weapons & technology

When the Irish Republican Army (IRA) called its ceasefire in 1994, there were high hopes that Irish Republican violence had ceased for good. Then, in February 1996, came a major bomb attack at Canary Wharf in London signalling the end of the 17-month ceasefire and claiming the lives of two innocent people. In a subsequent bomb incident in London, a device that prematurely exploded killed the young IRA man who was about to plant it.

Even during the ceasefire, security/ intelligence agencies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had kept up their surveillance on the IRA, albeit with a lower degree of intensity. In the intelligence community, the breaking of the ceasefire did not come as a big surprise. In the weeks prior to the Canary Wharf incident, members of the Garda Special Branch (the Irish Republic's police counter-subversive branch) noticed increased activity among senior Republicans, especially in the Dublin area, with meetings being held between senior figures. The conclusion was that a major operation was being planned. According to Garda intelligence sources, this information was passed to the police in the UK. This is thought to have been the major factor that led to an alert among British police a couple of weeks before the first bomb went off at Canary Wharf. However, information available to the authorities in the Republic and the UK was insufficient to estimate where an attack might take place, or what the target might be.

Following the death of its 21-year-old member (Edward O'Brien) in the premature bomb explosion, there was a period of inactivity for several weeks on the part of the IRA, leading to hopes that the organization was maintaining a de facto ceasefire. However, bombing operations were revived in April 1996, and on the 26th of that month the IRA planted one of the biggest bombs ever deployed in London: a 30 lb (13.6 kg) Semtex bomb placed underneath Hammersmith Bridge. Fortunately, the bomb failed to explode due to a faulty detonator. Had it gone off, there could have been significant damage and potential loss of life.

ira manpower
Some analysts estimate the current strength of the IRA at about 400 hard-core activists, with perhaps a similar number of 'auxiliary' or 'second-line' activists who can be called on in a crisis. Most of these members, known as 'volunteers', are concentrated in Northern Ireland, although a smaller number are based in the Republic of Ireland and there are also small cells in the UK. IRA cells have also operated from time to time in the USA and other overseas locations. Many of these volunteers may not necessarily be full-time but may work at other occupations.

There is believed to be a hard core of about 40 middle-ranking members of the IRA who make operational decisions. Security forces in the North believe they have identified most of these, but there are always new, unknown people coming up in the organization.

Since declaring its ceasefire in 1994, the IRA is believed to have kept its structure intact. Although for nearly a year and a half it ceased its attacks on the Northern Ireland security forces and also its bomb attacks on the mainland UK, it continued with its 'policing' role in Nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. IRA members carried out regular punishment beatings and, under a 'flag of convenience', murdered a number of alleged drug dealers. In carrying out these killings, the IRA used the name of a hitherto unknown organization, Direct Action Against Drugs.

While such violence is abhorrent to many on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, these activities were of value to the IRA for a number of reasons: they asserted the organization's power and authority in Nationalist areas; they helped to raise the morale of volunteers by giving them a sense of purpose; they contributed to keeping the IRA's 'military machine' in working order; they helped to underline the traditional Republican rejection of the Northern Irish police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC); and they served to enhance the image of the IRA in those Republican areas where there has been traditional support for the organization as well as a desire for action against anti-social elements in the community.

Sources in the security/intelligence world in the Republic estimate that the IRA has sufficient material to equip the equivalent of two battalions, and that the material is sufficient to keep the IRA's low-intensity war going indefinitely. The sources believe that, despite the large holding of weaponry, the IRA continued to smuggle arms into Ireland during the ceasefire as well as developing new weapons, continuing to train its members and gathering intelligence on the security forces in Northern Ireland. (In May 1996, the Russian intelligence service (FSB) claimed that members of the Estonian territorial reserve force, Kaitselit, had helped the IRA buy weapons. The claim was strongly denied by an Estonian spokesman who said that Estonian intelligence services had been "in extensive contact on this matter with their British and Irish counterparts and none has been able to confirm illegal weapons supplies by Estonia to the IRA.")

ira organization
The IRA is the biggest, most significant and best organized of the paramilitary groups operating in Ireland. (The organization is also known as the Provisional IRA, PIRA, the Provos, and, in Irish, as Oglaigh na hEireann.) The other main Republican paramilitary organization, the hard-left Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), has fractured into a number of very small feuding factions, including a group called the Irish People's Liberation Organization (IPLO). On the other side of the sectarian divide, the two main Loyalist paramilitary organizations are the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

The day-to-day running of the IRA is conducted by a seven-person Army Council. Members of the council always include the chief of staff, the adjutant general and the quartermaster general. In recent times, the members have been mainly from Northern Ireland and the Border counties. Members of the present council come from Belfast, Derry, Donegal, north Monaghan and the Louth-Armagh border area.

The General Army Convention (GAC) is the supreme authority of the IRA and meets on comparatively rare occasions. According to the IRA Constitution, the GAC is to meet once every two years unless a majority deem it better for military reasons to postpone a meeting. Delegates to the GAC include IRA members selected by various units within the organization as well as the members of the Army Council. The GAC selects a 12-member Army Executive which meets at least once every six months. One of the key roles of the executive is to select the members of the Army Council. It is also the role of the executive to advise the Army Council on all matters concerning the IRA. When the GAC is not in session, the Army Council is the supreme authority of the IRA. The planning and implementation of Army Council decisions are carried out by the General Headquarters (GHQ) Staff, which acts as the link between the council and Northern and Southern commands. The Northern Command covers Northern Ireland as well as the Republic's border counties, Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth: a total of 11 counties. The Northern Command has at least five brigades - Belfast, Derry, Donegal, Armagh and Tyrone-Monaghan. The Southern Command, which covers 21 counties, has a much smaller number of personnel spread lightly around the Republic. It has a Dublin brigade and a number of smaller units in the provinces. Each command has its own commanding officer, director of operations and quartermaster. The operational arm consists of cells known as Active Service Units (ASUs) each with usually five to eight members, sometimes more. Occasionally, special teams are assembled by the Army Council/GHQ Staff for special operations. There is a women's section known as Cumann na mBan.

location of leaders
An internal report drawn up by Garda intelligence gives the names and addresses of those believed to occupy key positions in the upper echelons of the IRA. The chief of staff is named as a middle-aged man living in County Monaghan, just south of the Border in the Republic. However, more recent reports suggest he has been succeeded by a younger man, a native of Belfast.

