The IRA (Irish Republican Army)

The IRA (Irish Republican Army)
The IRA (Irish Republican Army)



This paper explores the Irish Republican Army (IRA) regarding its organizational structure and operations. The paper shows the determination and overwhelming support that the IRA had in its bid to unify Ireland and secure socialist independence from the British rule.

The IRA Operations

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provisional IRA) was an Irish republican paramilitary organization established with the purpose of rendering British rule in Ireland ineffective and securing socialist independence during the Troubles-era.

The IRA, known by different names including the Provisional IRA, the Provos, and PIRA among others aimed at unifying Ireland by all means. The Provisional IRA took over from the original IRA in 1969 after the republican movement split. From its inception, the group’s operations were independent of political influence.

The Troubles had begun in 1968 when the Royal Ulster Consabulary (RUC) and Ulster loyalists attacked a Catholic-constituted civil rights group (Cottrell, 2014). As a result of the violent attack on the peaceful campaigners, a riot ensued in August 1969 leading to the deployment of British troops.

Whereas the IRA’s initial campaign was defensive, the group resorted to an offensive campaign in 1971 aimed at forcing the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland. The IRA employed guerilla tactics against RUC and the British army in both urban and rural establishments. The group also ran a bombing campaign in England and Northern Ireland with the aim of achieving socialist independence.

Following the re-admission of the IRA’s political wing into the Northern Ireland peace talks, the group called a final ceasefire in July 1997. The IRA disarmed in 2005 under international supervision. Since the Provisional IRA ceasefire, there have been several groups that have emerged such as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. These splinter groups are still operating in the low-level nonconformist Irish Republican campaign.

Organizational Structure and Scope


According to Horgan and Taylor (2007), the IRA was one of the most sophisticated and highly organized paramilitary groups in the world. The IRA’s organization was structured hierarchically. The IRA Army Council was the top leadership of the organization, headed by the Chief of Staff.

The Chief of Staff appointed the General and the Quartermaster General, consisting of heads of departments for security, operations, publicity, intelligence, training, engineering, finance, and armory. The Council is responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization (Boyne, 1996).

The General Army Convention (GAC) was the supreme decision-making arm of the IRA and met on relatively rare occasions. The IRA Constitution provided for GAC meetings to be conducted once every two years but for exceptional circumstances which would call for a postponement of the meeting.

GACs met regularly before 1969, after which they have only met thrice in 1970, 1986 and 2005. The rarity of their meeting has been a result of the need to maintain secrecy for the large IRA group. The GAC thus elected an executive comprising of 12 members, who selected seven volunteers to the IRA Army Council.

Regional Command

The IRA comprised of the Northern Command operating in the nine Ulster counties and the Louth and Leitrim border counties, and a Northern Command which operated in the other parts of Ireland. Most of the IRA members came from Northern Ireland and the Border counties, while others come from Louth-Armagh border area, Donegal, Derry, and Belfast. Initially, the IRA’s leadership was based in Dublin, but in 1997, the Northern Command was granted the “war-zone” command parallel to the introduction of local cell structures (Kennedy-Pipe, 2014).


The IRA’s ordinary members were referred to as volunteers (Moran, 2016). They were organized into units according to conventional military structures. Volunteers based in one area established a company as part of a battalion or brigade. The brigades were organized in county lines although at times they were subdivided especially in major urban settings.

The Belfast Brigade comprised of three battalions in the east, north and west parts of the city. During the initial years of the Troubles, the Belfast Brigade expanded very fast from just 50 members in 1969 to 1,200 members at the end of 1971. The Belfast Brigade became large but loosely controlled.

In 1972, the Derry Battalion was upgraded to a brigade following a rapid increase in membership. The increased membership was due to the killing of 13 unarmed demonstrators at a civil rights march during the Bloody Sunday. The Derry Brigade further controlled the northeastern County Donegal and northern County Londonderry (Boyne, 1996).

County Armagh comprised of four battalions; with the two battalions in South Armagh being more active than the two units in North Armagh.  Particularly, Tyrone consisted of a large IRA presence with three Brigades operating in the east, mid and west. The notorious East Tyrone Brigade also commanded county Monaghan.

The IRA battalions and companies were structured similarly with each comprising of a commanding officer, quartermaster, intelligence officer, and explosives officer. Some battalions and companies further recruited a finance officer or training officer.

Active Service Units

The operational arm comprised of cells referred to as Active Service Units (ASUs). Each cell comprised of five to eight members (Boyne, 1996). From 1973, due to security vulnerability, the organization began to break the larger conventional military structure. Battalion structures were replaced by a system of two parallel types of unit within the brigades.

The company structures were reconstituted to deal with such tasks as hiding weapons, intelligence-gathering, and “policing” nationalist areas. Whereas the old “company” structures provided support services, ASUs were tasked with the bulk of actual tasks. For purposes of improving operational capacity and security of the IRA, ASUs were smaller, tight-knit cells. The brigade’s quartermaster controlled weapons in the unit cells.

