IRA campaign, left in a public place, often in South Armagh.

One particular example of the killing of a person deemed by the IRA to have been an informer that is the source of continuing controversy is that of Jean McConville from Belfast, who was killed by the IRA. Ed Moloney and IRA sources continue to claim she was an informer despite the Police Ombudsman recently stating that this was not the case. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have described the killing as a “war crime“. Her family contend that she was killed as a punishment for aiding a dying British soldier in West Belfast, however this claim has been rejected in an official investigation,[135] while neither the Sutton Index or Lost Lives record the death of any British soldier near her home prior to her killing.[136] In March 2014, Ivor Bell – former IRA Chief of Staff – was arrested and charged with aiding and abetting in the murder of Jean McConville.[137] In April 2014, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was arrested and questioned by PSNI detectives in relation to the abduction and murder of Jean McConville.[138] He was released four days later without charge.[139]

In March 2007, Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan announced that there would be an inquiry into claims of collusion between IRA members working as agents for the Special Branch and other agencies and the British security forces.[140]

Conflict with other republican paramilitaries

The IRA has also feuded with other republican paramilitary groups such as the Official IRA in the 1970s and the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation in the 1990s.

Leading Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) member Joseph O’Connor was shot dead in Ballymurphy, west Belfast on 11 October 2000. Claims have been made by O’Connor’s family and people associated with the RIRA that he was killed by the IRA as the result of a feud between the organisations,[141] but Sinn Féin denied the claims.[142] No-one has been charged with his killing.

Casualties

This is a summary. For a detailed breakdown of casualties caused by and inflicted on the IRA see Provisional IRA campaign 1969-1997#Casualties

An IRA signpost with the word “Provoland” underneath in Strathroy, Omagh, County Tyrone.

The IRA was responsible for more deaths than any other organisation during the Troubles.[143] Two detailed studies of deaths in the Troubles, the CAIN project at the University of Ulster, and the book Lost Lives,[144] differ slightly on the numbers killed by the IRA. CAIN gives a minimum figure of 1,707 and a maximum of 1,823, while Lost Lives gives a figure of 1,781. Of these, about 1,100 were members or former members of the security forces (the British Army, Royal Ulster Constabulary etc.), while between 510[145] and 640[27] were civilians. The civilian figure also includes civilians employed by British forces, politicians, members of the judiciary, and alleged criminals and informers. The remainder were either loyalist or republican paramilitary members (including over 100 IRA members accidentally killed by their own bombs or shot for being security force agents or informers).

A little under 300 IRA members were killed in the Troubles.[146] In addition, roughly 50–60 members of Sinn Féin were killed.[147] However, many more IRA volunteers were imprisoned than killed. Journalists Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop estimate in their book The Provisional IRA that roughly 8,000 people passed through the ranks of the IRA in the first 20 years of its existence, many of them leaving after arrest (senior officers are required to surrender their post after being arrested), retiring from the armed campaign or “disillusionment”. They give 10,000 as the total number of past and present IRA members at that time.[148]

Categorisation

The IRA is a proscribed organisation in the United Kingdom under the Terrorism Act 2000[12] and an unlawful organisation in the Republic of Ireland under the Offences Against the State Acts.[149] Harold Wilson‘s secret 1971 meeting with IRA leaders with the help of John O’Connell angered the Irish government; Garret FitzGerald wrote 30 years later that “the strength of the feelings of our democratic leaders … was not, however, publicly ventilated at the time” because Wilson was a former and possible future British prime minister.[150] Members of IRA are tried in the Republic of Ireland in the Special Criminal Court. In Northern Ireland, the IRA are referred to as terrorists by the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland,[151] and the Social Democratic and Labour Party.[152] On the island of Ireland, the largest political party to state that the IRA is not a terrorist organisation is Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin is widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA, but the party insists that the two organisations are separate.[153]

