Small Wars Journal

The PIRA Tempest: How a Strong Breeze Transformed into a Destructive Hurricane

Sun, 08/23/2015 - 9:00am

The PIRA Tempest: How a Strong Breeze Transformed into a Destructive Hurricane

Cory Wallace


The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) lost the support of Catholics in Northern Ireland because the scope of its operations escalated the level of violence to a state that was beyond its control. Following the turbulent summer of 1969 in Northern Ireland, the PIRA enjoyed a vibrant level of support from the Catholic community that desperately needed its protection. Demographically speaking, the Catholics were outnumbered by the Protestants by nearly a 2:1 ratio.[i] As Loyalist mobs increased their attacks against Catholic civil rights marches and neighborhoods, this minority population came to believe that the PIRA was both their first and last line of defense against an adversary that operated without fear of repercussion from the local police and the British army. The PIRA harnessed this support and used it to create an operational momentum that shocked both the Stormont government and the British peacekeeping forces.

The PIRA assumed that the support from the Catholic community would persist regardless of the consequences of its operations against the local security forces. Considering that the PIRA codified its struggle as a resistance against an oppressive colonial power, one that could only be vested through a costly attritional conflict, the PIRA knew that loss of life would be severe for both the combatants and noncombatants. However, the PIRA believed that its struggle to unify Ireland would embolden the Catholic populous to suffer the collateral damage with a rigid sense of forbearance. Regardless of the costs, the PIRA felt that Catholics in Northern Ireland would never turn their backs on the people fighting to liberate them from the jackboot of the British Empire.

However, the anti-colonial trope of the conflict waged by the PIRA eventually unraveled the stalwart support from the Catholic community. M.L.R. Smith believes that “the PIRA’s persistence in practicing armed force with reference to an anti-colonial warefare [sic] model resulted in its campaign becoming not only increasingly ineffective, but actually regressive in relation to its stated goals.”[ii] The PIRA’s fanatical methods caused secondary and tertiary effects that devastated Catholic neighborhoods. By the late 1970s, the PIRA lacked the resources to prosecute an effective campaign against the British army while defending the Catholic ghettos against Loyalist retribution. This lack of resources reduced the PIRA’s operations to a biter stalemate that lasted until the Good Friday Agreement which ended formal hostilities between the PIRA and the UK defense forces on 10 April 1998.

This investigation will begin by describing the social and economic environment of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and define the factors that contributed to the rise of the Irish civil rights movement. It will then explain Che Guevara’s focolism and place it in context within the PIRA’s operations. Next, it will define the PIRA’s escalation of violence that ultimately caused the British army to conduct Operation Motorman and explain the negative effects of the PIRA’s operations had on the Catholic populous. Finally, this paper will close with a discussion of the stalemate caused by the sectarian violence waged between the PIRA and the Loyalist militias and provide evidence that confirms the PIRA embraced a methodology that eroded the Catholic support for their cause.

The Storm Season Approaches: Social and Economic Conditions in Northern Ireland Catholic Communities in the 1960s

The social and economic environment in Northern Ireland during the 1960s was so oppressive for Catholics that it made armed conflict with Great Britain appear as the only solution to the apartheid-like conditions in Northern Ireland. Beginning in the 1950s, the economic status of Catholics in Northern Ireland began a steep decline that would hit its nadir in the late 1960s while the Protestant business owners enjoyed an inversely proportional level of prosperity. To the Catholics, the labor structure of Northern Ireland appeared to consist of bourgeois Protestants exploiting cheap Catholic labor to increase their profit margins.

The British army’s report on Operation Banner provides objective evidence to validate this claim. It states, “The situation was so miserable, large families often had to sleep in shifts so that half of the family could sleep in a cramped apartment while the other half roamed the streets at night.”[iii] Even if a Catholic wanted to escape his or her dismal surroundings, the Loyalist policy of "keeping the Catholics suppressed by giving the Protestant workers the impression that they benefit from the suppression” prevented them from doing so.[iv] Catholics found themselves unable to receive loans from Protestant-owned banks or navigate the local bureaucracy to obtain the licenses needed to open a business. In the workplace, biased promotions relegated the Catholics to the lowest-paying jobs, thus further confining them to poverty.

Anthony Coughlan, one of the founding members of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) believed that Britain bought the loyalty of the Protestants through this economic policy. NICRA felt that British economic policy subjugated the business owners as well as the impoverished Catholics. If the Protestants wanted to maintain their economic status, they had to adhere to the directives issued by the British government. While the business owners enjoyed attractive profit margins, it was the British government who ultimately benefited from products sold at a lower price because of the reduced labor costs. NICRA believed that by reforming the labor structure of Northern Ireland, the Protestants would stand to benefit just as much as the Catholics because they could define their own production schedules devoid of British influence.

