The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been through various iterations throughout the past century, but it has remained committed to a single cause: Ireland being an independent republic, free from British rule.
From its origins in the 1916 Easter Rising to the 2019 assassination of Lyra McKee, the IRA has caused controversy throughout its existence. Due to its guerrilla tactics, paramilitary nature and uncompromising stance, the British government and MI5 describe their ‘campaigns’ as acts of terrorism, though others would deem its members freedom fighters.
Here are 10 facts about the IRA, one of the world’s best-known paramilitary organisations.
1. Its origins lie with the Irish Volunteers
Ireland had been ruled by Britain since the 12th century in various forms. Since then, there have been assorted attempts to resist British rule, formally and informally. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish nationalism began to gather significant and widespread support.
In 1913, a group known as the Irish Volunteers was established and grew rapidly in size: it had nearly 200,000 members by 1914. The group were heavily involved in the staging of the Easter Rising, a rebellion against British rule in 1916.
After the Rising failed, the Volunteers dispersed. Many of them were arrested or imprisoned in the aftermath, but in 1917, the group reformed.
2. The IRA was officially created in 1919
In 1918, Sinn Féin MPs set up the Assembly of Ireland, the Dáil Éireann. The reformed Volunteers were designated as the army of the Irish Republic (which was not formally recognised), and eventually were forced to sign an oath of allegiance to the Dáil in order to make sure the two were loyal to each other and worked together.
3. It played a key role in the Irish War of Independence
The IRA was never an official state organisation, nor has it ever been recognised as legitimate by the British: as such, it is a paramilitary organisation. It waged a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British throughout the Irish War of Independence (1919-21).
Most of the fighting was centred in Dublin and Munster: the IRA predominantly attacked police barracks and ambushed British forces. It also had an assassination squad which carried out hits on spies or leading British detectives or police figures.
4. The IRA fought against the Irish Free State from 1921 onwards
In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, which saw the creation of the Irish Free State, comprised of 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. Although this made Ireland a self-governing dominion and gave it a significant amount of independence, members of the Dáil were still required to sign an oath of allegiance to the king, newspapers were still censored and there was extensive coercive legislation.
The Treaty was controversial: many Irish people and politicians saw it as a betrayal of Irish independence and an unhappy compromise. The IRA affirmed it was anti-Treaty in 1922, and fought against the Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War.
5. It became associated with socialism in the late 1920s
Immediately after the end of the Civil War in 1923, the IRA swung towards the political left, in part as a response to the right-wing tendencies of the Cumann na nGaedheal government.
After a meeting with Joseph Stalin in 1925, the IRA agreed a pact with the Soviets which involved them passing on intelligence about the British and American military in return for financial support.
6. During the Second World War the IRA sought help from the Nazis
Despite having formed alliances with Soviet Russia in the 1920s, several members of the IRA sought out support from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Although ideologically opposed, both groups were fighting the British and the IRA believed the Germans would potentially give them money and/or firearms as a result.
Despite various attempts to create a working alliance, it came to nothing. Ireland had adopted a position of neutrality in the war and attempts by the IRA and Nazis to arrange a meeting were continually thwarted by the authorities.
7. The IRA was the most active paramilitary group during the Troubles
In 1969, the IRA split: the Provisional IRA emerged. Initially focused on the defence of Catholic areas in Northern Ireland, by the early 1970s the Provisional IRA was on the offensive, carrying out bombing campaigns in Northern Ireland and England, largely against specific targets but often also indiscriminately attacking civilians.
8. The IRA’s activity was not just confined to Ireland
Although the majority of the IRA’s campaigns were within Ireland, during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s key British targets, including soldiers, army barracks, royal parks and politicians were targeted. Large numbers of bins were removed across London in the early 1990s as they had been used as popular bomb drop locations by the IRA.
Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major narrowly survived assassination attempts. The last IRA bombing on English soil happened in 1997.
9. Technically the IRA ended its armed campaign in 2005
A ceasefire had been declared in 1997, and the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought a degree of peace to Northern Ireland, largely ending the violence of the Troubles. By this point, it’s estimated that the Provisional IRA had killed over 1,800 people, with approximately 1/3 of casualties being civilians.
The Agreement also required both sides to decommission their weapons, but in 2001, the IRA was still prevaricating, saying Britain had reneged on aspects of the agreement and citing an ongoing lack of trust.
However, later in 2001, the IRA agreed on a method to disarm. By 2005 the IRA had formally ended its armed campaign and decommissioned all of its weapons.
10. The New IRA is still active in Northern Ireland
Established in 2021, the New IRA is a splinter group of the Provisional IRA and a dangerous dissident group. They have carried out high-profile targeted attacks in Northern Ireland, including the assassination of Derry-based journalist Lyra McKee in 2019 as well as the murders of police officers and members of the British Army.
As long as Ireland remains divided, it seems a branch of the IRA will exist, maintaining their original, controversial objective: a united Ireland, free of British rule.