In December 1974, a small group of militant socialists parted ways with Sinn Fein and the Official IRA. Leading this breakaway group was Seamus Costello, a former commander who had been expelled from the Official IRA earlier in the year. Costello and his supporters were outspoken critics of the Official IRA leadership and, in particular, their approval of the May 1972 ceasefire. Costello’s radicals hoped to straddle the policies of the Official IRA and the ‘Provos’, combining political activism and socialism with paramilitary action. Under Costello’s leadership, the group formed a new political party called the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). In doing so they claimed a direct line from Easter Rising leader James Connolly and his short-lived political party, also called the IRSP. A secret meeting held the same day formed the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), the armed wing of the IRSP.
In its first year, the IRSP executive included former Nationalist MP Bernadette Devlin, by then known as Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey. Despite Devlin-McAliskey’s high profile the IRSP failed to attract much public support. It had members elected to two Belfast City Council seats but voting returns in Republic of Ireland elections were dismal. The group’s paramilitary arm had more impact. The INLA declared 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.
The INLA was much smaller than the Provisional IRA, at its peak having no more than 150 members. Despite this, the group was tightly disciplined and quite destructive. The INLA’s military campaign in the late 1970s and 1980s claimed dozens of lives, including 48 British soldiers or RUC policemen. The INLA employed similar tactics to the Provisional IRA: bombings, assassinations, gun raids and sniper attacks. Its most significant victim was British Conservative politician Airey Neave, a former military officer and adviser to future prime minister Margaret Thatcher. In March 1979 INLA volunteers planted a magnetic booby trap under Neave’s car, which was parked near the Houses of Parliament. The bomb exploded as Neave drove off, fatally wounding him.
The INLA carried out its deadliest attack in December 1982, 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. Eleven of the dead were soldiers and six were civilians, five of them women. The INLA was responsible for the deaths of almost 40 civilians during the Troubles, most caught in the crossfire or mistaken for military targets. The INLA was also politically active during the 1981 prison hunger strikes; three INLA volunteers (Kevin Lynch, Patsy O’Hara and Mickey Devine) were among the ten Republican prisoners who starved themselves to death.
The INLA also engaged in running feuds with other Republican groups. The Official IRA considered the INLA a destabilising force and attempted to wipe it out in the mid-1970s. The Official IRA-INLA feud claimed five lives in 1975 alone. In 1977 INLA leader Seamus Costello 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. By the early 1980s, the group had split into factions, 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 wiped out by the Provisional IRA, which had become concerned about the IPLO’s drug trafficking in Belfast.
The INLA survived into the 1990s, though it was weakened by arrests, internal division and internecine killings. In 1994 INLA commander Dominic McGlinchey was murdered in an internal feud, which unleashed a series of tit for tat killings. INLA leaders were critical of the Provisional IRA’s 1994 ceasefire but were careful to respect it, for fear of retaliation from the Provos. The INLA opposed the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, committing to maintain their armed struggle. INLA volunteers were responsible for the assassination of Loyalist paramilitary leader Billy Wright in Maze Prison in late 1997. Several writers believe INLA maintained close links with the Real IRA and may have provided material assistance with the devastating Omagh bombing in August 1998. Whether this was the case or not, the 29 civilian deaths in Omagh prompted INLA leaders to declare a ceasefire a week after the bombing. While the INLA retained its weapons and continued its attacks on dissidents and drug dealers, the group did not engage in further political violence.
1. The INLA, an Official IRA breakaway group opposed to the 1972 ceasefire, was formed in December 1974 by around 80 militant Republicans, led by Seamus Costello.
2. The INLA sought to straddle the armed militancy of the Provisional IRA with the socialism and political activism of the Official IRA.
3. The INLA had a political wing, the ISRP, which was backed by Bernadette Devlin, however, it failed to attract much public support.
4. Though small in size the INLA carried out some notable operations, such as the assassination of Airey Neave and the 1982 Droppin Well bombing.
5. The INLA was later occupied with internecine feuding with the Official IRA. It declared a ceasefire after the Omagh bombing.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/irish-national-liberation-army-inla/