However, the Protestant majority did not peacefully receive the viewpoints of NICRA and other civil rights movements. Often, Loyalist mobs would attack civil rights marches with clubs, rocks, and petrol bombs. Perhaps the most infamous example of this violence was the Loyalist attack on the NICRA march at Burntollet Bridge in Londonderry on 4 January 1969. Loyalists attacked the march once it crossed the bridge. When the demonstrators attempted to flee, another group of attackers appeared to their rear and sealed off their retreat. Further complicating matters, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did nothing to stop the violence.[v] In fact, many RUC officers changed out of their uniforms and joined the Loyalists in the ensuing riot in the Catholic enclave in Bogside where the rioters smashed windows and burned Catholic homes to the ground.

The Burntollet Bridge sent a message to the Catholic community in Northern Ireland that peaceful reform was no longer an option. Loyalist mobs would crush any attempt to further a civil rights agenda without any interference from the local law enforcement. In fact, the attack at the Burntollet Bridge proved to the Catholics that the RUC not only condoned the violence, they were more than willing to take part in it themselves. If the Catholics could not achieve social reform, they had to endure the current situation until the political climate in Northern Ireland changed. And if they had to wait for the situation to improve, they needed to defend what little they had without the assistance of the RUC. They were not the only ones who arrived at this conclusion. The PIRA quickly decided that if there was ever a time to make an entrance, 1969 was the best opportunity for which it could hope.

The Meteorology of the Storm: Political Ideology of the PIRA

The PIRA was not always an organization that viewed the collateral damage of its operations as inconsequential minutia, and in some cases, useful suffering that furthered its agenda. During the 1960s, socialism was spreading throughout the world. Following World War II, the end of imperial policy brought the suffering of the proletariat to the front of the world stage. In just about every country, labor movements gained traction and sought to right the scales of economic injustice that were tipped in capitalist favor for centuries.

The social climates in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were no different. Movements such as the Wolf Tone Society desired to unite the laborers in both portions of the island against the oppressive British bourgeoisie. With the palpable sensation of social revolution in the air, the PIRA decided that it could use this fervor to establish a foothold within the population and begin to work towards a unified Ireland. Richard English states, “Just as in earlier phases of republican activity, so also with the early Provisionals there was a complex relationship with socialist thought. In 1970, the IRA remained at least rhetorically committed to the ultimate objective of a socialist republic.”[vi] To this end, the PIRA relied upon Sinn Fein for its political messaging. One can argue that the organic nature of the PIRA made it better suited for seeking political change through violence as opposed to diplomatic negotiations. Sinn Fein was able to establish a relationship with the Catholics in Northern Ireland through its message of social equality. In turn, the PIRA was able to use this relationship as the basis for its integration into the Catholic communities and establish a sense of legitimacy with the downtrodden minority.

The appalling economic conditions for Catholics in Northern Ireland and the violent Loyalist oppression of Catholic civil rights movements made socialist revolution quite attractive. For the PIRA, which was anxious to use this sentiment to its advantage by making inroads to the Catholic community, Mao’s concept of protracted struggle against a colonial power could not have provided it with a better political framework. It merged both violent revolution and social change: two things that many Catholics in Northern Ireland believed were necessary.

Shortly after the PIRA began its operations, the socialist bent transformed into a fanatical ideology similar to Ernest “Che” Guevara’s focolism. While one is hard pressed to find written documentation of the PIRA embracing this ideology, one can deduce a clear correlation between the PIRA’s liberal application of violence towards civilians and some of the key tenets of this form of revolutionary doctrine. Focolism states that a revolution does not need to wait until the necessary conditions arise before it can begin; rather, it can create them. What this means is that if there is not enough resentment within the population towards the current ruling body, it is permissible for the revolution to generate that discord as long as it is doing so to meet its objectives.[vii] As this investigation will explain, the PIRA began to view the rising number of civilian causalities as a method of generating pressure on the British government to withdraw its troops from Northern Ireland. Countless PIRA propaganda sources openly lamented the loss of life, but blamed the deaths on the British government’s refusal to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

Therefore, one can conclude that what began as a movement to protect and unite the workers in both the north and the south devolved into a Maoist protracted struggle against a colonial power. As the PIRA cause began to lose momentum after the 1972 ceasefire, one can conclude that the political ideology of the PIRA transformed yet again into something akin to focolism and ultimately loses the support of the Catholic population after the loss of life and destruction of the local community becomes unacceptable to the civilian populous. 

The Storm Clouds Begin to Gather: The PIRA Defends Catholic Ghettos and Breaks from Sinn Fein

The Burntollet Bridge riots “spiraled Ulster into the sectarian violence from which the Provisional IRA emerged.”[viii] The PIRA went to work erecting barriers around the Catholic ghettos as well as manning vehicle checkpoints to deny the Loyalists an opportunity to infiltrate the communities and cause more havoc. Their immediate actions established a sense of rapport within the local Catholic communities. To many Catholics, the PIRA was their only protection against the sectarian violence that flourished in the perceived auspices of a tolerant, if not absent, British army and a co-conspiring Ulster Defense Force (UDF).