Peter Mandelson, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, contrasted the post-1997 activities of the IRA with those of Al-Qaeda, describing the latter as “terrorists” and the former as “freedom fighters” (though Mandelson subsequently denied this sentiment).[154] The IRA prefer the terms freedom fighter, soldier, or volunteer.[155][156][157] The US Department of State lists them in the category ‘other selected terrorist groups also deemed of relevance in the global war on terrorism.’[153] The organisation has also been described as a “private army” by a number of commentators and politicians.[158][159][160]

The IRA described its actions throughout “The Troubles” as a military campaign waged against the British Army, the RUC, other security forces, judiciary, loyalist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, England and Europe. The IRA considers these groups to be all part of the same apparatus. As noted above, the IRA seeks to draw a direct descendancy from the original IRA and those who engaged in the Irish War of Independence. The IRA sees the previous conflict as a guerrilla war which accomplished some of its aims, with some remaining “unfinished business”.[161]

A process called “Criminalisation” was begun in the mid-1970s as part of a British strategy of “Criminalisation, Ulsterisation, and Normalisation”. The policy was outlined in a 1975 British strategy paper titled “The Way Ahead”, which was not published but was referred to by Labour’s first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, and came to be the dominant British political theme in the conflict as it raged into the 1980s.[citation needed]

Another categorisation avoids the terms “guerrilla” or “terrorist” but does view the conflict in military terms. The phrase originated with the British military strategist Frank Kitson who was active in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s. In Kitson’s view, the violence of the IRA represented an “insurrection” situation, with the enveloping atmosphere of belligerence representing a “low intensity conflict” – a conflict where the forces involved in fighting operate at a greatly reduced tempo, with fewer combatants, at a reduced range of tactical equipment and limited scope to operate in a military manner.[citation needed]

Membership of the IRA remains illegal in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but IRA prisoners convicted of offences committed before 1998 have been granted conditional early release as part of the Good Friday Agreement.[162] In the United Kingdom a person convicted of membership of a “proscribed organisation”, such as the IRA, still nominally faces imprisonment for up to 10 years.[163]

Strength and support

Numerical strength

In the early to mid-1970s, the numbers recruited by the IRA may have reached several thousand, but these were reduced when the IRA re-organised its structures from 1977 onwards. An RUC report of 1986 estimated that the IRA had 300 or so members in Active Service Units and up to 750 active members in total in Northern Ireland.[65] This does not take into consideration the IRA units in the Republic of Ireland or those in Britain, continental Europe, and throughout the world. In 2005, the then Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell told the Dáil that the organisation had “between 1,000 and 1,500″ active members.[164]

According to the book The Provisional IRA (by Eamon Mallie and Patrick Bishop), roughly 8,000 people passed through the ranks of the IRA in the first 20 years of its existence, many of them leaving after arrest, “retirement” or disillusionment.[148] In later years, the IRA’s strength has been somewhat weakened by members leaving the organisation to join hardline splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. According to former Irish Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, these organisations have little more than 150 members each.[164]

Electoral and popular support

The popular support for the IRA’s campaign in the Troubles is hard to gauge, given that Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, did not stand in elections until the early 1980s. Most nationalists in Northern Ireland voted for the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) until 2001. After the 1981 hunger strike, Sinn Féin mobilised large electoral support and won 105,000 votes, or 43% of the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom general election, 1983, only 34,000 votes behind the SDLP.[165] However, by the 1992 UK General Election, the SDLP won 184,445 votes and four seats to Sinn Féin’s 78,291 votes and no seats.[166] In the 1993 Local District Council Elections in Northern Ireland, the SDLP won 136,760 votes to Sinn Féin’s 77,600 votes.[167]

Few Protestant voters voted for Sinn Féin. In 1992, many of them voted for SDLP West Belfast candidate Joe Hendron rather than a unionist candidate to make sure Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin lost his seat in the constituency.[168]

An IRA wall mural in Coalisland, County Tyrone

The IRA enjoyed some popular support in the Republic of Ireland in the early 70s. However, the movement’s appeal was hurt badly by bombings such as the killing of civilians attending a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph in Enniskillen in 1987 (Remembrance Day bombing), and the death of two children when a bomb exploded in Warrington, which led to tens of thousands of people demonstrating on O’Connell Street in Dublin to call for an end to the IRA’s campaign. In the 1987 Irish General Election, they won only 1.7% of the votes cast.[169] They did not make significant electoral gains in the Republic until after the IRA ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. By the 2011 Irish general election Sinn Féin’s proportion of the popular vote had reached 9.9 percent.

