The Irish Republican Army (IRA): A Troubled History
Mural of The Troubles, Belfast, United Kingdom. (Getty Images)
The history of the IRA, or Irish Republican Army, is long and complicated, filled with religious tensions, political uprisings, and lots of mayhem. So who exactly are the IRA, what do they believe, and what do they want? It's a bit of a tricky answer because there have not been one but several IRAs throughout Ireland's history, but the Irish Republican Armies have all wanted, in some form or another, the political and religious independence of the island of Ireland from any foreign nation, namely Great Britain.
To understand why this is important, we have to go all the way back to the 1160s, with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. Before this, the Irish isle was not ruled by any singular government, existing as a collection of various smaller kingdoms under the vague authority of the High King. When the Normans invaded, however, they claimed the whole island and brought it under English control. As one might imagine, the Irish didn't like this much, and there has been bloody conflict pretty much ever since. The native Irish people even nearly won back control of the island in the 1500s, but King Henry VIII pushed back hard and declared himself both King of England and Ireland.
King Henry VIII. (Wikipedia Commons)
Total military domination may have worked on Ireland if not for the fact that Henry VIII and most of the English monarchs who followed pushed their Protestant Church of England religion on all those under their rule. The Irish would not abandon their Catholicism, and the religious struggle became deeply entangled with issues of political oppression across the land. The Irish continued to rebel and tried out some pretty wacky things, including once invading Canada just to mess with Great Britain, but nothing really panned out.
Things just kind of chugged along like that until 1912. Ireland was still putting itself back together after the Great Potato Famine heavily reduced the population through starvation or emigration, and those left were tired of the constant English intervention and oppression. They wanted democratic control over at least local issues, but England wasn't keen on the idea, splitting the country between Irish Nationalists who thought Ireland ought to rule itself as an independent nation and Unionists who liked the status quo. While Nationalism was more popular among the Catholic majority, the wealthier Protestants in Northern Ireland leaned more Unionist for fear of economic decline if cut off from England's power.
Aftermath of a fire at the British and Irish Steam Ship Co. Warehouse, 1921. (Wikipedia Commons)
In 1913, the Irish Volunteers formed a small Nationalist military force that led a revolt against the British military stationed in Dublin called the Easter Rising, which led to the deaths of nearly 500 soldiers, civilians and rebels alike. In the 1918 election, the pro-Nationalist party Sinn Fien won three-fourths of the assembly seats. This kicked off the War of Independence for Ireland, in which the original Irish Republican Army fought the British military until 1922, when Great Britain finally allowed the Irish to self-govern but only under the dominion of the British Empire. Northern Ireland was also partitioned off and eventually joined the United Kingdom. Ireland as a nation finally gained complete political independence in 1937.
The end, right? Nope. Not even close. Although the original Irish Republican Army may have formally disbanded, many Catholic Nationalists weren't going to accept anything less than total and complete Irish independence, Northern Ireland included. Violence recurred sporadically for decades. During WWII, while Ireland remained neutral, the IRA went so far as to aid German spies, hoping to use their intel to sabotage England's war effort. Luckily, they weren't very successful.
Father Edward Daly in Belfast, Bloody Sunday. (Wikipedia Commons)
Most of the conflict had been contained to Protestant-majority Northern Ireland, but in the 1960s, a Catholic civil rights movement was underway across the region to end discrimination against Catholics for jobs and housing. On August 12, 1969, the citizens of Derry started a riot against the Unionists due to gerrymandering and voter suppression where thousands of people were injured. In early 1972, another episode of major violence erupted in Derry when unarmed Nationalists threw rocks at British soldiers during a planned protest. The soldiers responded by opening fire, and 14 unarmed civilians died while 12 more were injured by the gunfire on what would later be called "Bloody Sunday." Support for the IRA, now going by the name Provisional Irish Republican Army, swelled after this event, and mass violence across Ireland became regular.
The IRA's weapon of choice was car bombs parked in strategic positions, and these bombs tended to kill innocent civilians as much as anyone else. On a single day in July 1972, the IRA rigged 22 bombs in Belfast that killed four soldiers and police as well as five innocents alongside over 100 injured civilians. This day came to be known as "Bloody Friday." Over the next two decades, the IRA was responsible for hundreds of shootings and bombings, and the violence would eventually spill over into England. In 1974 alone, they killed more than 40 people in Great Britain and injured hundreds more.
Margaret Thatcher. (Wikipedia Commons.)
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came down hard on the IRA, refusing to imprison the captured soldiers as political prisoners. Instead, she insisted on treating them like common criminals. The captured IRA went on a hunger strike against Thatcher, but the Iron Lady refused to waver. As a result, 10 IRA prisoners died, including the famous Bobby Sands, who was celebrated by many Irish republicans for his fortitude. The IRA tried to assassinate Thatcher in 1984 by blowing up the Grand Brighton Hotel but instead killed five Conservative Party members and injured several more.
After thousands of deaths, England and Ireland agreed to have a sit-down with the party leaders of Northern Ireland, including the Nationalist-backed Sinn Fein, in 1997. Together, they drew up the Good Friday Agreement, which addressed most major grievances, allowed reunification, and released prisoners. A year later, it was passed, and although it didn't end all violence, it certainly pacified all but the most radical. Although some still use the name, the official IRA finally called for an end to all violence in 2005.