While the PIRA worked to isolate the Catholic communities from Loyalist rage, its leadership defined a campaign plan which consisted of three subsequent phases: defense, retaliation, and offense.[ix] In this plan, one can immediately note the absence of any mention of a political line of effort. For the PIRA, the diplomatic effort fell within the realm of Sinn Fein’s responsibility. The PIRA would provide the muscle and Sinn Fein would negotiate terms based on the results of the PIRA’s efforts. Differently stated, the PIRA viewed its operations as an independent entity from Sinn Fein’s comprehensive strategy to unite Ireland. They were both working towards the same goal, albeit on separate paths that had a minimal influence on each other.   

One can take the aforementioned claim further and state that the PIRA failed to see the utility of diplomatic negotiations given the fact that they believed that they were fighting an anti-colonial struggle. The PIRA felt that “Britain would only respond to force. Violence would make the state ungovernable and more costly for the British to remain that it would be for them to go.”[x] In this type of conflict, the imperialist oppressor would only relinquish his claim of the disputed land after the native insurgency made further occupation an unattractive and costly option. Richard English emphasizes, “Crucial to the [PIRA’s] thought was the rejection of conventional politics as ineffective and effete. Instead, they adopted the politics of force.”[xi]

The defensive portion of the PIRA’s campaign quickly achieved its desired results. Loyalist attacks on the Catholic ghettos decreased and the British army, originally deployed to protect the Catholic communities, declared the ghettos as “no-go areas” and allowed the PIRA to police its own neighborhoods. This relative sense of peace and calm following the riots earlier in 1969 created a paradox: how was the PIRA going to maintain enough Catholic support to move into the next phase of its campaign plan if the simple action of erecting barriers established a relative degree of normalcy within the Northern Irish Catholic community? Sinn Fein wanted the PIRA to halt the Loyalist incursions into Catholic neighborhoods and wait for them to continue the negotiations. For the PIRA, the struggle was much more binary. Either they were at war or they were at peace. Further, they would only be at peace when the British army withdrew from Northern Ireland. And, the PIRA knew all too well that the British army would not go anywhere unless they were compelled to do so through force.

The PIRA realized that it had to escalate the conflict if it wanted to move into the next phase of its operations. Smith states, “If they stuck to their policy of doing as little as possible to antagonize the Protestants [as per Sinn Fein’s guidance], they would lose much of their Catholic backing.”[xii] This is where we see the PIRA begin to embrace focolism. The current conditions, were for lack of a better term, a return to the status quo. The violence had decreased, but life for the Catholics in Northern Ireland had not improved. If the PIRA did not continue to escalate the struggle and make life more difficult for the British, they would lose their relevancy within the Catholic community. Therefore, they had to alter the conditions themselves.

To this end, the PIRA broke from the Official IRA (OIRA) in August of 1969.[xiii] The OIRA wanted the PIRA to solidify its gains and not go on the offensive until such action would benefit the on-going negotiations with the British. The PIRA, on the other hand, wanted to escalate the violence and provoke the British into making a decision: do they leave Northern Ireland or do the respond in similar fashion and further provoke the ire of the Catholic community? In fact, given the ensuing course of events, one can deduce that the PIRA skipped the retaliation phase all together and transitioned directly into the offensive portion of the its campaign plan.

The PIRA’s next step was to complete the erosion of the Catholic trust in the British army’s ability to provide security for the beleaguered ghettos. Prior to August 1969, the British Ministry of Defense deployed the army to protect the Catholics against the raging sectarian violence. While the army initially enjoyed a sense of credibility with the Catholics, this trust quickly dissipated. When the army declared certain Catholic ghettos as “no-go areas,” the Catholic population began to believe that the army was washing their hands of any further violence. With the assistance of the PIRA, rumors started to circulate about British soldiers assisting the Loyalist mobs in the same fashion as the RUC. At best, the Catholics viewed the army as a complicit organization. At worst, they were throwing petrol bombs alongside the Loyalists.

Returning to focalism, the PIRA knew it had to provoke the army into overreacting if it was to maintain the progress made with the Catholics. In June of 1970, the PIRA got its wish. While it has never been proven if the Loyalist attack on Short Strand was the result of PIRA provocation, the fight galvanized Catholic support for the PIRA cause. Defending alongside the local Catholics, the PIRA was able to repel a Loyalist invasion of Short Strand in East Belfast. After a vicious firefight, four Protestants would die from their wounds received during the fight. The PIRA enjoyed a tremendous bump in popularity while the British army and RUC continued their free fall in the public support realm. If the PIRA were to maintain its operational momentum, it would have to continue to escalate the level of violence to that beyond the defense of Short Strand. Naturally, there would be civilian deaths and collateral damage; however, none of that mattered as long as the PIRA was capable of nurturing the struggle to its full fruition and force the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

Lightning Strikes in the Distance: The PIRA Transitions from Defense to Offense

The defense of Short Strand provided the PIRA with the British response that it needed to further the Catholic discord with the British army. And frankly, it could not have come at a better time. The PIRA risked the loss of the public’s will to continue the struggle once the PIRA’s defensive operations decreased the Loyalist attacks. After their break from the OIRA, the PIRA was able to reject the status quo as adequate progress and continue to foster the anti-British sentiment in the Catholic communities by exploiting British overreactions.

