The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) is a paramilitary group demanding the reunification of Ireland. It has been on ceasefire since 1996.

It is also known as the Provisional IRA, the Provos and the Irish Republican Army, is most commonly referred to simply as the IRA, although several groups claim that title. For a history of these groups see the Irish Republican Army entry.

Table of contents
1 Formation of the Provisional IRA
2 Split from the 'Officials'
3 The peace process
4 Activities
5 Infiltration
6 See Also
7 Footnotes

Formation of the Provisional IRA

The PIRA was formed in 1969, with the stated aim of removing the British from Northern Ireland, and to the unification of Ireland by force. It is organized into small, tightly knit cells under the leadership of the Army Council. Due to its frequent use of bombings, its assassination of politicians and diplomats, its murder 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

Split from the 'Officials'

The Provos were initially a splinter group of the Official IRA, which claimed descent from the Old IRA, which was the army of the Irish Republic, (1919-22), and which split into pro- and anti-treaty factions during the Irish Civil War. The 'Officials', or Official IRA, moved to a more Marxist analysis of the 'Irish Problem' in the mid 1960s. The Provos held to a more traditional republican analysis and became larger and more successful, eventually overshadowing the original group. The name 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 their political wing, Provisional Sinn Féin (later known simply as Sinn Féin), from the older organisation (which itself eventually became the Workers' Party). The new Provisional group was less committed to a revolutionary class-based socialist view of the situation.

The PIRA has several hundred members and several thousand sympathizers, although its strength may have been affected by operatives leaving the organization to join hardline splinter groups. While it and its political wing, Sinn Féin, operated on the belief that it 'spoke for Ireland', at no stage has it never had mass support. Even with the end of its war and the entry of its ministers into government in Stormont, and with all the resulting media exposure and good-will from some, it still receives relatively small support in the Republic of Ireland (5 TDss out of 166). In Northern Ireland its support base is stronger but still remains anything but politically dominant, though recently it has won more MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont) a member of the party may become Deputy First Minister. (That post was most recently held by Mark Durkan, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, which then had more MLAs2 than Sinn Féin.) However at present Stormont is suspended.

In the past, the movement's appeal was hurt badly by some of its bombing 'outrages', notably the murder of men and women 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 packing O'Connell Street in Dublin calling for the end to their campaign of violence.

The PIRA received funds and arms from sympathizers in the United States, notably from an organisation called Noraid (Irish Northern Aid) and has received aid from a variety of groups and countries and considerable training and arms from Libya and, at one time, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), as well as profiting from drug dealing. This support has been weakened by so called "War against Terrorism", the events of September 11th and the discovery of three PIRA suspects in Colombia who were allegedly training Colombian FARC terrorists.

The peace process

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 organisation in October, 2001. However, following the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing government in 2002, which was partially triggered off 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 years behind schedule. Increasing numbers of people, from the Ulster Unionists under David Trimble and the SDLP under Mark Durkan to the Irish Government under Bertie Ahern and the mainstream Irish media, have begun demanding not merely decommissioning, which was meant to have been completed by now, but the wholesale disbandment of the IRA.


The Provisional IRA's activities have included bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, punishment beatings, extortion, and robberies. Previous targets have included the British Military, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and civilians in Northern Ireland, senior British Government officials, and Northern Irish Members of Parliament. Members of the Garda Síochána (The Republic of Ireland's police force) have also been killed, most notoriously Detective Garda Gerry McCabe, who was shot and killed after the ceasefire. It is claimed that elements of the PIRA are involved in recent months in a spate of bank robberies throughout the island, allegedly to build up funds to 'pension off' PIRA members and so facilitate disbandment. Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UVF and the UDA are currently not on 'ceasefire' and are engaged in an internal war. PIRA bombing campaigns have been conducted against rail and London Underground (Subway) stations and shopping areas on Great Britain, and a British military facility on the European Continent. The IRA has been observing a cease-fire since July 1997 (although hardline splinter groups such as the Real IRA are still active on the island of Great Britain) and previously observed a cease-fire from 1 September 1994 to February 1996.

