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Provisional Irish Republican Army

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The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) is a paramilitary group which aimed through the use of violence to achieve three goals, (i) British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, (ii) the political unification of Ireland through the forced overthrow and then the merger of the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland states, and (iii) and the creation of a "All Ireland socialist republic". The PIRA's guerilla campaign against those whom it saw as standing in the way of its desired aims (which included the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the British Army, the Unionist community and on occasion the police and army in the Republic of Ireland) played a central role in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It has been officially on ceasefire since 1997.

The PIRA is also known as the Provisional IRA, the 'Provos' and the Irish Republican Army. It is most commonly referred to simply as the IRA, but several groups claim this title (see: Irish Republican Army).



The PIRA was formed in 1969, with the stated aim of severing the political Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and achieving the unification of the island of Ireland by force, in order to create a socialist republic. Officially it considered the democratically elected British and Irish governments illegitimate, and apparently considered itself the legitimate government of the island of Ireland. It is organised into small, tight-knit cells under the leadership of the IRA army council. Due to its frequent use of bombings, its assassination of politicians and diplomats, its killing of hundreds of policemen, soldiers and civilians predominantly though not exclusively in Northern Ireland and its alleged role in racketeering, and the fact that the Unionist (or Loyalist) majority in Northern Ireland want British rule, it is generally described as a terrorist group1. Its supporters prefer the label guerrilla. IRA attacks on the British security forces (i.e. the military and RUC) and Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland could be described as guerrilla warfare, so "guerrilla" is probably a technically accaurate term. However many IRA attacks involved the deliberate targeting of civilians. Membership of the PIRA is outlawed in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland but PIRA prisoners convicted before 1998 have been granted conditional early release as part of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In the United Kingdom a person convicted of membership of a "proscribed organisation", such as the PIRA, faces imprisonment for up to 10 years.


The Provisional IRA was initially a splinter group of the 'Official' IRA, which claimed descent from the Old IRA: the guerrilla army of the 1919-1922 Irish Republic. The Official IRA moved to a Marxist analysis of the 'Irish Problem' in the mid 1960s while the PIRA held to a more traditional republican analysis and became larger and more successful, eventually overshadowing the original group. The commonly used name of the PIRA arose when those who were unhappy with the IRA's Army Council formed a "Provisional Army Council" of their own, echoing in turn the "Provisional Government" proclaimed during the Easter Rising of 1916.

The split in the armed wing of the republican movement was mirrored in the separation of the republican political wing. Supporters of the PIRA split from 'Official' Sinn Féin to form Provisional Sinn Féin. Provisional Sinn Féin was later known simply as Sinn Féin (while 'Official' Sinn Féin eventually became the Workers' Party).

Strength and support

The PIRA has several hundred members as well as several thousand civilian sympathisers on the island of Ireland. However, the movement's appeal was hurt badly by more notorious PIRA bombings widley perceived as 'atrocities', such as the killing of civilians attending a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph in Enniskillen in 1987 and the killing of two children at Warrington, which led to tens of thousands of people descending on O'Connell Street in Dublin to call for an end to the PIRA's campaign of violence. In recent times the movement's support has been weakened by operatives leaving the organisation to join hardline splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. If the PIRA has enjoyed mass support this has not, historically, been reflected in support for its associated political party, Sinn Féin, which, until recently, did not receive the support of more than a minority of nationalists in Northern Ireland, or of voters in general in the Republic of Ireland.

In the past the PIRA has received funds and arms from sympathisers in the United States, notably from the Noraid (Irish Northern Aid) organisation. The PIRA has also, on occasion, received assistance from foreign governments and paramilitary groups, including considerable training and arms from Libya and assistance from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). This support has been weakened by the so called "War against Terrorism", the events of the 11th September 2001 and the discovery of three PIRA suspects in Colombia, allegedly training Colombian FARC guerrillas (these suspects were all eventually acquitted of aiding FARC, and convicted solely on the lesser charge of possessing false passports). The organisation has also been accused of raising funds through drug dealing and racketeering.

The Belfast Agreement

The PIRA cease-fire in 1997 formed part of a process that led to the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. The Agreement has amongst its aims that all extra-legal paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland cease their activities and disarm.

Calls from Sinn Féin have lead the PIRA to commence disarming in a process that has been overviewed by General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body in October, 2001. However, following the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing government in 2002, which was partially triggered by allegations that republican spies were operating within Parliament Buildings and the Civil Service, the PIRA abandoned their association with General de Chastelain. It is expected that if and when power-sharing resumes, the PIRA disarmament process will begin again, though it is already considered by some to be behind schedule. Increasing numbers of people, from the Ulster Unionists under David Trimble and the Social Democratic and Labour Party under Mark Durkan to the Irish Government under Bertie Ahern and the mainstream Irish media, have begun demanding not merely decommissioning but the wholesale disbandment of the PIRA.


