The Provisional IRA

provisional ira

One motif adopted by the Provisional IRA was the phoenix, a symbol of rebirth

The growing unrest and violence in Northern Ireland in 1968-69 had a critical effect on the IRA. The leadership of the IRA during the 1960s were political ideologues rather than paramilitary commanders; they had not anticipated or prepared for armed confrontation. When Catholics in Northern Ireland were targeted by the RUC and Loyalist gangs, the IRA was not in a position to respond – despite the protection of Catholic civilians being one of its traditional missions. When violence erupted in the Bogside in August 1969, the IRA in Northern Ireland possessed only ten guns. This failure to prepare and respond to anti-Catholic aggression brought factional and ideological divisions in the IRA to a head. At a series of meetings in December 1969, a clique of younger, more radical volunteers formed a seven-man ‘Provisional Army Council’. This group formed the nucleus of what would become the Provisional IRA, or ‘Provos’. In its first year the Provisional IRA was small, undermanned and critically short of weaponry and munitions. But the growing sectarianism and violence of 1971-72 swelled the ranks of the ‘Provos’, who by 1972 were sufficiently well organised and equipped to initiate a guerrilla war against British soldiers and other security forces in Northern Ireland.

The founding members of the Provisional IRA were a diverse group of long serving Republicans. The most significant figure was Sean MacStiofain, who in December 1969 become the first Provisional IRA chief of staff, or de facto leader. MacStiofain was an unlikely Irish Republican. Born in London to an English father and an Irish Protestant mother, he served with the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II under his Anglicised name, John Stephenson. He joined Sinn Fein and the IRA after the war. In 1953 MacStiofain was arrested and imprisoned in England, along with future IRA leader Cathal Goulding, after stealing weapons from an army base. MacStiofain was supported by Seamus Twomey, a bad-tempered brawler from the Falls Road who was fanatical about driving out the English at the point of a gun. Daithi O’Conaill was from Cork in the Irish republic, a lifelong member of the IRA and a former chief of staff during the 1950s. Ruairi O’Bradaigh’s family were so staunchly Republican that he was given the middle names Roger Casement; he too was an IRA leader in the 1950s, while working as an Irish language teacher and Sinn Fein politician. At a January 1970 meeting of the Provisional Army Council, this leadership group finalised their mission. The Provisional IRA’s first priority, they determined, was to organise and prepare to defend Catholic communities from attacks and victimisation. They also began to implement their own organisation and command structure, and develop strategies for propaganda, recruitment, training and the acquisition of money and weapons.

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Martin McGuinness, the future Sinn Fein leader who joined the ‘Provos’ in 1970

From early 1970 the IRA began to cleave into two separate armies: the Goulding-led Official IRA and the more militant Provisionals. The IRA’s secretive and decentralised nature meant that many volunteers were unaware of the split for several weeks. One of them was future Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness; he mistakenly joined the Official IRA in 1970 only to cross over to the Provisionals shortly after. When the dust settled, the ‘Provos’ came to be seen as a younger, tougher and more determined iteration of the IRA. The Provisional IRA was first and foremost a paramilitary group, prepared to fight and die for a united Irish republic. Its members frequently harked back to the mission, values and bravery of the very first IRA; one of their emblems was the phoenix, symbolising the rebirth of the Republican traditions of 1916 and the Irish War of Independence. Unlike the Official IRA, which was dominated by political ideologues, the ‘Provos’ emphasised action rather than strategy. While Official IRA leaders were scattered across Northern Ireland and the Republic, the leaders of the Provisional IRA could be found in the thick of the Troubles in Belfast and Derry.

“The Provisional IRA was younger, tougher and advocated a more intensive military campaign against the British administration. The Provisional IRA argued for a complete abstention from the political process until a unified Ireland was achieved… Emerging stronger after the split, the Provisional IRA is the group we now commonly know as the IRA. The IRA is known and even romanticised for the incredible dedication and intensity of its members. At least one observer has noted that soon there may be more books and movies about the IRA than there are members.”
Sandra Joireman, historian
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A flier distributed by NORAID in the United States in 1981

But in 1970 the Provisional IRA’s military effectiveness was negated by one critical problem: it had hardly any weapons. In their first year or so the ‘Provos’ were restricted to a few small arms, perhaps as few as 60, as well as homemade devices like ‘Molotov cocktails’ and nail bombs. Most of the weapons belonging to the pre-1969 IRA remained under the control of the Official IRA. One of the Provisional IRA’s first priorities was the acquisition of weapons and money to purchase them. Provisional IRA agents targeted sympathisers in the Republic of Ireland and the United States, where a significant population of Irish expatriates and Republican sympathisers were resident. IRA propaganda chiefs developed material that was carefully targeted to American audiences; it played on anti-British sentiment and republican political ideas but downplayed or ignored the IRA’s links with socialism. The majority of American financial support for the IRA was channeled through seemingly innocuous organisations like the Northern Aid Committee (NORAID). Established in 1970, at its peak this group had 92 different branches and several thousand members. According to NORAID its collected funds were used to support the families of dead and interned Republican volunteers – but intelligence agencies like the CIA claimed most of funds were used to purchase and ship weapons to the Provisional IRA. The US government attempted crackdowns on NORAID and other groups, arresting and charging dozens of individuals with gun-running, however this failed to dry up the flow of weapons into Northern Ireland.

Recruitment proved the least difficult of the Provisional IRA’s objectives. The sectarianism and worsening tensions of the early 1970s drove many young people straight into the ranks of the ‘Provos’. The ongoing use of internment and incidents like the Falls curfew (July 1970) and Bloody Sunday (January 1972) inspired hundreds of volunteers. The Provisional IRA’s leadership exploited worsening attitudes to the British by forming a specialist propaganda unit. This group produced slogans, posters and press releases that depicted the British presence in Northern Ireland as a hostile occupation, calling for a Vietnam-like war of resistance. While the secret nature of the Provisional IRA means that membership figures cannot be accurately known, the ‘Provos’ are believed to have grown from just a few dozen in early 1970 to more than 1,000 by 1972. Provisional IRA recruitment was cautious and discerning. An ‘open door’ recruiting policy would lead to infiltration from security forces, nor did the ‘Provos’ did not want mindless thugs or ‘Brit haters’ who could not follow orders or maintain secrecy. New recruits had to understand and embrace the Provisional IRA’s values and long term mission. The group’s commanders carefully vetted, trained and monitored new recruits. Later, the Provisional IRA developed the Green Book, a comprehensive summary of its political objectives and military strategy, as well as a training manual and code of conduct for individual volunteers.

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1. The Provisional IRA began in late 1969 with young militant Republicans who formed the Provisional Army Council.
2. They were motivated by the mainstream IRA’s lack of military action and failure to defend Catholic communities.
3. The Provisional IRA took shape in early 1970, the group led by new chief of staff Sean MacStiofain.
4. Initially small and with few weapons, the Provisional IRA’s first priority was to organise and defend Catholic areas.
5. Between 1970 and 1972 the Provisional IRA expanded its numbers, recruiting carefully to ensure that its volunteers were disciplined, reliable and loyal to the cause. The ‘Provos’ also set about acquiring weapons, mainly from supporters in the Republic or through expatriates and sympathetic donors in the United States.

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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 Provisional IRA”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],