In response to the four deaths at Short Strand, the British army conducted an extensive search of Belfast’s Lower Falls District on 3 July 1970.[xiv] The army found large amounts of weapons and explosives hidden throughout the neighborhood. The Catholic anger towards the intrusive search provided the PIRA with a new wave of recruits and surged support for the PIRA cause. Perhaps the British army could have downplayed the search by demonstrating that since they had found a large amount of weapons, the search was warranted. However, the PIRA, not wanting to waste a golden opportunity to apply focolism, keenly pointed out that the British army failed to search any Protestant neighborhoods and were clearly using the search as an excuse to abuse the Catholic minority in Belfast.

Emboldened by the recent deluge of Catholic support, the PIRA transitioned to the offense and began to bomb commercial targets in Northern Ireland. As previously stated, one struggles to find clear evidence that the PIRA actually conducted the retaliation phase of their campaign plan. While civilian casualties were light, the bombings initiated an economic stasis within the urban centers of Northern Ireland. While this investigation will discuss this matter in greater detail in a later section, these particular attacks, which continued throughout The Troubles, not only caused millions of pounds worth of damage, they slowly increased unemployment in Northern Ireland after the local businesses found it difficult to attract new clientele to what were perceived to be dangerous neighborhoods. 

In addition to the bombings, the PIRA began to attack the British security forces and reached a critical junction in its operations on 6 February 1971 when a PIRA gunman killed the first British soldier to die during The Troubles. Robert Curtis, a 21-year old member of the Royal Artillery, died during an early morning ambush. His death provoked a British response in the form of more aggressive patrols through Catholic neighborhoods. Shortly thereafter, on 10 March, PIRA operatives lured three off-duty Scottish soldiers from a Belfast pub and executed them with single gunshots to the back of the head. During the eight months following the Short Strand fight, the British army gained an understanding that the PIRA had transitioned to the offense.  

In response to the bombings and increased riots in both Derry and Belfast, the Stormont government pressured the British government to introduce internment without trial. Once again, we see the PIRA agitating the British security forces to the point that they overreacted. Further, the PIRA felt confident in their continued erosion of British restraint because they had a supportive Catholic population that was committed to the PIRA cause and thus provided them with a safe haven from which to base their operations and remain invisible until the time to strike British forces arrived.

In the early morning hours of 9 August 1971, the British army conducted Operation Demetrius. English explains that “during the first twenty-four hours, 342 people were arrested by the army and police. Fewer than a hundred of them were either Provisional or Official IRA volunteers.”[xv] The British army made the mistake using obsolete intelligence for planning Operation Demetrius. As a result, hundreds of innocent civilians were pulled out of their beds and arrested in front of their families during the early morning hours of 9 August.

As to be expected, the PIRA enjoyed another flood of both recruits and support following the debacle of Operation Demetrius. The PIRA focused this Catholic rage to incite riots in both Derry and Belfast, which caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage. However, it is important to note that the Operation Demetrius riots were an important milestone on the timeline of the PIRA because we now begin to see a phenomenon that will ultimately unravel Catholic support for the PIRA cause: feral Protestant sectarian retribution. While this retribution was not of significant scale in the early years of the 1970s, it would eventually grow to such a magnitude that the PIRA could no longer protect the Catholic populous while continuing to pressure the British security forces.

English explains that “within four days of Operation Demetrius, 20 people lay dead while thousands of Catholics found themselves homeless after Protestant mobs burned down their houses.”[xvi] Despite the death and destruction visited upon the heads of Catholics, its support for the PIRA cause remained unabated and enabled the PIRA to continue its aggressive operations. In 1971, the PIRA conducted 1,756 shootings, 1,515 bombings and claimed the lives of 174 people. Using the level of violence as a metric for Catholic support, we can argue that the PIRA garnered such a level of backing from the Catholic community that they were able to increase operations in 1972 and conducted 10,628 shootings, 1,853 bombings, and killed 467 people.[xvii] Placing these numbers in a historical context, we can conclude that they coincide with the next phase of the PIRA offensive: a large-scale bombing campaign that targeted British security forces as opposed to unoccupied commercial facilities.