The Provisional IRA's activities have included bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, so-called 'punishment beatings', robberies and extortion. Previous targets have included the British military, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and Loyalist militants--against whom PIRA gunmen and bombers fought a guerrilla war.

PIRA has also targeted British Government officials, Unionist politicians and civilians in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Many Protestant civilians were killed in secterian attacks in Northern Ireland, whilst many British civilians were killed during the IRA bombing campaign in England, which was principaly directed against civilian targets such as shops and pubs, including against civilian targets of an economic significance.

Also many Catholic civilians have been killed by PIRA in Northern Ireland for alleged "collaboration" with the British security forces (i.e. the military or RUC). The IRA has also summarily "executed" or otherwise punished suspected drug dealers and other suspected criminals in the past, sometimes after kangaroo trials. IRA members suspected of being British or Irish government informers were also executed, often after interrogation and torture and a kangaroo trial.

Members of the Garda Síochána (the Republic of Ireland's police force) have also been killed; most notorious was the killing of Detective Garda Gerry McCabe, who was shot and killed after the commencement of the PIRA ceasefire. PIRA bombing campaigns have been conducted against rail and London Underground (subway) stations, pubs and shopping areas on the island of Great Britain, and a British military facility on Continental Europe.

It has recently been claimed that elements of the PIRA have been involved in a spate of bank robberies throughout the island of Ireland, allegedly to build up funds to 'pension off' PIRA members and so facilitate disbandment.

The PIRA has been officially on ceasefire since July 1997 (although hardline splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA and so-called Real IRA continue their campaigns). It previously observed a cease-fire from 1 September 1994 to February 1996, after the Downing Street Declaration.

