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Irish Republican Army

Irish Republican Army (IRA), nationalist organization devoted to the integration of Ireland as a complete and independent unit. Organized by Michael Collins from remnants of rebel units dispersed after the Easter Rebellion in 1916 (see Ireland), it was composed of the more militant members of the Irish Volunteers, and it became the military wing of the Sinn Féin party. With the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the IRA became the stronghold of intransigent opposition to Ireland's dominion status and to the separation of Northern Ireland. During the troubled early years of the Free State, the IRA was responsible for numerous bombings, raids, and street battles on both sides of the Irish border.

Popular and effective at first, its fortunes turned after Eamon De Valera, a former IRA supporter, took over the Free State government in 1932. Weakened by internal dissensions, by a loss of popular support because of its violence and pro-German agitation during World War II, by the attainment of republican objectives in 1949, and by government measures against its illegal activities, the IRA declined swiftly. Eventually outlawed by both Irish governments, it became a secret organization. It perpetrated bombing attacks in Belfast, London, and at the Ulster border during the 1950s, particularly in 1956–57, but then became quiescent until the late 1960s.

In 1969 the IRA split into two groups, the majority, or "officials," advocating a united socialist Ireland but disavowing terrorist activities, and the "provisionals," claiming terrorism as a necessary catalyst for unification. The "provisionals" then began a systematic terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland. In 1972 the "provisionals" extended their terrorism to England, where it culminated in the bombing (1974) of a Birmingham pub that killed 19 persons. In response the British parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, outlawing the IRA in Britain. The IRA assassinated (1979) Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, and unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brighton, England.

In 1994 hopes for peace were raised when the IRA declared a cease-fire. Its legal political arm (Sinn Féin) began participating in talks with Britain in 1995, but the party was barred from the mid-1996 negotiations because of renewed terrorist bombings by the IRA. Following the IRA's announcement of a new cease-fire in July, 1997, Sinn Féin was allowed to participate in talks that convened in September of that year and resulted in an accord (Apr., 1998) that provided for a new Northern Ireland Assembly comprised of Protestants and Catholics, and greater cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Full implementation of the accord snagged for several months on the issue of IRA disarmament, but representatives of Sinn Féin participated in the new Northern Irish government established in Dec., 1999.

Britain suspended the new government in 2000 and again in 2001 over the IRA's refusal to agree to disarm, but in Oct., 2001, the IRA began disarming, albeit in secret. A number of incidents in 2002 that indicated the IRA had not abandoned paramilitary activity again led to the suspension of home rule. More recently, the IRA has been accused of involvement in organized criminal activities, such as bank robbery, extortion, smuggling, and counterfeiting. In July, 2005, the IRA announced it was ending its armed campaign, and an independent report (Sept., 2005) that stated the IRA had decommissioned its weapons was greeted with praise and hope by the British and Irish governments (and with disbelief by hard-line Protestant unionists). In July, 2006, the British and Irish governments indicated that they believed the IRA also had ceased all centrally organized criminal activities, and subsequent independent reports indicated that the IRA had taken steps to end its paramilitary operations.

See M. Dillon, The Dirty War (1990); P. Taylor, Behind the Mask (1998); E. Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (2002).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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