In October 1971, Sean MacStoifain, then one of the three member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army Council, announced that the “PIRA’s fight had shifted to an offensive campaign of resistance in all parts of the occupied area.”[xviii] The PIRA realized that it had been fighting for over two years and had failed to bring the British government to the negotiation table. While it is unclear if the PIRA thought that the Catholic support for its cause was strong enough to endure Protestant retribution and collateral damage from the bombings for as long as it took to unite the island, the PIRA decided to escalate the level of violence and “use its limited resources to wage a war of psychological attrition against the British.”[xix] The PIRA believed that this new level of aggression in their bombing campaign would force “the British to pull out of Northern Ireland as a result of the inordinately high economic and political price incurred in trying to retain control.”[xx]

While the attacks focused on RUC facilities, the British army, and additional commercial targets, the Catholic community began to grimace at the creeping economic costs as well as the accidental loss of the lives of the poor souls who just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. During 1972, economic growth in Northern Ireland decreased by 10%. As previously mentioned, the decrease in revenue forced businesses to cut labor costs through massive layoffs. It is of little mystery as to what group of workers kept their jobs and what group was laid off when the Protestant business owners reduced their labor pool.

Catholic dissatisfaction with their quality of life in Northern Ireland threatened to erode the community’s backing of PIRA cause. Further threatening the PIRA’s base of support was the abolition of the Stormont government in March 1972. This oppressive government was a major source of the Catholic grievance with England, and, with its demise, the Catholic community became hard-pressed to justify enduring further death and destruction when they were presented with a very plausible chance of economic and social reform. Not wanting to lose the essential public support, the PIRA agreed to declare a ceasefire and meet with the British government in the later portion of 1972.[xxi]

The Storm Arrives: Bloody Friday and the PIRA’s Loss of Control

Not to the surprise of either the British or the PIRA, the 1972 negotiations failed with the ceasefire ending shortly thereafter. Coogan explains that the talks failed for two distinct reasons with the first being that the PIRA refused to deviate from their republican principles because they still viewed the conflict as a colonial struggle. As previously stated the PIRA saw the conflict as a binary situation- either the British left categorically, released all of the Irish political prisoners, and allowed Ireland to reunite or the PIRA would continue its operations. Regarding the second, Coogan explains, “One side wanted full-scale independence; the other a peaceful return to the status quo albeit to a reformed and more just one.”[xxii] Given the current situation had very little impact on daily life in England, the British saw no reason to acquiesce to PIRA’s demands and denied them outright.

In response to the failure of the 1972 ceasefire, the PIRA concluded that violence forced the British to hear its terms; therefore, an even greater level of destruction could bring them back to the table and eventually achieve its objective. In simple terms, the PIRA concluded that if it were to make the British leave, it would have to kill more of them. To this end, MacStiofain states, “British officials let it be known to the PIRA delegates that the level of casualties was not especially worrisome,” and subsequently proclaimed that the PIRA offensive would be renewed with the “utmost ferocity and ruthlessness.”[xxiii] It was with this promise of an unheralded level of violence the PIRA decided to conduct the “Bloody Friday” attacks.

On 21 July 1972, twenty-two bombs detonated within the course of an hour in the city center of Belfast. The blasts killed nine people and injured over 130 others. The public outcry, both Catholic and Protestant, was of equal proportion to the destruction and reverberated on the world stage. While the Catholic community may have condoned the PIRA’s attacks on the British security forces and commercial institutions guilty of the wanton economic Catholic oppression, it could not approve of the murder and maiming of over a hundred non-combatants. Therefore, Bloody Friday was a decisive event that shifted the Catholic support of the PIRA.

Operation Motorman further added to the Catholic discontent when, in response to Bloody Friday, the British army conducted massive clearing operations of the Catholic ghettos on 31 July 1972. British army planners “recommended a massive insertion of force to swamp the [IRA] strongholds with troops and force the IRA” to fight or withdraw.[xxiv] The operation was the largest concentration of British troops in Ireland since 1945. While the Operation Banner Report claimed that Operation Motorman “broke the back of the PIRA”[xxv], it is important to note that a significant portion of the PIRA leadership managed to escape the ghettos prior to the raid and continued fighting long after the British army concluded Operation Motorman. That being said, British security forces managed to detain key members of the PIRA leadership including Seamus Twomey, then the PIRA chief of staff.

In regards to the effects of Operation Motorman had on the PIRA, Maria McGuire, a former IRA operative turned peace advocate, concludes, “All the real IRA men are in jail now. Who’s left? Eighteen year-olds control the battalions with a few fanatics…Command had to be given to people who would never normally have a command.”[xxvi] While Operation Motorman certainly degraded the PIRA’s command structure, it certainly had not “broken its back.” Rather, the operation set the conditions for an even more vicious breed of PIRA to take the control of the organization. True, the PIRA was certainly more violent than its predecessor, the OIRA. After Operation Motorman, a cohort of leaders assumed control and believed that no price was too high to pay for independence. Given that the PIRA was reduced in both size and resources, its leadership knew that its efforts would have to produce an even greater amount of shock it if hoped to destroy Britain’s will to fight.