Notable events included:

  • 21 July 1972 Bloody Friday. 22 bombs killed 9 and seriously injured 130. 30 years later the IRA officially apologised for this set of attacks.
  • 1974 Guildford pub bombing killed 19 and injured 182. Four people, dubbed the Guildford Four, were convicted for this and were imprisoned with life sentences. 15 years later Lord Lane of the Court of Appeal overturned their convictions noting "the [investigating] officers must have lied".
  • 1974 Birmingham Pub Bombings. Bombs in two pubs killed 19. The Birmingham Six were tried for this and convicted. Many years later, after new evidence of police fabrication and suppression of evidence, their convictions were quashed. Appeals by the Birmingham Six that the read IRA bombers admit their responsibility were ignored.
  • 1975 Balcombe Street siege
  • 1976 The IRA blew up the newly appointed British ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, resulting in a State of Emergency being declared in the Republic. The IRA also threatened to kidnap or kill Irish cabinet ministers and the President of Ireland.
  • 1979 The IRA blow up Earl Mountbatten of Burma, members of his family and a local child off the Irish coast. An appeal by Pope John Paul II during his Irish visit that their campaign of violence end was ignored.
  • 1981 IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, imprisoned in connection with his involvement in a military strike involving a bomb and subsequent gun battle, was elected Member of Parliament in the Northern Ireland constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, after the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party decided not to run a candidate, leaving Sands as the main nationalist candidate in the by-election. He had been on a hunger strike for 'Prisoner of War' status for 41 days prior to being elected. He died 23 days later.
  • 1981 The IRA killed Ulster Unionist Party Belfast MP Rev Robert Bradford along with the caretaker of a community centre. Irish Taoiseach Dr. Garret FitzGerald and former taoiseach Charles Haughey condemned the killings in Dáil Éireann. SDLP party leader John Hume accused the Provisional IRA of waging a campaign of "sectarian genocide".
  • 1982 Hyde Park. 2 bombs killed 8 members of the Household Cavalry and Royal Green jackets units performing ceremonial duties in one of the few mainland attacks which targeted soldiers. 7 of their horses were also killed.
  • 1983 Harrods department store bomb during Christmas shopping season killed 6 (3 police) and wounded 90.
  • 1984 Brighton hotel bombing: a bomb in the Grand Hotel killed 5 in a failed attempt to kill members of the British cabinet, including Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister.
  • 1987 Enniskillen massacre. Bombing of a Remembrance Day parade killed 11 civilians (including nurse Marie Wilson, whose father Gordon Wilson went on to become a leading campaigner for an end to violence in Northern Ireland) and injured 63. The IRA later claimed that their target was a colour guard of British soldiers. On Remembrance Day 1997, the leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, formally apologised for the bombing.
  • 1989 10 Royal Marines bandsmen were killed and 22 injured in a bombing of their base in Deal, Kent.
  • 1990 Car bombings in Northern Ireland killed 7 and wounded 37.
  • 1991 2 IRA members were killed by their own bomb in St Albans.
  • 1992 8 Protestant builders killed by an IRA bomb on their way to work at an Army base near Omagh.
  • 1993 IRA bomb in Warrington killed 2 children.
  • 1993 IRA detonated a huge truck bomb in the City of London at Bishopsgate, which killed 2 and caused approximately £350m of damage, including the near destruction of St. Ethelburga's Bishopsgate.
  • 1993 A bomb at a fish and chip shop underneath a UDA office on the Protestant Shankill Road, Belfast went off prematurely and killed 10 people, including 2 children and the bomber.
  • 1996 IRA broke their cease-fire and kill two in a bomb at the Canary Wharf towers in London.
  • 15 June 1996 Manchester bombing by IRA was a 5,000lb bomb which injured 206 people and damaged 70,000 square meters of retail and office space.


There have been persistent rumours that the Provisional IRA had been infiltrated by British Intelligence agents, and that senior IRA members were 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 Stakeknife, who is thought to have been head of the Provisional IRA's internal security force, charged with routing out informers like himself. Scappaticci denies that this is the case and is taking legal action to clear his name.

See Also

Other terrorist organisations in Ireland


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.

2 MLA means Member of the Legislative Assembly, the local parliament created under the Belfast Agreement.