weapons & technology

The two main sources of weaponry for the IRA have been the USA and Libya. The main gun-running network in the USA was controlled by a veteran Irish Republican called George Harrison. He supplied arms not only for the 'Border Campaign' (aka 'Fifties Campaign') of the IRA, which was conducted for a number of years up to 1962, but also for the campaign that started in 1969. His network was finally broken up in the early 1980s by the FBI but it is believed that weapons supplied by him are still in use.

Other gun-running attempts were made in the USA, but many ended in failure. As the table shows, the US federal agencies, especially the FBI, have become increasingly proficient at disrupting IRA arms procurement activities in the USA. (The FBI formed a special unit to concentrate on Irish paramilitaries.)

It is believed that the bulk of the material presently in IRA arsenals was shipped from Libya in the mid-1980s with the aid of a skipper, Adrian Hopkins, hired for the purpose by the IRA. However, in the early 1990s Libya's Colonel Ghadaffi decided to give no further aid to the IRA and has informed the UK authorities as to what material was shipped to the Provos. The UK authorities have, in turn, passed this information on to the Irish authorities, according to intelligence sources in the Republic.

With the Libyan source of supply closed off, and increasing difficulties with procuring material in the USA, it is perhaps not surprising that during the ceasefire the IRA resisted pressure to decommission its weapons. Apart from political considerations, the IRA was conscious of the difficulties of procuring and importing new stocks of weaponry.

Locations of IRA arms dumps

One of the roles of the IRA's Southern Command is to store much of the organization's armaments. Small stocks are stored within Northern Ireland for the immediate use of active service units (ASUs). There are also believed to be some arms dumps in border counties in the Republic that come under the control of the Northern Command. However, the bulk of the bigger arms reserves are more likely to be stored in dumps deeper within the Republic. IRA quartermasters have chosen this strategy partly because the land area of the Republic is approximately three times larger than that of Northern Ireland but with a smaller police/army presence. It is considered easier to find a safe hiding place for the materiel south of the border as opposed to north. It is believed that some of the most important dumps are in the Munster area and that they were prepared originally to receive arms being imported aboard the trawler Marita Ann, a cargo that was seized by the Irish Navy in 1984. The dumps were probably then used to receive some of the arms that were imported from Libya in the mid-1980s.

The IRA's quartermaster general (QMG) is a man living just south of the Border near Dundalk and he controls the arms dumps in various parts of Ireland. Another key figure is a man based in Limerick who reports to the QMG and who is responsible for major arms dumps in the Munster area.

IRA chiefs have learned over the years how to counteract sophisticated surveillance/detection equipment that may be deployed by security forces. For instance, in order to defeat airborne surveillance, major arms bunkers are now generally built inside farm buildings or under silage pits. However, the security forces in the Republic have made headway in seizing IRA equipment. Between 1985 and 1993, the Garda, assisted by the Irish Army, seized more than 800 firearms of all types, including heavy machine guns, as well as 300,000 rounds of ammunition.

ira requirements
Since at least the late 1970s, the IRA has been actively seeking to acquire surface-to-air missiles to shoot down helicopters, which are particularly vital in the resupply of British military bases in the strongly Republican region of South Armagh. The joint police-military base in the town of Crossmaglen, for example, is always supplied by helicopter from the military base at Bessbrook; even the rubbish is flown out. It is believed that the IRA has one SAM-7 surface-to-air missile system, imported from Libya in the mid-1980s. However, the organization has not used this weapon, giving rise to speculation that the system is faulty or that the IRA has no one who knows how to use it. Since the end of the ceasefire in 1996, however, the priority of the IRA has been to mount bomb attacks in London rather than targeting security forces in Northern Ireland.

