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Conflict in Ireland Part 2: The IRA

Conflict in Ireland Part 2: The IRA

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Ireland soon found itself in a civil war, fighting for independence from England.  This civil war lasted in two main phases from 1912 to 1923.  The first phase, the Irish War of Independence, lasted from 1919 to 1921 and the second phase, the Irish Civil War, lasted from 1922-1923.4 Ultimately Ireland was defeated but Britain agreed to split Ireland into two; Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom and under British control, and Ireland (the southern portion of the island) became a free state.  At the beginning of the civil war the Irish Volunteers renamed themselves the Irish Republican Army and served as the militant branch of the rebel government.  In 1921 the government signed a treaty with England known as the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which temporarily established peace and an Irish Free state.  After the signing of the treaty the IRA experienced its first of many secessions, the IRA split into two different groups: Pro-Treaty IRA and Anti-Treaty IRA.4  Following the Irish Civil War and the establishment of Ireland as its own republic, many members of the Anti-Treaty IRA were killed or captured and the remaining went underground and the IRA was once again a single organization.4

Once Ireland had been divided by England, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which was a part of the UK), the IRA sought to unite Ireland and end the alliance between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  During this period the IRA allied with the Nazis in World War II in the hopes that the Nazis would help them overthrow England.5 However, this alliance only served to lower the public opinion of the IRA and they soon lost what little support they had left.  After World War II, the momentum of the IRA began to slow.  The IRA became more political which resulted in a split ideology within its organization.  Older members of the IRA believed that class differences were responsible for the consistent suppression of Catholics, and that if they could abolish class altogether then they could find equality.  They believed that the solution to equality lied in Communism.4 The vast ideological differences that existed within the ranks of the IRA caused it to be highly factionalized and, ultimately, in August 1969 at the beginning of the period of time known as ‘The Troubles’, the IRA experienced a second secession from its organization; the Provisional IRA was formed.4

After the split, the “official” IRA continued to resort to parliamentary tactics over violence while the Provisional IRA believed that the original tactics of the IRA, consisting of violence and terrorism, was necessary.5 The events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 stunned the world and public support for the IRA swelled.  However, by the late 1970s its support, once again, began to diminish.  Despite this, the IRA was still able to procure enough weapons to continue their campaign for at least another decade and they became proficient at raising their own money through extortion and racketeering.  It is estimated that between 1969 and 1994 the IRA is responsible for the deaths of 1,800 people, 600 of which were civilians.5

While the Official IRA diminished and ultimately faded away after the 1970s, the Provisional IRA continued to thrive and in 1996, after years of violence, they agreed to a cease-fire and began peace talks with the United Kingdom.10  This went directly against what many members in the IRA felt was their ‘mission’ and in 1997 the Provisional IRA split into two separate groups: the Provisional IRA, who were ready for peace with England, and the Real IRA, who to this day continue to use violence to express opposition to the peace talks as well as the terms that were established in the Good Friday Agreement.11

The Conflict in Ireland

In the mid-1960s the relative peace that Ireland had experienced after the World Wars began to erode as nationalists began to become frustrated with Britain’s continuous regulations against them and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was founded.6 The goal of the NICRA was to secure greater civil rights for the people of Ireland and they campaigned for democratic reform.  The NICRA first arranged meetings in which they promoted their beliefs and political agendas and eventually they decided to take their politics to the streets, in the form of civil marches.  Soon after, England banned marches and in response the NICRA organized street rallies. 

On October 5, 1968 the NICRA organized a civil rights march through the city of Derry and was consequently attacked by the police force, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).  In August of 1969 a loyalist group known as the ‘Apprentice Boys’ began their annual march celebrating the lifting of the siege in Derry, 280 years earlier.6  Derry had become a hot spot for violence in the wake of the October 1968 NICRA march and barriers were set up to protect the Apprentice Boys from nationalist protestors.  As the marchers neared Bogside, a Catholic neighborhood in Derry, nationalist protestors began to throw coins and other projectiles at the marchers.  Loyalists, in response to the nationalist attacks on their marchers, retaliated and soon there was a full-scale riot in the streets of Bogside.  The RUC responded to the nationalist rioters by launching CS gas into the streets and firing on the crowd, resulting in two injuries.  Bogside became a battleground and from August 12th to August 14th, the nationalists held Bogside until the British Army was deployed to separate the two warring sides.7

The Battle of Bogside alarmed the British, they began to realize the seriousness of the Civil Rights organizations and the level of violence Irish paramilitary groups were willing to go to back up those organizations.  As the violence between the Irish paramilitary groups and the loyalist paramilitary groups (such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association) increased, the British reintroduced internment without trial.  Internment was the arrest and detention of people, without due process or trial, who were suspected of being members of paramilitary organizations.  Between 1972 and 1975 the British detained 1,981 people on suspicion of involvement in paramilitary organizations: of those arrested, only 107 were protestants/loyalists.8