The new leadership of the PIRA concluded that the British government would never consider withdrawing its troops if the violence was contained to Irish soil. Therefore, the PIRA decided to export its violence to England vis-à-vis the 1973 bombing campaign. Beginning on 8 March, PIRA car bombs began to detonate on British soil. Many of these blasts targeted British security force installations, such as the Old Baily; the initial blast of the bombing campaign killed one person and injured 147 others.[xxvii]

But simply attacking security force installations did not produce the level of shock desired by the PIRA leadership. The car bombs began to detonate outside of civilian targets as well. Granted, the PIRA always claimed that it called in a warning prior to the blast, but more often than not these warnings arrived too late for the civilians to evacuate the affected locations. The most atrocious incident of this brand of attack was the bombing of two pubs in Birmingham on 21 November 1972. The blasts killed twenty-one people wounded dozens others. While the PIRA never publically claimed responsibility for the Birmingham bombings, there was little doubt with in the minds of the populous who was behind the two atrocities. The PIRA’s reputation and the scale of the destruction in Birmingham couple to create to what Robert W. White refers to as “the Provisional’s deadliest mistake.”[xxviii]

The Birmingham bombs accelerated the decline of Catholic support for the PIRA cause. While Bloody Friday confirmed the notion that the PIRA was not going to allow anything, to include innocent human life, to stand in the way of uniting Ireland, the Birmingham bombs obliterated the PIRA’s social standing as defenders of the Catholic minorities in Northern Ireland. Soldiers fight a war against other soldiers to defend what they hold dear; they do not murder twenty-one civilians to further a political objective. “The immediate public reaction, therefore,” explains Smith, “was to seek protection from these outrages, not to empathize with the cause of the people who perpetrated them.”[xxix] Stated differently, civilians should not fear the men protecting them; however, following the Birmingham pub bombings, Catholic communities did exactly that.

With Catholic support for the PIRA at its nadir, the new chief of staff, Sean MacStoifain, who replaced the hardline Twomey following his arrest during Operation Motorman, approached the British and requested a ceasefire in 1975 so that negotiations could resume. Other than the dissolution of Stormont, the destruction sown by the PIRA had failed to achieve any of its major objectives: the British army still occupied Northern Ireland, the vast majority of political prisoners were still in jail, and there was absolutely no chance that Ireland would reunite anytime in the foreseeable future. In fact, one can argue that the only thing the PIRA did accomplish was to alienate its Catholic base of support– a resource that it needed to avoid the increased number of British security force patrols. The British government agreed to the terms of the 1975 ceasefire and the PIRA guns fell silent on 9 February 1975. During this truce, an exasperated Catholic community tried to catch its breath and determine what was in store for it once the masked man armed with Armalites returned.

The Eye of the Storm: The PIRA Turns upon other Catholics

Surprisingly enough, the 1975 ceasefire lasted until 26 January 1976. Granted, there were occasional violations perpetrated by PIRA members who could not handle the malaise of peace, but the PIRA leadership did its best to uphold its end of the bargain. White makes the paradoxical argument that the ceasefire did just as much to degrade PIRA combat power as did a full-scale conflict with the British security forces based upon one simple fact: during the 1975 ceasefire, the PIRA soldiers began to normalize and lose their taste for fighting. In an interview with Robert White, Joe Cahill, a one-time treasurer for Sinn Fein, stated that during the ceasefire, the soldiers could “establish a sort of normal routine…They could go back and live with their families- getting a job, getting a wage, and enjoying normal life sort of thing. It’s very hard to get them to give that up.”[xxx]

Knowing that if the PIRA prematurely broke the ceasefire, they would lose the extremely tenuous Catholic support which hung by a very frayed thread. Therefore, the PIRA decided to combat the sense of complacency within its ranks by targeting one group that would not anger the British army: other Catholics. According to the authoritative journalist Jack Holland, “The Provisionals saw the truce as an opportunity after four years of fighting the British to both settle some old scores with the Officials (OIRA) and to restate their ghetto supremacy.”[xxxi] Before we proceed, we must question the judgement of the PIRA leadership. They did not want to break the ceasefire and erode the last remaining shred of public support for their cause. Yet, they believed that killing other Catholics would cause less friction with their base of support. The power-struggle within the Catholic ghettos sent an unequivocal message to the Catholics civilians that not subscribing to the exact dogma of the PIRA’s uncompromising republican ideas was just as dangerous as if they were engaging the PIRA in armed conflict. To the Catholic community, the PIRA was no longer the valiant defender of their brothers and sisters in Christ; rather, it was a group of fanatics bent controlling the ghettos and achieving its political objectives at any costs.

The PIRA’s attacks against the OIRA dissipated any credibility that it gained with its Catholic base by declaring the 1975 ceasefire. While the Catholics were initially relieved for the respite from the perpetual violence, they learned that the “PIRA’s heavy-handed policing of the ghetto areas and its violent vendetta against the OIRA, along with the threat of Loyalist killers, sent a clear message to the Catholics in Northern Ireland that there was no end in sight to the violence that had forever altered life in Northern Ireland.”[xxxii] This infighting between the PIRA and other IRA groups forced the Catholic population to wonder if this was a preview of things to come if the PIRA achieved its desired endstate. Even if Britain was not in the picture, would the PIRA always need an enemy, even if that enemy was Catholic?