Sinn Féin now has 27 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (out of 108), five Westminster MPs (out of 18 from Northern Ireland) and 14 Republic of Ireland TDs (out of 166).

Support from other countries and organisations

The IRA have had contacts with foreign governments and other illegal armed organisations.

Libya has been the biggest single supplier of arms and funds to the IRA, donating large amounts: three shipments of arms in the early 1970s and another three in the mid-1980s, the latter reputedly enough to arm two regular infantry battalions.[18]

The IRA has also received weapons and logistical support from Irish Americans in the United States. Apart from the Libyan aid, this has been the main source of overseas IRA support. American support has been weakened by the War against Terrorism, and the fallout from the events of 11 September 2001.[19][20]

In the United States in November 1982, five men were acquitted of smuggling arms to the IRA after they claimed the Central Intelligence Agency had approved the shipment, although the CIA denied this.[170] There are allegations of contact with the East German Stasi, based on the testimony of a Soviet defector to British intelligence Vasili Mitrokhin. Mitrokhin revealed that although the Soviet KGB gave some weapons to the Marxist Official IRA, it had little sympathy with the Provisionals.[171] The IRA has received some training and support from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1977, the Provisionals received a ‘sizeable’ arms shipment from the PLO, including small arms, rocket launchers and explosives, but this was intercepted at Antwerp after the Israeli intelligence alerted its European counterparts.[172] According to Dr Mir Ali Montazam, one-time first secretary at the Iranian embassy, Iran played a key part in funding the IRA during the 1980s. Iranian officials deposited £4 million into a secret Jersey bank account, funded by the sale of artwork from the Iranian Embassy in London. Hadi Ghaffari, the “machinegun mullah”, was sent to Belfast and organised the distribution of the money via sympathetic Irish businessmen.[173]

Falls Road in 1981

It has been alleged that the IRA had a co-operative relationship with Basque militant group ETA since the early 1970s. In 1973 it was accused of providing explosives for the assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco in Madrid.[174] In the 1970s, ETA also exchanged a quantity of handguns for training in explosives with the IRA.[175] In addition, the leaders of the political wings of the respective Irish republican and Basque separatist movements have exchanged visits on several occasions to express solidarity with each other’s cause.[176] Prominent former IRA prisoners such as Brendan McFarlane and Brendan Hughes have campaigned for the release of ETA prisoners.[177][178] In the mid-1990s after the IRA ceasefire, Basque media outlets followed the process carefully, sending a team to follow the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday as they campaigned for apology.[citation needed]

IRA propaganda poster

In May 1996, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s internal security service, publicly accused Estonia of arms smuggling, and claimed that the IRA had contacted representatives of Estonia’s volunteer defence force, Kaitseliit, and some non-government groups to buy weapons.[179][180] In 2001, three Irish men, who later became known as the Colombia Three, were arrested after allegedly training Colombian guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in bomb making and urban warfare techniques. The US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations in its report of 24 April 2002 concluded “Neither committee investigators nor the Colombians can find credible explanations for the increased, more sophisticated capacity for these specific terror tactics now being employed by the FARC, other than IRA training”.[181]

In December 2013 the report of the Smithwick Tribunal concluded that “on the balance of probability” collusion took place between the IRA and members of the Garda Síochána in the 1989 killing of two RUC officers; however, the report could not conclusively prove this.[182]

Aftermath of Manchester bombing

Good Friday Agreement

Main article: Good Friday Agreement

The IRA ceasefire in 1997 formed part of a process that led to the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. One aim of the Agreement is that all paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland cease their activities and disarm by May 2000.