If the IRA was to resume attacks in Northern Ireland, the organization has more than enough assault rifles, hand guns and ammunition to keep a campaign going indefinitely. In terms of assault rifles, for instance, the IRA has an over-supply and will not be obliged to import further large quantities for the foreseeable future unless the security forces become very lucky and make major seizures. Morover, the estimated three tonnes of Semtex in IRA possession is also sufficient to allow the organization to continue indefinitely with a bombing campaign on the UK mainland and/or in Northern Ireland. In April 1996, the IRA demonstrated that it was prepared to expend a sizeable amount of Semtex in a single bomb when it used about 30 lb (13.6 kg) of the explosive in the attempt to blow up Hammersmith Bridge.

r&d & production
Being a guerrilla organization of long standing that has endured a quarter century of armed activity, the IRA has sought to supplement imported war material by developing its own. The advantage of the latter is that supply is not dependent on the vagaries of smuggling into Ireland by air or by sea. The IRA can call on the services of a small number of experienced engineers to help it build weapons such as home-made mortars. The organization has also been making use of a new breed of volunteer: the university-educated computer expert who can construct sophisticated timing and remote-control mechanisms for use in bombs and mortars. It is believed that the IRA used the period of the ceasefire to upgrade such mechanisms and to develop techniques to combat British Army 'disruptive' radio signals by using radar guns and microwave receivers. (In 1993, the Garda uncovered an IRA workshop at Kilcock, Co Kildare, which was producing a wide range of advanced electronic detonators.)

During the years of the 'Long War', IRA members have become skilled in making explosives from such substances as nitrobenzene and fertilizer, either for use in large bombs designed to blow up buildings or in smaller devices designed to be thrown at the North's security forces. Home-made weapons have included the nail bomb (an anti-personnel device) and the 'drogue bomb' (an anti-vehicle grenade consisting of about 230 g of explosive packed into a big baked bean tin attached to a throwing handle). Home-made explosives are known by such names as 'Anfo' (fertilizer and diesel oil mix) and 'Annie'.

Intelligence sources in the Republic believe the IRA also used the period of the ceasefire to develop a 'Mark 17' mortar, which is said to be one of its most destructive weapons yet. It is believed that the mortar has already been tested in the Carlingford Lough area of Co Louth, just south of the border. Over the years, the IRA has deployed with some success its home-made 'throw-away' mortars - crude weapons that can have a devastating effect at short range. The mortar tubes are normally mounted on the back of a hijacked truck and are fired by a timing device after the bombers have made their getaway. During the 1980s, the IRA deployed its 'Mark 10' mortar, which fired a six-inch shell with 24 lb (10.9 kg) of explosive up to 300 m. This was the type used in the attack on 10 Downing Street during the Gulf War.

arms procurement operations

Type, quantity of arms




About 70 small arms: M1 carbines; M3 'grease guns'; some hand guns; 60,000 rounds of ammo



Arms acquired originally for the 1950s campaign.
Smuggled to Ireland by Harrison network.

Revolvers x 50



Arms reported to have been supplied by Basque group ETA

9 mm pistols x 500 FRG
180,000 rounds


Arms bought not for IRA but for defence groups in
North, but IRA planned to seize them. Irish authorities foiled moves to import guns. Four later acquitted in
famous arms trial.

Armalite AR-15 rifles



Consignment smuggled to Ireland by group of Republican sympathizers
in Philadelphia.

Small arms and ammo



Six suitcases full of small arms and ammo seized by police at Dublin port after being landed by ship from USA.

4.5 tons of small arms



Shipment arranged by IRA leader Daithi O'Conaill; bought from Omnipol Prague; seized at Schiphol Airport.

Small arms



Unconfirmed reports that two cargoes of arms from Libya reached Ireland.

RPG-7 rocket launchers



Reported import of RPG-7s from unknown source in Europe.

M-16s and AR-15s


Early 1970s

Smuggled to Ireland by
Harrison network.

AK-47 rifles x 250,
plus other materiel



Czech-made arms supplied by Col Ghadaffi; cargo aboard Claudia seized by Irish authorities. IRA boss Joe Cahill and others arrested.

100 rifles



US Treasury Dept agents foil plot to smuggle to
IRA cargo of arms bought at Maryland gun shop. Five later jailed in USA.

Small arms: AK-47s x 27; SMGs x 29; RPG-7 rocket launchers x 7; Bren Guns x 2; plus grenades, ammo & explosives

Middle East


Arms supplied by Al Fatah section of PLO. Cargo sent by ship via Cyprus; seized at Antwerp. One IRA man arrested by Irish police. Arms believed to have come from Lebanon.