Perhaps the greatest reason why PIRA was never able to regain the trust of its Catholic base even after committing to the 1975 ceasefire was that everyone but the PIRA had come to the understanding that a stronger belligerent, in this case Great Britain, does not make excessive concessions to a weaker belligerent. Simply stated, nobody but the PIRA believed that they had a chance of achieving all of its objectives. During the 1972 negotiation, Great Brittan was quick to point out to the PIRA delegation that more British soldiers had died in Germany as a result of accidents than had been killed by the PIRA. If the PIRA hoped to bring the British army to its knees through attritional warfare, it certainly had a long way to go. White believes that it “is unlikely to give into a set of demands under the limited duress of a less powerful opponent.”[xxxiii] If the amount of death and destruction that the PIRA sown throughout both Northern Ireland and Great Britain had not accomplished its objectives, how much was required? While the PIRA was willing to pay to this price, the civilian populous certainly was not.

The Storm Passes but the Violence Remains: The Sectarian Conflict of the 1990s

With the loss of the public support sans a handful of diehard advocates, the PIRA’s operations degraded into a tit-for-tat sectarian conflict with the Loyalists in the 1990s. True, the bombings continued, but the PIRA for all intent and purposes was never able to fully mass its efforts into a cohesive campaign once the British security forces were able to target its members who were no longer able to disappear into the Catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland.

This sectarian violence ravaged the Catholic communities. In essence, they once again became the bill payers for the PIRA’s operations. Initially, the PIRA stated that it did not have any quarrels with the Protestant civilian who did not stand in their way of uniting Ireland. Coogan explains that during the early portion of The Troubles, there was an official IRA policy that stated that “a Protestant is not a target for his religion. It is the status of the target as an upholder of the Northern status quo which determines the choice of target.”[xxxiv] The PIRA knew that it did not have enough resources to fight both the security forces and the Protestant majority.

This policy changed after the 1972 bombing campaign. The Loyalist responded to the PIRA-wrought destruction by targeting Catholic civilians. These victims were abducted, tortured, and often killed in retaliation for the PIRA’s bombs. Vigilante groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Front (UVR), the Tara Organization, and the Shankhill Butchers Gang terrorized Catholic neighborhoods and challenged the PIRA’s original proposition of serving as these area’s defenders.

The PIRA had no choice but to respond to these attacks in equal fashion. This sectarian tit-for-tat reached its zenith in the 1990s. While the PIRA still publicly emphasized that it did not use religion as a discriminator for targeting, its members had different ideas. On 17 January 1992, “seven Protestants were killed when an IRA landmine blew up the van in which they were traveling near the Treebane Crossroads in County Tyron.”[xxxv] In response, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) killed five Catholics in a crowded bookie office on 5 February 1992.

The most infamous of these attacks was the bombing of the Shankill Fish Market on 23 October 1993. The PIRA claimed that they were targeting the UFF leader Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair who allegedly held meetings in the back of the market. While he was not there that day, scores of Protestants shoppers were. The blast killed nine civilians and wounded over sixty- none of which had anything to do with the UFF.

Such action-reactions became commonplace during the 1990s. The Loyalists would kill a prominent Catholic civilian to which the PIRA would respond by bombing a popular Protestant gathering location. While the PIRA conflict with the British at least had an endstate, this level of violence promised to continue until only one group remained in Northern Ireland. Prior to this point, the Catholic community had stopped supporting the PIRA. Now, they, along with the Protestant civilians, were calling for the international community to step in and permanently end the violence. The sectarian violence of the 1990s was breaking point for Northern Ireland in its ability to suffer any further violence. What had begun as a civil rights movement in the late 1960s had degraded into ethnic cleansing. And while the Loyalist fanatics and PIRA might have accepted these terms, the people of Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the international community, did not. International figures, such as President Bill Clinton, helped bring both sides to the negotiating table and, on 10 April 1998, ended the hostilities in Northern Ireland by signing the Good Friday Agreement.

The Storm Season Concludes

Why did the Provisional Irish Republican Army lose the support of its Catholic base? Speaking plainly, they privileged their ardent republican principles over the desires of the people whom they were seeking to liberate. In the organization’s infancy, its leadership subscribed to the assumption that if they applied enough violence to the British security forces, they could shed the yoke of their perceived colonial overloads and finally enjoy the liberty that they desired since the English flooded Northern Ireland with Scottish Presbyterian settlers in 1603. However, the PIRA failed to think about the long-term consequences their actions had on the population. As in any insurgency, the belligerents need the population if they hope to maintain their biggest advantage of disappearing into a crowd of noncombatants after conducting operations. In other terms, the insurgent must maintain the ability to become invisible if he hopes to defeat a larger and more technologically superior force. Given the suffering endured by the Catholic community in the form of Loyalist retribution, collateral damage, martial law, and Catholic in-fighting, the PIRA lost this ability and was thus unable to muster the necessary momentum to attrite the British will to fight.