Calls from Sinn Féin led the IRA to commence disarming in a process that was monitored by Canadian General John de Chastelain‘s decommissioning body in October 2001. However, following the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing government in 2002, which was partly triggered by allegations that republican spies were operating within Parliament Buildings and the Civil Service, the IRA temporarily broke off contact with General de Chastelain.[citation needed]

In December 2004, attempts to persuade the IRA to disarm entirely collapsed when the Democratic Unionist Party, under Ian Paisley, insisted on photographic evidence. Justice Minister Michael McDowell (in public, and often) insisted that there would need to be a complete end to IRA activity.[citation needed]

At the beginning of February 2005, the IRA declared that it was withdrawing from the disarmament process, but in July 2005 it declared that its campaign of violence was over, and that transparent mechanisms would be used, under the de Chastelain process, to satisfy the Northern Ireland communities that it was disarming totally.

End of the armed campaign

On 28 July 2005, the IRA Army Council announced an end to its armed campaign, stating that it would work to achieve its aims using “purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means”,[30] and shortly afterwards completed decommissioning. In September 2008, the nineteenth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission stated that the IRA was “committed to the political path” and no longer represented “a threat to peace or to democratic politics”, and that the IRA’s Army Council was “no longer operational or functional”.[31][32] The organisation remains classified as a proscribed terrorist group in the UK and as an illegal organisation in the Republic of Ireland.[12][33] Two small groups split from the IRA, the Continuity IRA in 1986, and the Real IRA in 1997. Both reject the Good Friday Agreement and continue to engage in paramilitary activity.

In a statement read by Séanna Breathnach, the organisation stated that it had instructed its members to dump all weapons and not to engage in “any other activities whatsoever” apart from assisting “the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means”. Furthermore, the organisation authorised its representatives to engage immediately with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) to verifiably put its arms beyond use “in a way which will further enhance public confidence and to conclude this as quickly as possible”.[30]

This is not the first time that organisations styling themselves IRA have issued orders to dump arms.[183] After its defeat in the Irish Civil War in 1924 and at the end of its unsuccessful Border Campaign in 1962, the IRA Army Council issued similar orders. However, this is the first time in Irish republicanism that any organisation has voluntarily decided to dispose of its arms.[184] Some authors, like Patrick McCarthy, Peter Taylor and Brendan O’Brien concluded that, unlike previous IRA campaigns, the provisionals were not defeated.[185][186][187]

On 25 September 2005, international weapons inspectors supervised the full disarmament of the IRA, a long-sought goal of Northern Ireland’s peace process. The office of IICD chairman John de Chastelain, a retired Canadian general who oversaw the weapons’ decommissioning at secret locations, released details regarding the scrapping of many tons of IRA weaponry at a news conference in Belfast on 26 September. He said the arms had been “put beyond use” and that they were “satisfied that the arms decommissioned represent the totality of the IRA’s arsenal.”

The IRA permitted two independent witnesses, including a Methodist minister, Rev. Harold Good, and Father Alec Reid, a Roman Catholic priest close to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, to view the secret disarmament work.[188] Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), complained that since the witnesses were appointed by the IRA themselves, rather than being appointed by the British or Irish governments, they therefore could not be said to be unbiased witnesses to the decommissioning. Nationalists and Catholics viewed his comments as reflecting his refusal to support devolution in Northern Ireland with Catholics in power.[189]

In 2011 Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: “The war is over. The IRA is gone. The IRA embraced, facilitated and supported the peace process. When a democratic and peaceful alternative to armed struggle was created the IRA left the stage.”[190] In 2014 Adams said: “The IRA is gone. It is finished”.[191]

Continuing activities of IRA members

The 10th report published in April 2006 from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), an organisation monitoring activity by paramilitary groups on behalf of the British and Irish governments, prefaced its remarks about IRA activity by commenting that the IRA leadership has committed itself to following a peaceful path and that in the last three months this process has involved the further dismantling of the IRA as a military structure.