The quartermaster general is named as a man living in County Louth in the Republic. This is a key post as the quartermaster general controls the major arms dumps of the organization, many of which are believed to be located in the Republic.

According to the report, the officer commanding (OC) of the Northern Command is a man living in Belfast. The OC of the Southern Command is said to be a man living in the Tallaght area of Dublin. The latter is suspected of playing a role in the London bombings that marked the end of the IRA ceasefire and of being the 'controller' of the Irishman who died in London when his bomb exploded prematurely. The OC's second-in-command is named as a man living in the Dundrum area of Dublin.

The report gives the names and addresses of two of the three Army Council members who live in Northern Ireland. The third member is listed as 'not known'. The chief strategist of the IRA is named as a man living in Derry who is also active in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

According to the names listed in the Garda intelligence report, the members of the Army Executive are mainly resident in the Republic. Just one person listed is resident in Northern Ireland, the address given being Co Tyrone. The others have addresses in Dublin, Mayo, Limerick, Roscommon, Offaly, Wicklow and Sligo. One of those listed is a woman. Most of the names would not be known to the general public in Ireland but, despite the heavy concentration of names from the Republic in the executive, there is no doubt that the people who exercise real power in the organization - the members of the seven-person Army Council, are mainly from Northern Ireland or the Border counties.

It is believed that operations in the UK formally come under the jurisdiction of the Southern Command, but in effect this arrangement seems a very loose one. During the bombings in London early this year, there is believed to have been as much input from the Northern Command as from the Southern Command.

The long-term objective of the IRA, as expressed in its 'Green Book' - a handbook that every volunteer must study - is the 'establishment of a Democratic Socialist Republic'; the short-term objective is expressed simply as: 'Brits out'.

The political doctrine that drives the IRA is the concept that it has the right to exercise force to compel the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

Over the years, strategy has taken a number of forms. The main recent strategy is to mount bomb attacks on the UK mainland. The IRA believes that such attacks have a bigger impact on British public opinion than similar attacks in Northern Ireland, resulting in pressure on the government to withdraw from the North. According to one report, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, leaders of Sinn Fein, persuaded the IRA leadership not to resume attacks in Northern Ireland early this year.

While the IRA would prefer to have the support of public opinion in Ireland, ultimately it operates according to its own agenda, regardless of what the majority of people in Ireland - North and South - feel. Following recent general elections, Sinn Fein had only about 1.5 per cent electoral support in the Republic and about 10 per cent in Northern Ireland, where the majority Protestant population wants to retain the link with the UK. (In the North's elections for forum peace talks this May, Sinn Fein's share of the vote was about 15.4 per cent.) Many Irish critics of the IRA say the organization should draw an obvious conclusion: that it does not have a mandate for violence. However, according to the Green Book, the organization considers that it is the direct representative of the 1918 Dail Eireann, and that as such the IRA is the 'legal and lawful government of the Irish Republic'. On this basis, the IRA considers that it has a moral right to carry on a military campaign.

recent operations
An analysis of recent bombing operations in London suggests that the IRA is not as effective as in previous campaigns. One bomb exploded prematurely, killing the IRA man who was about to plant the device. (Rumours in Republican circles are that the device exploded due to a timing error made by the bomber, suggesting a lack of training and experience.) Another bombing operation also ended in failure when a 30lb semtex bomb planted under Hammersmith Bridge failed to explode. One conclusion that is being drawn is that the elimination of more experienced bombers has left comparatively inexperienced people to carry out operations on the ground. Questions are being asked about the ability of the IRA to conduct an effective, sustained campaign in Britain in the immediate future. However, the IRA has proved itself very resilient over the years and in the longer term would overcome the problems that have recently arisen.

recent deployment
[ASU = Active Service Units. These are cells made up of 5-8 members, sometimes more}


Number of units/Strength


Northern Command


More than 100 members
believed to be active

West Belfast is one of the
most active centres of IRA

Derry, North Donegal

Estimated strength: 70-80.

Derry city has been a strong centre of IRA activity since the early years of the Troubles.

South Armagh/North Louth

Two large ASUs, with up to 20 members.

Regarded as very active in the past.

West Fermanagh /Donegal

One ASU.

Has been very active in the
Donegal Border region.

South Fermanagh

One ASU.

(As above)

Coalisland area

One ASU.

Has been active intermittently.

South Derry

One ASU.

(As above)

North Antrim

One ASU.

(As above)


One to two ASUs.

Have been active
area intermittently.


One ASU.

Has been active in the Border

Southern Command


Believed to be a small number of ASUs.

Difficult to estimate personnel numbers but would be quite small.

Other areas

Small number of members spread thinly around the country.

Active cell in Munster area
in charge of arms dumps.

Sean Boyne is a Dublin-based journalist who specializes in defence matters and international affairs.

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