M-60 MGs x 6; M-16 rifles x c100



Arms stolen from US Army depot; smuggled by ship
to Ireland by Harrison network.

Estimated 500,000 5.56 x 45 mm cartridges



Ammo stolen from US Marine base, Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Believed sent to
Ireland by Harrison network.

Cargo of more than 150 guns and 60,000 rounds of ammo. Arms included: M-60 MGs x 2; M-16s x 15; M-14s;
AK-47 x 1



Cargo smuggled by ship to Ireland by Harrison network; seized at Dublin port by police.

MAC-10 SMGs x 350; AK-47 x 12



Harrison network plot foiled in FBI 'sting'. Leads to break-up of network.

50 firearms and ammo; tone frequency switches



US Customs find arms in truck at docks in Newark,
New Jersey. Four members of IRA cell later jailed.

200 cases of mixed ammo



Five men arrested entering USA from Canada; suspected
of plot to acquire ammo for IRA. 'Shopping list' for 200 cases found.




FBI foils IRA bid to buy explosives in Wyoming. Man arrested.

Seven tons of arms, ammo and explosives



Cargo seized on fishing boat Marita Ann by Irish Navy. Men jailed in USA and Ireland. Arms procured by drugs gang in Boston.

Small arms



FBI foils IRA bid to buy small arms in Colorado.
Irishman deported.

40 firearms, including: FN FAL rifles x 13; AK-47 x 1. Also: hand grenades x 2, drums of nitro benzene,
70,000 rounds of



Dutch police seize arms in raid on apartment in Amsterdam. Two well-known four IRA men arrested.

Heckler & Koch G3 rifles



Irish police seize 10 G3 rifles in 1986 - part of batch of 100 stolen from Norwegian Reserve base near Oslo, 1984.

Redeye SAMs, M-60 MGs, M-16 rifles, MP-5 SMGs, bullet-proof vests x 11



FBI 'sting' foils plot to fly arms cargo by private jet from Boston to Ireland. Several convictions followed.

150 tons of arms: AK-47s, SAM-7s (reported), Semtex, RPG-7 rocket launchers, Taurus pistols, plus
other materiel



Four shipments of arms and explosives successfully landed in Ireland by boat skipper Adrian Hopkins.

AK-47s x 1,000, SAM-7s x 20, RPG-7s, 2 tonnes of Semtex .



French Navy seize cargo on Eksund, skippered by Adrian Hopkins, off Brittany. Five arrested

380 gallons of nitro benzene



Cargo smuggled from Amsterdam aboard truck; seized by Irish police, Kells, Co Meath. Driver later jailed.

Small arms, described as 'high-powered rifles'



US Customs foil bid to buy rifles from gun dealer in Alabama. Two men jailed.

Detonators for bombs; anti-aircraft missile system



Group of IRA supporters jailed in Boston in 1990 for trying to smuggle a home-made missile system to Ireland. Member of group is also believed to have supplied detonators in 1982-88.

Stinger missiles


late 1980s/ early 1990s

FBI foils plot to acquire Stingers on black market in Miami. Several arrests made.

estimated inventory




Webley .455




Assault rifle


Armalite AR-15

Assault rifle

a few dozen

Barrett M82A1

Sniper rifle


7.62 mm FN MAG

Machine gun


12.7 x 107 mm DshK

Heavy machine gun



Rocket launcher


SAM-7 (may not be serviceable)

Surface-to-air missile






For use in bombs




3 tonnes

As well as the arms listed above, it is believed the IRA has other weapons including Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifles, Taurus pistols and FN FNC assault rifles. Security forces have made estimates of the IRA inventory partly on the basis of material known to have been imported from Libya, from which has been subtracted material seized by the authorities north and south of the border as well as Semtex estimated to have been used in various bomb attacks.

Sean Boyne is a Dublin-based journalist who specializes in defence matters and international affairs. Part 1 of this article, which dealt with IRA organization and strategy, was published in the July issue of JIR.

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