The Official IRA and the INLA

official ira

Cathal Goulding, first leader of the Official IRA

By 1969 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was wracked by internal divisions and factionalism. A growing number of IRA volunteers were dissatisfied with the IRA leadership. For several young militants, this dissatisfaction stemmed from a shift in the IRA’s tactics during the 1960s. Under Cathal Goulding and his supporters, the IRA had embraced Marxist-socialist ideas and become more focused on political activism than military action. This dissatisfaction intensified during the August 1969 unrest in Derry, when the IRA was unable to deploy volunteers and arms to support those under attack from Loyalist gangs. Disgusted by what they perceived as a betrayal of one of the IRA’s core principles, the protection of Catholic communities, these militants formed the Provisional Army Council in December 1969. Over the weeks that followed, dozens of IRA members gravitated to this new faction, which became the Provisional IRA. Those who remained with the mainstream IRA were known as the Official IRA.

Despite the rapid growth of the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA was the larger of the two factions. This remained the case until 1972, when the outrage following Bloody Sunday triggered a surge in Provisional IRA numbers. During the early 1970s the Official IRA remained under the leadership of neo-Marxist Cathal Goulding and his supporters. While the Official IRA maintained its socialist position and opposition to an all-out war with British troops, both the rise of the Provisional IRA and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland did prompt a shift in its tactics. Official IRA volunteers increased their military activities in 1970, though their objective was less about attacking British soldiers and security forces than it was defending Catholic civilians. The Official IRA began to seek out, accumulate and store weapons, something it had done little of during the 1960s. Most of these weapons probably came from existing caches, however some sources claim the Soviet Union also provided the Official IRA with small arms and explosives. Several Official IRA members engaged in running gun battles with British soldiers during the Falls Road curfew (July 1970). The Official IRA also resisted other incursions into Catholic areas.

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The aftermath of the ill fated Official IRA bombing in Aldershot, England

By 1971 the Official IRA was able to escalate its military operations. In August 1971 British soldiers launched Operation Demetrius to arrest suspected Republican paramilitary members. Several armed volunteers of the Official IRA defended the Markets area of Belfast from British soldiers, allowing many other IRA remembers to escape. In December that year Official IRA volunteers assassinated a Unionist politician, John Barnhill, at his home in Strabane, County Tyrone. The Official IRA carried out its most significant operation in February 1972, in retaliation for Bloody Sunday, when it detonated a large car bomb at an army base in Aldershot, England. The bomb was intended for British paratroopers but instead killed five civilian women, a gardener and a Catholic chaplain. In May 1972 the Official IRA kidnapped, interrogated and executed William Best, a 19-year-old British soldier; Best was Catholic and was visiting his family in Derry. Both incidents were politically damaging for the Official IRA and its leadership, never fully supportive of a military campaign, contemplated bringing it to an end. On May 29th 1972, nine days after Best’s murder, the Official IRA declared a conditional ceasefire. Though it continued to carry out occasional attacks against British troops, security forces and Loyalists, these were usually defensive or retaliatory. Many Official IRA members, including Cathal Goulding, became more involved in Official Sinn Fein, the group’s political wing. In 1982 Official Sinn Fein became the Workers’ Party of Ireland.

official ira

A mural on Springfield Road, Belfast, honouring INLA founder Seamus Costello

In December 1974 a small group of militant socialists parted ways with the Official Sinn Fein and the Official IRA. Leading this breakaway group was Seamus Costello, a former Official IRA commander expelled from the group earlier in the year. Costello and his supporters were outspoken critics of the Official IRA leadership and in particular the May 1972 ceasefire. They wanted to continue the Official IRA’s political activism but believed it should be supported with a military campaign. Costello and his supporters formed two new bodies: a legitimate political party called the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and a secret paramilitary group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). In its first year the IRSP executive included former Nationalist MP Bernadette Devlin, by then known as Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey. Despite this, the IRSP failed to attract much public support: it had members elected to two Belfast City Council seats but its voting returns in Republic of Ireland elections were dismal. Its paramilitary arm, the INLA, had more impact. The INLA’s objective was the expulsion of the British from Northern Ireland and the creation of a unified, socialist Ireland. INLA leaders drew inspiration from and aligned with other revolutionaries, such as Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro and the Black Panthers, an African-American socialist group.

“In one sense, the fact that dissident factions break away from the parent organisation is not surprising. Splitting is a common process in any organisation, big or small, new or old, violent or nonviolent. Throughout the IRA’s history there have been many splinter groups, ghost groups and factions, temporary and long-lasting. Some Republican splinter groups have been short lived, others have lasted more than 20 years. Many are well known but some defy the efforts of even seasoned IRA historians to characterise them…”
John Horgan, historian

Though much smaller than the Provisional IRA, the INLA was disciplined, militant and destructive. At its peak the INLA is believed to have had barely more than 100 members – however its military campaign in the late 1970s and 1980s claimed at least this many lives, including those of 48 British soldiers or policemen. The INLA employed similar tactics to the Provisional IRA: bombings, assassinations, gun raids and sniper attacks. Its most significant assassination was the March 1979 murder of British Conservative politician Airey Neave, a former military officer and an adviser to future prime minister Margaret Thatcher. INLA volunteers planted a magnetic booby trap under Neave’s car as it was parked near the Houses of Parliament; it exploded as he drove off. In December 1982 the INLA carried out its deadliest attack, bombing the Droppin Well pub in Ballykelly, County Londonderry. The Droppin Well was a popular drinking spot for soldiers from a nearby British Army base – but it was also frequented by civilians from Ballykelly. The blast caused the building to collapse and 17 people were killed: 11 soldiers and six civilians, five of them women. The INLA was responsible for the deaths of almost 40 civilians during the Troubles; most were caught in the crossfire or the mistaken for military targets.

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A memorial plaque for four INLA volunteers, three of whom were killed by the IPLO

The INLA also engaged in violent feuds with other Republican groups. The Official IRA considered the INLA a destabilising force and in the mid 1970s attempted to wipe it out. The Official IRA-INLA feud claimed five lives in 1975 alone, and in 1977 Seamus Costello himself was shot to death in Dublin by an Official IRA volunteer. The death of Costello and the murder or arrest of other leaders weakened the INLA, which by the early 1980s had itself become factionalised, its interests divided between Belfast and Dublin. In 1986 a group of disgruntled and criminally minded ex-INLA members formed a rival group called the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation (IPLO). Pledging to eradicate and replace the INLA, the IPLO assassinated several significant INLA figures. The two groups went to war and in 1987 the INLA-IPLO feud claimed at least 11 lives. In 1992 the IPLO was targeted and wiped out by the Provisional IRA, which was concerned about the IPLO’s increasing drug trafficking in Belfast. The INLA survived into the 1990s, though it had been weakened by division, arrests and internecine killings.

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1. The Official IRA and the INLA were two other Republican paramilitary groups active during the Troubles.
2. It was led by Cathal Goulding and consisted of volunteers who did not join the ‘Provos’ after the December 1969 split.
3. Official IRA military activity increased in 1971-72 but tactical errors led to a conditional ceasefire in May 1972.
4. The INLA, an Official IRA breakaway group opposed to the 1972 ceasefire, commenced its military campaign in 1974.
5. Though not as prominent nor as deadly as the Provisional IRA, the Official IRA, the INLA and the IPLO (a splinter group of the INLA) were responsible for hundreds of deaths during the Troubles – mainly British soldiers and security forces but also civilians and members of rival Republican groups.

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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, “The Official IRA and the INLA”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],