The Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was at the epicentre of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Effectively a secret civilian militia of political fanatics, bent on driving the British from Ulster and creating a united Irish republic, the IRA became one of the most prolific and dangerous terrorist groups of the late 20th century. But the history of the IRA predates the Troubles by a half-century and goes beyond murderous political radicalism. Broadly speaking, the IRA has existed in three discrete phases: the struggle for independence, a long period of marginalisation and its reemergence during the Troubles. In its first years (1919-23) the IRA was the military wing of the Dail Eireann, the first Irish republican parliament, and led the struggle for Irish independence. But after 1923 the IRA, now too radical for the emerging Irish state, was pushed to the fringes of Irish politics and later declared an illegal organisation. Between the mid 1920s and the late 1960s the IRA’s membership fluctuated wildly, while the group’s leaders flirted with left wing political ideology. The onset of the Troubles in the late 1960s
The first IRA was formed in 1919 during the Irish War of Independence. Its first volunteers were drawn from republican militias like the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. Though its members had a reputation for acting independently, the IRA was adopted as the military wing of the Dail Eireann, the republican parliament and revolutionary government. Led by the famous Michael Collins the IRA fought against the British during the War of Independence, at its peak reaching more than 10,000 active volunteers. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (December 1921) split the IRA into two factions: a Pro-Treaty IRA prepared to accept a self governing Ireland under British sovereignty and an Anti-Treaty IRA determined to remove all vestiges of British rule. The two factions clashed during the brief but bloody Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) but the Pro-Treaty IRA emerged victorious, consolidating the newly formed Irish Free State. Around 2,000 Anti-Treaty IRA volunteers were killed during the Civil War and more than 10,000 were captured and imprisoned.
Many in the Anti-Treaty IRA went underground after the Civil War. These survivors maintained their opposition to the Free State and vowed to continue the struggle that was started back in 1916. But the political developments of the 1920s sapped the IRA of men and motive, pushing it to the fringes of Irish politics. Many former IRA leaders like Eamon de Valera abandoned military action and abstentionism, choosing instead to participate in Free State politics and form a political party, Fianna Fail (1926). Those who remained in the IRA rejected any involvement in parliamentary politics, breaking from Sinn Fein in 1925. The IRA leadership instead embraced aspects of socialism, viewing it as a truly revolutionary ideology and a means of connecting with Ireland’s working classes. But despite this shift IRA numbers dwindled rapidly in the 1920s, falling from around 5,000 in 1925 to less than 2,000 by 1930. IRA membership surged back to more than 10,000 during the 1930s, fuelled by the misery of the Great Depression. This led to the Free State government banning the IRA (1935) and attempting to suppress it. But the most telling blow for the IRA was the Free State’s adoption of a de facto republican constitution in December 1937. What the IRA had promised to achieve with rifles, the Free Staters had achieved first with reforms. Yet again IRA membership and public support began to rapidly dwindle.
With the south now a republic in all but name, in the late 1930s and 1940s the IRA focused its attentions on Northern Ireland, the last British stronghold in the island. In January 1939 the IRA declared war in Britain and initiated its ‘S Plan’, carrying out a series of bombings on government targets in England that killed seven people and injured almost 100 more. During World War II the IRA forged links with Nazi Germany, seeking arms and proposing a joint IRA-German invasion of Northern Ireland (Plan Kathleen). Between 1942 and 1944 IRA volunteers carried out dozens of shootings, bombings and sabotage attacks in Northern Ireland. This ‘Northern Campaign’, as it was dubbed, achieved little other than to alienate the public, many of whom perceived the IRA to be collaborating with the enemy. Scores of IRA leaders were arrested and some were executed as traitors. After the war the IRA spent a decade rebuilding, then planning and preparing for a guerrilla campaign against the British in Northern Ireland. This campaign began in 1956 and lasted five years but again achieved little, other than a dozen IRA deaths and several hundred arrests.
Susie Derkins, historian
In the 1960s the Army came under the sway of Cathal Goulding and Roy Johnson, who attempted to reorganise the IRA into a Marxist political-revolutionary party. According to Goulding’s analysis, the problems in Northern Ireland were caused not by religious or nationalistic divisions but by exploitation and manipulation of the working classes. Wealthy capitalists, aided by the British and Unionist governments, incited tensions between working class Protestants and Catholics, in order to discourage strikes and to keep wages low. The unrest in Northern Ireland was therefore driven by class tensions rather than sectarian divisions. Goulding and his supporters favoured political solutions: supporting the civil rights movement, reestablishing contact with Sinn Fein, ending abstentionism and mobilising support in the working classes. This drift towards Marxism and parliamentary politics was not widely supported among IRA volunteers, however. Many still preferred the traditional path to a united Irish republic: a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British and Loyalists until Northern Ireland was ungovernable.
By the mid 1960s the IRA was highly factionalised, poorly organised and unable to rally support in many parts of Northern Ireland. The group was not just ideologically divided, it was also critically short of volunteers, weapons and money. The rising unrest in Northern Ireland further exposed the IRA’s unpreparedness and lack of cohesion. In 1968-69 the IRA failed to respond to police and Loyalist brutality against Catholics and civil rights protestors. Some Nationalists were so disgusted by this ineffectiveness they claimed IRA stood for ‘I Ran Away’. These criticisms inspired young militants who wanted a return to the IRA’s traditional values and tactics: defence of Ireland’s Catholics, opposition to British rule and armed struggle for a united Ireland. The August 1969 riots and ‘Battle of the Bogside’ brought the IRA’s internal divisions to a head and led to the formation of a new breakaway group: the Provisional IRA.
1. The IRA was formed in 1919 from civilian militia groups and led the military struggle for Irish independence.
2. After 1923 the IRA was marginalised, lost most of its members and was declared an illegal organisation.
3. During the 1960s IRA leaders like Cathal Goulding attempted to reform it into a socialist-revolutionary party.
4. The IRA became more interested in political ideas and less concerned about military objectives and resources.
5. The outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland brought the IRA’s intern divisions to a head. With the IRA unwilling and unable to defend Catholic communities from the RUC and Loyalists, young militants in the group demanded a return to the IRA’s traditional military composition.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The IRA – 1919 to 1968”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/northernireland/ira-1919-1968/.