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Provisional Irish Republican Army
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Provisional Irish Republican Army

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) is a paramilitary group which aimed through the use of violence to achieve three goals, (i) British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, (ii) the political unification of Ireland through the forced overthrow and then the merger of the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland states, and (iii) and the creation of a "All Ireland socialist republic". The PIRA's terrorist campaign against the those whom it saw as standing in the way of its desired aims (which included the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the British Army, the Unionist community and on occasion the police and army in the Republic of Ireland) played a central role in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It has been officially on ceasefire since 1997.

The PIRA is also known as the Provisional IRA, the 'Provos' and the Irish Republican Army. It is most commonly referred to simply as the IRA, but several groups claim this title (see: Irish Republican Army).

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Origins
3 Strength and support
4 The Belfast Agreement
5 Activities
6 Infiltration
7 See also
8 Footnotes


The PIRA was formed in 1969, with the stated aim of severing the political Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and achieving the unification of the island of Ireland by force, in order to create a socialist republic. It is organised into small, tightknit cells under the leadership of the IRA Army Council. Due to its frequent use of bombings, its assassination of politicians and diplomats, its killing of hundreds of policemen and soldiers predominantly though not exclusively in Northern Ireland and its alleged role in racketeering, it is generally described as a terrorist group. Its supporters prefer the label guerrilla.1 Membership of the PIRA is outlawed in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland but PIRA prisoners convicted before 1998 have been granted conditional early release as part of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In the United Kingdom a person convicted of membership of a "proscribed organisation", such as the PIRA, faces imprisonment for up to 10 years.


The Provisional IRA was initially a splinter group of the 'Official' IRA, which claimed descent from the Old IRA: the guerrilla army of the 1919-1922 Irish Republic. The Official IRA moved to a Marxist analysis of the 'Irish Problem' in the mid 1960s while the PIRA held to a more traditional republican analysis and became larger and more successful, eventually overshadowing the original group. The commonly used name of the PIRA arose when those who were unhappy with the IRA's Army Council formed a "Provisional Army Council" of their own, echoing in turn the "Provisional Government" proclaimed during the Easter Rising of 1916.

The split in the armed wing of the republican movement was mirrored in the separation of the republican political wing. Supporters of the PIRA split from 'Official' Sinn Féin to form Provisional Sinn Féin. Provisional Sinn Féin was later known simply as Sinn Féin (while 'Official' Sinn Féin eventually became the Workers' Party).

Strength and support

The PIRA has several hundred members as well as several thousand civilian sympathisers on the island of Ireland. However, the movement's appeal was hurt badly by more notorious PIRA bombings widley perceived as 'atrocities', such as the killing of civilians attending a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph in Enniskillen in 1987 and the killing of two children at Warrington, which led to tens of thousands of people descending on O'Connell Street in Dublin to call for an end to the PIRA's campaign of violence. In recent times the movement's support has been weakened by operatives leaving the organisation to join hardline splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. If the PIRA has enjoyed mass support this has not, historically, been reflected in support for its associated political party, Sinn Féin, which, until recently, did not receive the support of more than a minority of nationalists in Northern Ireland, or of voters in general in the Republic of Ireland.

In the past the PIRA has received funds and arms from sympathisers in the United States, notably from the Noraid (Irish Northern Aid) organisation. The PIRA has also, on occaion, received assistance from foreign governments and paramilitary groups, including considerable training and arms from Libya and assistance from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). This support has been weakened by the so called "War against Terrorism", the events of the 11th September 2001 and the discovery of three PIRA suspects in Colombia, allegedly training Colombian FARC guerrillas (these suspects were all eventually acquitted of aiding FARC, and convicted solely on the lesser charge of possessing false passports). The organisation has also been accused of raising funds through drug dealing and racketeering.

The Belfast Agreement

The PIRA cease-fire in 1997 formed part of a process that led to the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. The Agreement has amongst its aims that all extra-legal paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland cease their activities and disarm.

Calls from Sinn Féin have lead the PIRA to commence disarming in a process that has been overviewed by General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body in October, 2001. However, following the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing government in 2002, which was partially triggered by allegations that republican spies were operating within Parliament Buildings and the Civil Service, the PIRA abandoned their association with General de Chastelain. It is expected that if and when power-sharing resumes, the PIRA disarmament process will begin again, though it is already considered by some to be behind schedule. Increasing numbers of people, from the Ulster Unionists under David Trimble and the Social Democratic and Labour Party under Mark Durkan to the Irish Government under Bertie Ahern and the mainstream Irish media, have begun demanding not merely decommissioning but the wholesale disbandment of the PIRA.


The Provisional IRA's activities have included bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, so-called 'punishment beatings', robberies and extortion. Previous targets have included the British military, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Loyalist militants, British Government officials, Unionist politicians and civilians in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Members of the Garda Síochána (the Republic of Ireland's police force) have also been killed; most notorious was the killing of Detective Garda Gerry McCabe, who was shot and killed after the commencement of the PIRA ceasefire. PIRA bombing campaigns have been conducted against rail and London Underground (subway) stations, pubs and shopping areas on the island of Great Britain, and a British military facility on Continental Europe.

It has recently been claimed that elements of the PIRA have been involved in a spate of bank robberies throughout the island of Ireland, allegedly to build up funds to 'pension off' PIRA members and so facilitate disbandment.

The PIRA has been officially on ceasefire since July 1997 (although hardline splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA and so-called Real IRA continue their campaigns). It previously observed a cease-fire from 1 September 1994 to February 1996, after the Downing Street Declaration.

Notable events


There have been persistent rumours that the Provisional IRA had been infiltrated by British Intelligence agents, and that in past senior PIRA members have been informers.

In May 2003 a number of newspapers named Freddie Scappaticci as the alleged identity of the British Force Research Unit's most senior informer within the Provisional IRA, code-named Steakknife, who is thought to have been head of the Provisional IRA's internal security force, charged with rooting out informers like himself. Scappaticci denies that this is the case and is taking legal action to challenge this claim.

See also

Other paramilitary groups in Ireland

Related topics


1 The PIRA is described as a terrorist organisation by the governments of the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Germany and Italy, the latter three of whom have alleged the existence of IRA links with terrorist organisations within their own jurisdictions including
ETA and the Red Brigade. It has also been described as such by the European Union. In the island of Ireland it is described as a terrorist organisation by An Garda Síochána, the police force of the Republic of Ireland, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, (PSNI). It is generally called a terrorist organisation by the following media outlets: The Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Irish Examiner, the Sunday Independent, the Evening Herald, the Sunday Tribune, Ireland on Sunday, the Sunday Times and all the tabloid press. On the island of Ireland among political parties Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats who together form a coalition government in the Republic of Ireland refer to it as a terrorist organisation, as do the main opposition parties Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the Green Party, and the Workers Party, while in Northern Ireland it is described as a terrorist movement by the mainly nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the cross community Alliance Party, and from the unionist community the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Popular Unionist Party. Members of the PIRA are tried in the Republic in the Special Criminal Court, an extra-constitutional court set up by emergency legislation and which is described in its functioning as dealing with "terrorism". On the island of Ireland the only political party to suggest that the IRA is not a terrorist organisation is Sinn Féin, currently the second largest political party in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin used to be widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA, but today the party insists that the two organisations are completely separate.