Guide to the Irish Republican Army

Understanding the IRA

Northern Ireland In The Shadow Of The Peace Process
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The Irish Republican Army (IRA), which traces its roots to Catholic Irish nationalism in the early 1900s, was considered by many to be a terrorist organization because of certain tactics like bombings and assassinations it used to oppose British rule in Ireland.

The name IRA has been in use since the organization was founded in 1921. From 1969 through 1997, the IRA splintered into a number of organizations, all called the IRA.

They included:

The association of the IRA with terrorism comes from the paramilitary activities of the Provisional IRA, which is no longer active.

Founded in:

1969, when the IRA split into the Official IRA, which renounced violence, and the Provisional IRA.

Home Base:

Northern Ireland, with a presence and operations throughout Ireland, Great Britain, and Europe.

Backing & Affiliations:

From the 1970s-1990s, the IRA received weapons and training from various international sources, most notably American sympathizers, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Connections have also been posited between the IRA and Marxist-leaning terrorist groups, especially at their most active in the 1970s. These include:


The creation of a unified Ireland under Irish, rather than British rule. PIRA used terrorist tactics to protest the Unionist/ Protestant treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland.


The IRA has always had a relatively small membership, estimated at several hundred members, organized in small, clandestine cells. Its daily operations are organized by a 7-person Army Council.

Political Activities:

The IRA is a strictly paramilitary organization. Its political wing is Sinn Féin (We Ourselves, in Gaelic), a party that has represented Republican (Catholic) interests since the turn of the 20th century.

When the first Irish assembly was declared in 1918 under the leadership of Sinn Féin, the IRA was considered the official army of the state. Sinn Féin has been a significant force in Irish politics since the 1980s.

Historical Context:

The emergence of the Irish Republican Army has its roots in Ireland's 20th-century quest for national independence from Great Britain. In 1801, the Anglican (English Protestant) United Kingdom of Great Britain merged with Roman Catholic Ireland. For the next hundred years, Catholic Irish Nationalists opposed Protestant Irish Unionists, so named because they supported the union with Great Britain.

The first Irish Republican Army fought the British in the 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence. The Anglo-Irish treaty concluding the war divided Ireland into a Catholic Irish Free State and Protestant Northern Ireland, which became the British province, Ulster. Some elements of the IRA opposed the treaty; it was their descendants who became the terrorist PIRA in 1969.

The IRA began its terrorist attacks on the British army and police following a summer of violent rioting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. For the next generation, the IRA carried out bombings, assassinations and other terrorist attacks against British and Irish Unionist targets.

Official talks between Sinn Féin and the British government began in 1994 and appeared to conclude with the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement included the IRA's commitment to disarm. PIRA strategist Brian Keenan, who had spent over a generation promoting the use of violence, was instrumental in bringing about disarmament (Keenan died in 2008).By 2006, the PIRA appeared to have made good on its commitment. However, terrorist activity by the Real IRA and other paramilitary groups continues and, as of the summer of 2006, is on the rise.

In 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations released a report detailing connections between the IRA and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) going back to 1998.

Also, See:

IRA Tactics:

British Counterterrorism/ Interrogation Tactics:

  • Basque separatist group ETA
  • Italian Red Brigades
  • German Baader-Meinhof Gang
  • Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).
    • Bloody Friday: a 1972 attack in Belfast in which 22 bombs, set off in just over an hour, killed 9 people and injured 130.
    • In 1979, the IRA assassinated Queen Elizabeth II's uncle, Lord Mountbatten, and three others by blowing up his boat.
    • In 1998, an IRA car bombing killed 29 people in Northern Ireland. The attack was severe enough to provoke threats by the Irish government that paramilitary groups must declare a cease-fire.
    • Sinn Féin's official website.
    • U.S. Government Investigation Summary of IRA links to Colombia Terrorist group, FARC.
    • An overview of the IRA's arsenal from Jane's Intelligence Review, 1996.
    • April 2006 report on Irish paramilitary groups' current activities
    • Car Bombing
    • IEDs
    • Assassination
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Your Citation
Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. "Guide to the Irish Republican Army." ThoughtCo, Apr. 28, 2017, Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. (2017, April 28). Guide to the Irish Republican Army. Retrieved from Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. "Guide to the Irish Republican Army." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 21, 2018).