On January 30,1972 NICRA organized a civil rights march in protest of the British’s policy of internment without trial.  The event was banned but protesters ignored this, and 10,000-15,000 people met at Bishops Field in Derry and began the march through Bogside and towards Guildhall Square at the center of Derry.  The atmosphere, which was described as ‘carnival-like,’ soon turned to terror as marchers found their way barricaded by the British Army and the RUC.7  The march turned into Bogside towards the Free Derry corner to avoid the barricade and young men from the march threw insults and rocks at the British soldiers.  The soldiers responded by firing rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas into the crowd.  As the protestors changed course and marched towards the Free Derry Corner they encountered a second British barricade.  From this barricade, British Paratroopers fired into the crowd of protestors and continued to fire as the protestors, all of whom were unarmed citizens and most of whom had their backs turned to the soldiers, and were fleeing.7 A total of 26 civilians were injured and 13 were killed.8

The events in January 1972, which became known as “Bloody Sunday”, shook the entire globe.  Inquiries were set established to investigate the events of Bloody Sunday and provide some justice to the Irish Nationalists, but the damage was done.8 Support for the IRA and other nationalist paramilitary groups soared, and violence would soon overtake Northern Ireland and England.  Civilians in Belfast and London would be the primary victims of this violence.

While there had already been civil unrest prior to 1972, Bloody Sunday was the catalyst that launched Ireland and the United Kingdom into a period of time known as ‘The Troubles’ in the United Kingdom or ‘the Conflict in Ireland’ to the rest of the world.  Prior to the events of Bloody Sunday there were less than 25 deaths in the 20th Century as a result of paramilitary organizations (both loyalist and nationalist).  After Bloody Sunday that number soared into the thousands.  In 1972 alone paramilitary groups were directly responsible for over 100 deaths, although there were over 480 deaths total in 1972.9 10 This spike in casualties lasted from 1972 until the end of 1994, when the IRA declared a cease-fire that was emulated by loyalist paramilitary groups.5 The cease-fire lasted until 1996 but was quickly reestablished by 1997 when the IRA, Northern Ireland and England all began to participate in ‘the Talks’.5

In 1998, members of both sides of ‘the Talks’ came to an agreement and approved the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ which combined a new power-sharing government in Northern Ireland with IRA decommissioning as long as the IRA agreed that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority of the population desired it.5  The Good Friday agreement had a lot of support, especially among the Catholic population, whose approval ratings were 96 percent.  In accordance with this agreement the IRA began to destroy its weapons, although it wasn’t until 2005 that they officially announced an end to their armed campaign.5

Despite the success of the agreement, the promises of the Provisional IRA and the support of the people, the Real IRA was not satisfied with the conditions of the agreement and  four months after it was signed they bombed Omagh, a city in Northern Ireland, which resulted in more than 200 injuries and 29 deaths.11  Although there have been no serious attacks since the Omagh bombing, the Real IRA have still claimed responsibility for a number of small bombings, including the April 2010 bombing in Belfast.9  Many people believe that the Real IRA, or at least its members, are responsible for many more bombings that no group has taken responsibility for and as early as the 2010s, the Real IRA was estimated to still have at least a few hundred members.11

Conflict in Ireland Part 1: History of Ireland

Conflict in Ireland Part 3: Analysis and Lessons Learned

 References (for entire “Conflict in Ireland” series):

1 T. Lambert, “A Brief History of Ireland,” LocalHistories.org, retrieved from http://www.localhistories.org/irehist.html

2 “State of Ireland during the Eighteenth Century,” Library Ireland, retrieved from https://www.libraryireland.com/articles/Eighteenth-Century-Ireland/Irish-Penal-Laws.php

3 J. Dorney, “The Eleven Years War 1641-52 – A Brief Overview,” The Irish Story, retrieved from http://www.theirishstory.com/2014/01/10/the-eleven-years-war-a-brief-overview/#.XSOxfpNKhTY

4 R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The IRA: 1919 to 1968”, Alpha History, accessed 10 July 2019, https://alphahistory.com/northernireland/ira-1919-1968/

5 P. Arthur and K. Cowell-Meyers, “Irish Republican Army”, Britannica, retrieved from, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Irish-Republican-Army

6 “We Shall Overcome: The History of the Struggles for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968-1978”, NICRA, Belfast, Northern Ireland, retrieved from https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/crights/nicra/nicra78.htm#contents

7 “History”, Your Irish, retrieved from https://www.yourirish.com/history

8 “Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland”, CAIN Web Service, Ulster University, retrieved from https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/index.html

9 Global Terrorism Database, University of Maryland, retrieved from https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

10 J. Wallenfeldt, “The Troubles”, Britannica, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/The-Troubles-Northern-Ireland-history

11 C. Sullivan, “Real Irish Republican Army”, Britannia, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Real-Irish-Republican-Army

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