Northern Ireland’s Long War

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A Provisional IRA poster, harking back to the events of 1916

From its emergence in early 1970, the Provisional IRA began recruiting, training and equipping itself for an all-out war against British troops in Northern Ireland. The group’s objectives were straightforward: to make Northern Ireland ungovernable, to bring the Stormont government to a point of collapse, and to force the withdrawal of British soldiers. Westminster and the British Army hoped to ease sectarian tensions and starve the Provisional IRA of supporters by forging friendly relations with Catholic communities. But the introduction of internment and the Army’s heavy handedness shattered most of the good will that existed between British soldiers and Northern Ireland’s Catholics. As the situation deteriorated and the Provisional IRA obtained more weapons and the trained volunteers to use them, it escalated its actions against British and Unionist targets. Between 1971 until its July 1997 ceasefire, the Provisional IRA was essentially at war with the British military and other security forces in Northern Ireland. This campaign was dubbed the ‘Long War’.

The catalyst for the Long War was an increase in rioting and violence in January 1971. On February 3rd British soldiers raided several dozen homes in Catholic areas of Belfast, triggering riots and gun fighting. Three days later an IRA sniper named Billy Reid shot dead Robert Curtis, a 20-year-old British soldier on patrol near New Lodge Road in Belfast. Curtis was the first of almost 300 British Army personnel killed during the Troubles. His death unleashed a wave of actions against British targets. On February 9th five British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) workmen were killed by an IRA landmine in County Tyrone. Two more British soldiers died in February, along with two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) members. These attacks escalated rapidly in August 1971, in the wake of Operation Demetrius and the internment of suspected Republicans. By the end of 1971, 60 British security personnel had been killed in Northern Ireland. IRA actions continued to increase in early 1972, particularly after Bloody Sunday and the British government’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the Derry shootings. British soldiers on patrol were targeted by drive-by gunfire or snipers hidden in urban areas. The Provisional IRA also made prolific use of explosives. Bombs were hurled at buildings, checkpoints and other stationary targets. Cars belonging to British or Unionists targets were booby trapped with charges that exploded on movement. Abandoned cars loaded with explosives were detonated as they were being passed or inspected by soldiers or security forces.

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Soldiers carry away a body after a restaurant bombing in March 1972

On March 20th the Provisional IRA detonated a large car bomb in Donegall Street, Belfast. The blast killed seven people (two RUC officers, an off-duty soldier and four civilians) and injured almost 150 others, some critically. IRA attacks continue to increase and by mid year Northern Ireland was spiraling into murderous anarchy. Desperate for a solution, British agents convinced the Provisional IRA to declare a temporary ceasefire (June 26th) and participate in secret peace talks. On July 7th several Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein leaders – including Sean MacStiofain, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – traveled to London and met with Northern Ireland Secretary of State William Whitelaw and other British officials. The meeting was a disaster. MacStiofain was a belligerent and uncompromising negotiator who insisted on the withdrawal of British security forces; Whitelaw refused to make any political assurances that were contrary to the will of the majority in Northern Ireland. In the fortnight after this meeting, 13 British soldiers were killed in Ulster. Then, on July 21st, the Provisional IRA launched an astonishing attack in Belfast, detonating 22 car bombs in less than 90 minutes. These attacks, dubbed ‘Bloody Friday’, killed 11 people, most of them civilians, and injured 130. Ten days later another three car bombs, likely planted by the Provisional IRA in response to Operation Motorman, killed nine people in Claudy, County Londonderry.

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As IRA numbers were threatened, the need for secrecy became essential

In the first years of the Troubles, Provisional IRA leaders believed the British could be forced from Northern Ireland reasonably quickly. Westminster, they argued, had no stomach for a sustained occupation; once British soldiers started dying in numbers, the British media and general public would demand their withdrawal. The media frenzy that followed the first British deaths in 1971 seemed to bear out this prediction. The IRA’s optimism was reflected in its slogans and posters of the early 1970s, which promised “Victory 1972” and “Victory 1974”. But the ‘Provos’ had underestimated the British government’s resolve and its capacity to respond. Two British Army actions, Operation Demetrius (August 1971) and Operation Motorman (July 1972), were not without their problems – but they succeeded in disrupting and weakening the IRA, particularly in its Belfast and Derry strongholds. The British Army also worked closely with Special Branch, the RUC’s anti-terrorism unit, which recruited informers, conducted surveillance and gathered intelligence about Republican paramilitary activities. Armed with better information and wide-ranging emergency powers, security forces were able to respond to paramilitary violence. Thousands of Republicans were arrested, interrogated and either interned or convicted. These losses weakened the Provisional IRA’s capacity to plan and carry out attacks on security forces, particularly those that required direct confrontation. The Provisional IRA’s declining impact is reflected in statistics. A total of 148 British security personnel were killed in 1972 alone – but by 1975 this figure had dropped to just 35.

“If we provoked them enough, if we attacked them enough, at some point it wasn’t just us they were going to be shooting at, it was the people… They had to shoot civilians and we knew that. And we agitated and agitated until we got to that situation. We had to move the violence to a new level… We needed the whole situation to be escalated. The thing was always planned.”
Sean O’Hara, IRA volunteer

Provisional IRA strategy shifted during the mid 1970s. Lacking the numbers and equipment to carry out major assaults on well equipped and well trained British soldiers, Provisional IRA tactics became less conventional and more guerrilla-like. Unable to sustain heavy losses, the ‘Provos’ began to decentralise. From around 1975 IRA volunteers began to operate in small cells, sometimes with just two or three men. The IRA leadership provided these cells with only a limited amount of information, so that captured volunteers could not incriminate or betray others. Missions and assaults were formulated to ensure minimal danger and an accessible escape route for volunteers. Provisional IRA attacks also shifted toward ‘soft targets’ like off-duty British soldiers, RUC officers and prominent Loyalists. This shift in IRA tactics produced a drop in military and police fatalities, which fell to just 35 in 1975 – but civilian deaths increased, reaching 191 (1974), 174 (1975) and 207 (1976). With British security forces in Northern Ireland now at their strongest, the Provisional IRA initiated its mainland campaign: a series of bombings and terrorist attacks in England. The mainland campaign would continue for more than 20 years, claim 125 lives and cause millions of pounds in damage. Yet despite its ongoing capacity to cause death and destruction, by 1975 the Provisional IRA was in a parlous state. The organisation was critically short of weapons and volunteers, to the extent that some historians have claimed the IRA was on the brink of collapse. In February IRA leaders agreed to a ceasefire, hoping the British government would agree to a negotiated withdrawal from Ulster. But Northern Ireland’s Long War still had more than two decades to run.

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1. The Long War was a name used by the Provisional IRA, for its mission to drive the British from Northern Ireland.
2. This war began with the shooting of a British soldier in February 1971 and escalated over the next 18 months.
3. The IRA was hopeful of driving the British out quickly, however both Westminster and security forces remained resolute.
4. The breakdown of secret talks in July 1972 saw a rapid increase in IRA violence, beginning with Bloody Friday.
5. By the mid 1970s both the British Army and RUC had acquired better intelligence and adapted to the insurgency in Northern Ireland. This necessitated a shift in tactics, with the Provisional IRA adopting a small cell structure, moving toward ‘softer’ targets and initiating a bombing campaign in England.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “Northern Ireland’s Long War”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],