The name “Irish Republican Army” really gives away the aim of the movement. They have always wanted a unified Ireland free of British rule. In other words the whole of Ireland to be returned to the Irish people as a republic. They didn’t suddenly appear in 1972. In 1919 they had fought a violent war against Britain and have campaigned ever since to achieve their aims. They became more well known in the 60’s and 70’s because of the Troubles in Ireland.
In 1971 the Northern Ireland Prime Minister introduced a policy known as internment. This meant that anyone suspected of being involved in terrorism could be imprisoned without trial. However it annoyed the IRA because the only ones arrested were Republicans. They were further annoyed when a march to protest against internment was broken up by soldiers firing at the marchers. Thirteen people were killed on what was Bloody Sunday. In the same year, Direct Rule was introduced which meant that Northern Ireland was ruled from London.
In response to these actions the IRA adopted a strategy of violence against all those who stood in the way of their aims and a campaign of propaganda to win support and sympathy . They made the most Of Bloody Sunday by using it as propaganda. Suddenly they found more support in southern Ireland and funding from the USA increased The main targets of the violence were Loyalists and the British Government but many innocent people would suffer along the way. They hoped that by using violence the British would get fed up and leave Ireland to the Irish people. They also ruled by fear in the areas that they controlled to ensure that they kept up the number of people who would support them.
The late 1970’s and early 80’s saw the real emergence of Sinn Fein the political wing of the IRA with the same aims. Republican prisoners in the Maze prison demanded to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals. Several went on hunger strike in protest. Margaret Thatcher offered no sympathy and when Bobby Sands (a Sinn Fein MP) died there was a huge wave of sympathy in Ireland. Sinn Fein used this as propaganda against Britain, but it also showed them that non violent action could attract huge public attention. As a result they began to campaign actively in elections, they became more popular with the electors, and their leader Gerry Adams became a figurehead. He summed up the policy of the PIRA in a speech he made in 1983:
“I would like to elaborate on Sinn Fein’s attitude to armed struggle. Armed struggle is a necessary and morally correct form of resistance……”
This policy of campaigning politically and the use of violence became known as the “bullet and the ballot box”. Sinn Fein would gather support and the IRA would maintain the use of violence to bring its cause to the attention of everybody.
The British Government were worried about the rise in power of Sinn Fein and the continuing violence from the IRA so in 1985 Margaret Thatcher and The Irish PM Garrett Fitzgerald made the Anglo-Irish Agreement. As many people in Northern Ireland wanted peace they welcomed the Agreement but both Republicans and Loyalists rejected it. It was successful though in giving the SDLP a boost and as a result the number of people supporting Sinn Fein dropped significantly.
It did not stop the campaign of violence though. The bombing in Enniskillen which killed 60 people in 1987, an IRA landmine that killed 8 soldiers in 1988 and the Shankill bombing showed that the IRA were still trying to achieve their aims by using violence.
The first sign of change in policy came in 1993 with the Downing Street Declaration. Gerry Adams realised that Britain had no real wish to control Northern Ireland and he also knew that the power of his party was slipping. The Declaration between John Major and Albert Reynolds offered Sinn Fein the chance to join peace negotiations if they rejected violence. After much thought the IRA declared a ceasefire (1994) but would not give up its arms as it was still suspicious of the British Government. Gerry Adams was also given a visa to visit the USA and he was beginning to be seen as a peacemaker.
Whilst progress was being made it was only slow. The ceasefires were followed by the Joint Framework Document which set out a plan for a new peace process in Northern Ireland and the creation of an assembly of North – South Ministers. Sinn Fein supported it but the IRA still refused to give up its guns. In the following year an American Senator, George Mitchell was appointed as a mediator in the attempt to decommission (give up) weapons. Again Sinn Fein agreed but the IRA did not. As a result the British Government demanded elections in Ireland which outraged the IRA as it meant a delay in the peace process. They responded with a series of terrorist attacks on mainland Britain , in Manchester and London, and back in Ireland. The elections led to the founding of the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue whose job it was to work out all the issues which would have to be tackled in the peace process.
The peace process was gathering pace. Ordinary people wanted it, the political parties both in Ireland and England wanted it, and Bill Clinton promised massive investment in Northern Ireland if it could be achieved. Sinn Fein knew that it had an important part to play and Gerry Adams started to put pressure on the IRA. In 1997 the IRA announced a new ceasefire which would allow Sinn Fein to join the negotiations. Some IRA members did not like this and formed splinter groups like the Real IRA but most Republicans now realised that negotiation was the only way forward.
Out of the negotiations came The Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This created a new Northern Ireland Assembly and all decisions made would have to have the agreement of both communities in the province. Also a North-South Council of Ministers was set up with members from the Republic and the new Assembly. The agreement was accepted by the majority of people in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. The message was sent out to the IRA that almost everybody in Ireland wanted peace.
The main aim of the IRA had always been to unite Ireland. In the 70’s and 80’s they felt that with terrorist actions they would get their way but this only made the British Government and the Loyalists more determined to stop them. With the rise of Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams the tactics slowly started to change. They realised that non violent action could be effective and eventually they realised that Britain was not going to pull out. They realised they would probably never achieve their main aim but with political power and negotiation they could make their position stronger. The quote below by a former IRA activist Gabriel Megahy in 1998 says it all:
He said: ” I’m prepared as a Republican to settle. My hopes are for the unification of this country, but I have to accept that this is not going to happen. The Brits are not going to sail away in the sunlight.
The people of Ireland had also had enough of all the fighting and so the only way to go forward was by negotiation.
Since this was written the IRA have finally decided to decommission their weapons and started to do so this week. Whether this had anything to do with above, or whether it is as response to the World Trade Centre bombing we do not really know.