Notable events

  • 1971: Three British soldiers are killed in a bomb attack in Belfast.
  • 1971: Catholic mother of ten, Jean McConville, is executed by the Provisional IRA for cushioning the head of a dying British soldier, although it is also claimed that she was informing the British Army of PIRA activities. The PIRA would deny any involvement in the killing until the 1990s, when it would acknowledge its action.
  • 21 July 1972: On 'Bloody Friday' 22 bombs kill 9 and seriously injure 130. 30 years later the PIRA would officially apologise for this set of attacks.
  • 1974: The Guildford pub bombing kills 5 and injures 182. The motive for the bombing was apparently that the pub attacked was frequented by soldiers. Four people, dubbed the 'Guildford Four', would be convicted for the bombing and imprisoned for life. The Guidford Four would claim police tortured them into confessing and 15 years later Lord Lane of the Court of Appeal would overturn their convictions noting "the investigating officers must have lied".
  • 1974: In the Birmingham Pub Bombings bombs in two pubs kill 19. The Birmingham Six' would be tried for this and convicted. Many years later, after new evidence of police fabrication and suppression of evidence, their convictions would be quashed. Appeals by the Birmingham Six that the real IRA bombers had admitted responsibility for the bombings were ignored.
  • 1975: The assassination of Ross McWhirter.
  • 1975: The Balcombe Street Siege.
  • 1976: A PIRA bomb kills the newly appointed British ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, resulting in the declaration of a State of Emergency in the Republic. The PIRA also threatens to kidnap or kill Irish cabinet ministers and the President of Ireland.
  • 1979: A PIRA bomb kills Earl Mountbatten of Burma, members of his family and a local child off the Irish coast. On the same day the PIRA kill 18 British soldiers at Narrow Water , near Newry, County Down; in an attack described by the British government as "a classic guerilla attack", they first plant one bomb, which kills 6, and then begin firing with sniper rifles at soldiers sheltered near a nearby gate where a second bomb explodes, killing 12 others. During an Irish visit Pope John Paul II calls for the PIRA campaign of violence to come to an end.
  • 1981: IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, imprisoned in connection with his involvement in an attack involving a bomb and subsequent gun battle, is elected Member of Parliament for the Northern Ireland constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in a by-election. The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party decides not to run a candidate, and so split the nationalist vote, leaving Sands as the main nationalist candidate. Sands had been on a hunger strike for 'Prisoner of War' status for 41 days prior to being elected. He died 23 days later.
  • 1981: The PIRA kill Ulster Unionist Party Belfast MP Rev Robert Bradford along with the caretaker of a community centre. Irish Taoiseach Dr. Garret FitzGerald and former taoiseach Charles Haughey condemn the killings in Dáil Éireann. SDLP party leader John Hume accuses the Provisionals of waging a campaign of "sectarian genocide".
  • 10 October 1981: a bomb blast on Ebury Bridge Road in London kills 2 people and injures 39.
  • 26 October 1981: a bomb explodes at a Wimpy Bar in Oxford Street London killing one person.
  • 20 July 1982: In Hyde Park, a bomb bombs kills two members of the Household Cavalry performing ceremonial duties in the park. Seven of their horses are also killed. On the same day another device kills seven bandsmen the Royal Green Jackets as it explodes underneath the bandstand in Regents Park as they played music to 120 spectators.
  • 1983: A Harrods department store bomb planted by the PIRA during Christmas shopping season kills six (three police) and wounds 90.
  • 1984: In the Brighton hotel bombing a bomb in the Grand Hotel kills five in a failed attempt to assassinate members of the British cabinet, including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
  • 1987: In the Enniskillen 'Massacre' the PIRA bombing of a Remembrance Day parade kills eleven civilians and injures sixty-three. Among the dead is nurse Marie Wilson , whose father, Gordon Wilson, would go on to become a leading campaigner for an end to violence in Northern Ireland. The PIRA would later claim that their target was a colour guard of British soldiers. On Remembrance Day 1997 the leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, formally apologised for the bombing.
  • 1989: Ten Royal Marine bandsmen are killed and 22 injured in the bombing of their base in Deal in Kent.
  • 1990: Car bombings in Northern Ireland kill seven and wound 37.
  • 30 July 1990 Ian Gow MP is killed when a device explodes under his car as he is leaving his home.
  • 1990: A British Army Artillery officer is killed by the PIRA in Dortmund in the then West Germany.
  • 18 February 1991: A bomb explodes at Victoria Station. One man killed and 38 people injured.
  • 1991: Mortar attack on members of the British cabinet and the Prime Minister, John Major at the height of a huge security clampdown amid the Gulf War is launched by PIRA.
  • 1991: Two PIRA members are killed in St. Albans when their own bomb detonates prematurely.
  • 28 February 1992: A bomb explodes at London Bridge railway station injuring 29 people.
  • 10 April 1992: A large bomb explodes in St Mary Axe in the City of London killing three people and injuring 91. Many buildings are heavily damaged and the Baltic Exchange is completely destroyed.
  • 12 October 1992: A device explodes in the gents' toilet of the Sussex Arms public house in Covent Garden killing one person and injuring four others.
  • 1992: Eight Protestant builders are killed by a PIRA bomb on their way to work at an army base near Omagh.
  • 1993: A PIRA bomb in Warrington kills two children.
  • 1993: The PIRA detonates a huge truck bomb in the City of London at Bishopsgate, which kills two and causes around £350m of damage, including the near destruction of St. Ethelburga's Bishopsgate.
  • 1993: A bomb at a fish and chip shop underneath a UDA office on the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast detonates prematurely, killing ten, including the bomber and two children.
  • 1 September 1994: the PIRA declares the first of two cease-fires in the 1990s.
  • 10 February 1996: The PIRA ends its 1994 cease-fire, killing two in a bomb at the Canary Wharf towers in London.
  • 18 February 1996 an improvised high explosive device detonates prematurely on a bus, killing the PIRA operative transporting the device and injuring eight others.
  • 15 June 1996: The PIRA detonates a 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) bomb in Manchester, injuring 206 people and damaging seventy thousand square metres of retail and office space.
  • 19 July 1997: The PIRA declares a second cease-fire.


There have been persistent rumours that the Provisional IRA had been infiltrated by British Intelligence agents, and that in past senior PIRA members have been 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 Provisional IRA, code-named Steakknife, who is thought to have been head of the Provisional IRA's internal security force, charged with rooting out informers like himself. Scappaticci denies that this is the case and is taking legal action to challenge this claim.

See also

Other paramilitary groups in Ireland

Related topics


1 The PIRA is described as a terrorist organisation by the governments of the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Germany and Italy, the latter three of whom have alleged the existence of IRA links with terrorist organisations within their own jurisdictions including ETA and the Red Brigade. It has also been described as such by the European Union. In the island of Ireland it is described as a terrorist organisation by An Garda Síochána, the police force of the Republic of Ireland, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, (PSNI). It is generally called a terrorist organisation by the following media outlets: The Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Irish Examiner, the Sunday Independent, the Evening Herald , the Sunday Tribune, Ireland on Sunday , the Sunday Times and all the tabloid press. On the island of Ireland among political parties Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats who together form a coalition government in the Republic of Ireland refer to it as a terrorist organisation, as do the main opposition parties Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Green Party, and the Workers Party, while in Northern Ireland it is described as a terrorist movement by the mainly nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the cross community Alliance Party, and from the unionist community the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Progressive Unionist Party. Members of the PIRA are tried in the Republic in the Special Criminal Court , an extra-constitutional court set up by emergency legislation and which is described in its functioning as dealing with "terrorism". On the island of Ireland the only political party to suggest that the IRA is not a terrorist organisation is Sinn Féin, currently the second largest political party in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin is widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA, but the party insists that the two organisations are completely separate.

Last updated: 11-10-2004 23:51:27