Apart from the rest of brigades and battalions, the South Armagh Brigade retained its traditional hierarchical structure and deployed a relatively larger number of volunteers in its operations. The reason for the brigade’s smooth running of operations is because it did not have as many security problems as the other brigades.

The Southern Command comprised of a Southern Brigade and various ASUs in rural areas, which were responsible for importing and storing arms for the Northern units and mobilizing finances through robberies and other means.

It is not clear on the number of people that joined the IRA during the Troubles. In the late 1980s, the IRA’s membership in Northern Ireland was estimated at 300 in ASUs and about 450 in supporting roles. This did not account for the IRA units in the Republic of Ireland or Britain, and continental Europe. In 2005, the government recorded an approximation of 1,000 to 1,500 active IRA members.

Logistical and Operational Requirements

During the initial stages of the Troubles, the IRA was poorly armed. It used the traditional World War II weaponry such as Thompson submachine guns and M1 Garands. However, in the early 1970s, the IRA obtained sophisticated weapons from they’re the United States and Libya supporters and purchased more weapons from dealers in the Middle East, America, Europe and other parts of the world.

The support from the IRA’s allies was regarding sharing training techniques, weapons and funding (Gill et al., 2014). Whereas Libya’s donation of arms to the organization was prevalent in the 1980s, the IRA attracted massive support from its Irish-American allies who provided funding and guns. The IRA was well funded to the extent that they provided a stipend to its members and offered support to families of incarcerated members.

The IRA organized for fundraising in the Irish Republic, the United and across the continent to provide for the relief of the families of IRA prisoners. Sinn Fein, the IRA political wing, is reported to the richest political party in Ireland. Most of the funding for Sinn Feinn was from the United States (Taylor, 2014). The Irish Northern Aid Committee based in the United States is reported to have been the principal source of IRA funds.

Supporters of IRA in the United States raised funds directly and indirectly, at lectures, film shows, house parties, dinners and collections in clubs and bars. Cash was also raised through Sinn Fein’s commercial activities such as books, pamphlets, and Christmas cards.

The IRA supplemented imported weaponry by developing their own. The rationale behind the production of weapons was to avoid dependency on supply into Ireland by air or by the sea, which was not fully reliable. Thus, the IRA called on the services of experienced engineers to help in building weapons such as home-made mortars. The organization also engaged the use of university-educated computer experts to volunteer in the construction of sophisticated timing and remote-control mechanisms that were used in mortars and bombs.

Reports indicate that the IRA utilized the ceasefire period for upgrading these mechanisms and developing techniques for combating the ‘disruptive’ radio signals used by the British Army. In 1993, the Garda uncovered an IRA workshop, where a wide range of advanced electronic detonators was being produced (Gill & Horgan, 2013).

During the initial years of the conflict, the IRA majorly focused on the provision of support to nationalist rioters and defending of nationalist areas. As a result, the IRA obtained support for its activities due to their perceived efforts to defend the Irish nationalist and Catholics against aggression.

Between 1971 and 1994, the IRA engaged in offensive operations targeting the RUC, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), the British army and Northern Ireland economic targets, while some IRA members attacked Protestant civilians. The IRA also targeted British government officials, the British Army in England, judges, and politicians.

During the Troubles era, IRA members became skilled in the production of explosives from substances such as fertilizers and nitrobenzene. These explosives were utilized in both small devices for throwing at the North’s security forces and large bombs for blowing up buildings.  The NRA also produced home-made weapons such as the drogue bomb and nail bomb. The IRA used the ceasefire period to produce the ‘Mark 17’ mortar, which to date is one of the most destructive weapons in the world (Gill, 2017).

The IRA decommissioned its weapons in 2005 under international supervision. The weapons decommissioned included; handguns, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, detonators, flamethrowers, surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, tonnes of Semtex, and rifles.


While the public reacted to the IRA’s activities with love and criticism in equal measure, it is evident that the organization played a huge role in raising economic and political activism in Ireland and the development of modern warfare equipment. The organization stands out as one of the most properly structured paramilitary groups in the world.


Boyne, S. (1996). Uncovering the Irish Republican Army. Jane’s Intelligence Review. Retrieved from:

Cottrell, P. (2014). The Anglo-Irish War: The Troubles of 1913–1922. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Gill, P. (2017). Tactical Innovation and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism40(7), 573-585.

Gill, P., & Horgan, J. (2013). Who were the volunteers? 1 The shifting sociological and operational profile of 1240 provisional Irish Republican Army members. Terrorism and Political Violence25(3), 435-456.

Gill, P., Lee, J., Rethemeyer, K. R., Horgan, J., & Asal, V. (2014). Lethal connections: The determinants of network connections in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, 1970–1998. International Interactions40(1), 52-78.

Horgan, J., & Taylor, M. (1997). The provisional Irish Republican army: Command and functional structure. Terrorism and Political Violence9(3), 1-32.

Kennedy-Pipe, C. (2014). The origins of the present troubles in Northern Ireland. Routledge.

Moran, J. (2016). From Northern Ireland to Afghanistan: British military intelligence operations, ethics and human rights. Routledge.

Taylor, P. (2014). The Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein. A&C Black.

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