Conversely, the British were never able to decisively defeat the PIRA. Certainly, Operation Motorman degraded the PIRA’s capability to conduct large-scale operations; however, the British security forces were never able to eradicate the PIRA. The best that they were able to achieve was a stalemate. While this stalemate certainly did not dissuade the extremists in the PIRA or Loyalist militias, it exhausted the populous of Northern Ireland and forced the combatants to come to terms with the Good Friday Agreement.

This investigation will close with perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that speaks for the lack of Catholic support for the PIRA’s ultimate objective of a unified Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement states that the British government will not interfere with any vote for unification held by the citizens of Northern Ireland. To this day, no such vote has taken place. Since 2002, the Protestant population of Northern Ireland has declined by 5% while the Catholic population continues to grow. A recent census of Northern Ireland concluded that the Protestants maintain a small three-percent majority with 48% of the total population in Northern Ireland while Catholics make up 45%.[xxxvi] The remaining seven percent do not subscribe to either faith. If there was still support for the PIRA’s cause, one could argue that the contemporary Catholic population certainly has enough influence to at least place the issue on a ballot. Clearly, that has yet to happen and causes one to consider that perhaps the suffering inflicted by The Troubles on both the Catholic and Protestant populations has associated the mere thought of unification with a period of time to which neither group wishes to return.

Works Cited

British Ministry of Defense. Operation Banner: An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland. 2006.

Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA: A History. Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993.

Devenport, Mark. "Census Figures: NI Protestant Populatin Continuing to Decline." BBC. December 12, 2012. (accessed April 10, 2015).

Eli, Paul S., Ian G. Shuttleworth, C.D. Lloyd, Niall A. Cunningham, and Ian N. Gregory. Lancaster University. 2013. (accessed April 18, 2015).

English, Richard. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hill, Jamie E. "Che Guevara: An Exploration of Revolutionary Theory." Small Wars Journal, December 17, 2010.

Smith, M.L.R. Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement. New York, New York: Routledge, 1995.

The Museum of Free Derry: Civil Rights Archive- The History of Burntollet Bridge. 2005. (accessed April 15, 2015).

White, Robert W. Provisional Irish Republicans: An Oral and Interpretive History. West Port, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993.

End Notes

[i] Niall A. Cuningham, Ian N. Gregory, Paul S. Eli, and Ian G. Shuttleworth, “Stagnation and Segregation:

Northern Ireland 1971-2001” (Lancaster University, 2013) (accessed April 18, 2015).

[ii] M.L.R. Smith, Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (New York, New York: Routledge, 1995), 141.

[iii] British Ministry of Defense, Operation Banner: An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland, 2006, 2-2.

[iv] Ibid., 2-3.

[v] The Museum of Free Derry: Civil Rights Archive- The History of Burntollet Bridge (2005) (accessed April 15 2015).

[vi] Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 129.

[vii] Jamie E. Hill, “Che Guevara: An Exploration of Revolutionary Theory,” Small Wars Journal (December 17 2010), 1.

[viii] Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 91.

[ix] Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA: A History, (Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993), 271.

[x] Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 125.

[xi] Ibid., 125.

[xii] M.L.R. Smith, Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (New York, New York: Routledge, 1995), 85.

[xiii] Ibid., 89.

[xiv] Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 136.

[xv] Ibid., 139.

[xvi] Ibid., 140.

[xvii] M.L.R. Smith, Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (New York, New York: Routledge, 1995), 95.

[xviii] Ibid., 95.

[xix] Ibid., 97.

[xx] Ibid., 97.

[xxi] Ibid., 104.

[xxii] Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA: A History, (Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993), 299.

[xxiii] Ibid., 107-108.

[xxiv] British Ministry of Defense, Operation Banner: An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland, 2006, 2-9.

[xxv] Ibid., 2-9.

[xxvi] Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA: A History, (Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993), 120.

[xxvii] M.L.R. Smith, Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (New York, New York: Routledge, 1995), 125.

[xxviii] Robert W. White, Provisional Irish Republicans: An Oral and Interpretive History, (West Port, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993), 136.

[xxix] M.L.R. Smith, Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (New York, New York: Routledge, 1995), 128.

[xxx] Robert W. White, Provisional Irish Republicans: An Oral and Interpretive History, (West Port, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993), 138.

[xxxi] M.L.R. Smith, Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (New York, New York: Routledge, 1995), 132.

[xxxii] Robert W. White, Provisional Irish Republicans: An Oral and Interpretive History, (West Port, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993), 111.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 134.

[xxxiv] Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA: A History, (Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1993), 285.

[xxxv] Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 276.

[xxxvi] Mark Davenport, “Census Figures: NI Protestant Population Continuing to Decline,” BBC, (December 12 2012) (accessed April 10 2015).


About the Author(s)

Cory Wallace was born and raised in Gillette, Wyoming. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2004 and was commissioned as an Armor 2LT. He is currently stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. He holds a Master’s of Arts in Literature from the University of Washington and a Master’s of Science in Business with a focus in Supply Chain Management from the University of Kansas. He is married and has three kids.