The report commented that there was no paramilitary or violent activity sanctioned by the leadership; there is a substantial erosion in the IRA’s capacity to return to a military campaign; and, that the IRA had no intentions of returning to violence.[192] However the IMC report also noted that following decommissioning, the IRA still retained a considerable amount of weaponry beyond what was needed for self-defence.[193]

The IMC has come in for criticism (mainly by republicans) as having been set up outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement as a sop to Unionism. Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy stated that the IMC was established outside and in breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and that it is politically biased, and had an anti-Sinn Féin agenda.[194]

On 4 October 2006, the IMC ruled that the IRA were no longer a threat.[195]

In late 2008, the The Sunday Times quoted a senior Garda intelligence officer as saying that “the IRA had recruited in recent years, still held arms despite apparently decommissioning the lot, and was being maintained in ‘shadow form.’” The Gardaí also said that the IRA was still capable of carrying out attacks.[193][196] A senior member of the PSNI, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan, said that it was unlikely that the IRA would disband in the foreseeable future.[197]

At the end of March 2010, SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley said that the IRA were still active and that they had been responsible for a number of incidents in his constituency including a punishment shooting and an armed robbery during which a shot was fired.[198]

In August 2010, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, the Republican Network for Unity and the UPRG, claimed that the IRA were responsible for a shooting incident in the Gobnascale area of Derry. It is claimed that up to 20 masked men, some armed with handguns, attacked a group of teenagers who were engaging in anti-social behaviour at an interface area. A number of the teenagers were attacked and shots were fired into the air. The men are then reported to have removed their masks when the PSNI arrived and were subsequently identified as members of the Republican Movement. Sinn Féin denied the IRA were involved.[199][200][201]

“P. O’Neill”

The IRA traditionally uses a well-known signature in its public statements, which are all issued under the pseudonym of “P. O’Neill” of the “Irish Republican Publicity Bureau, Dublin”.[202] According to Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, it was Seán Mac Stiofáin, as chief of staff of the IRA, who invented the name. However, under his usage, the name was written and pronounced according to Irish orthography and pronunciation as “P. Ó Néill”. According to Danny Morrison, the pseudonym “S. O’Neill” was used during the 1940s.[202]

Informers

Throughout the Troubles, some members of the IRA passed information to the security forces. Members of the IRA suspected of being informants were usually executed after an IRA court-martial. In the 1980s, many more IRA members were imprisoned on the testimony of former IRA members known as “supergrasses” such as Raymond Gilmour. A Belfast newspaper has claimed that secret documents show that half of the IRA’s top men were also British informers.[203]

In recent years, there have been some high profile allegations of senior IRA figures having been British informers. In May 2003, a number of newspapers named Freddie Scappaticci as the alleged identity of the British Force Research Unit‘s most senior informer within the IRA, code-named Stakeknife, who is thought to have been head of the IRA’s internal security force, charged with rooting out and executing informers. Scappaticci denies that this is the case and, in 2003, failed in a legal bid to force the then NIO Minister, Jane Kennedy, to state he was not an informer.[204] She has refused to do so, and since then Scappaticci has not launched any libel actions against the media making the allegations.

On 16 December 2005, senior Sinn Féin member Denis Donaldson appeared before TV cameras in Dublin and confessed to being a British spy for twenty years.[205] He was expelled from Sinn Féin and was said to have been debriefed by the party.[206] Donaldson was a former IRA volunteer and subsequently highly placed Sinn Féin party member. Donaldson had been entrusted by Gerry Adams with the running of Sinn Féin’s operations in the US in the early 1990s.[207] On 4 April 2006, Donaldson was found shot dead at his retreat near Glenties in County Donegal.[208] When asked whether he felt Donaldson’s role as an informer in Sinn Féin was significant, the IRA double agent using the pseudonym “Kevin Fulton” described Donaldson’s role as a spy within Sinn Féin as “the tip of the iceberg”.[209] The Real IRA claimed responsibility for his assassination on 12 April 2009.[210]

On 8 February 2008, Roy McShane was taken into police protection after being unmasked as an informant. McShane, a former IRA member, had been Gerry Adams’ personal driver for many years. Adams said he was “too philosophical” to feel betrayed.[211]

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