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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
The IRA's store of weaponry
A kalashnikov rifle recovered from the IRA
A Kalashnikov rifle recovered from the IRA
Despite all of the speculation over the years, only the IRA knows the true extent of its arsenal.

Two other men, the independent arms inspectors Cyril Ramaphosa and Martti Ahtisaari, have seen some weaponry but they're not saying what.

Numerous attempts have been made to estimate its size and extent based on criteria including:

  • Weapons known to have been used
  • Arms recovered by security forces
  • Intelligence from informers
  • Other intelligence gathered around the world

    While amounts are impossible to say with any certainty, the IRA's actions in Northern Ireland long ago left the security forces in no doubt that the organisation was in a position to fight a decades long campaign, providing it had the will to do so.

    When Northern Ireland slid into conflict in the late 1960s and the Provisional IRA emerged, it was badly armed, relying on old guns from previous campaigns, commercial explosives and a complete lack of the logistical support needed to fight a campaign.

    But as it grew throughout the 1970s and reorganised, it began to acquire a wider range of weapons from around the world, principally through sympathisers in the USA, and the skills to make increasingly sophisticated home-made bombs.

    Infantry arms

    Evidence collected from arms finds, informers and the aftermath of shootings shows that the IRA has a large range of arms typically associated with infantry.

    A machine gun seized from the IRA
    Heavy weapons: Used in ambushes
    The IRA and its guns
  • Apr 1998: IRA rejected disposal
  • Oct 2001: First decommissioning
  • Witnessed by independent inspectors

    Pre-decommissioning estimates include:

  • 500 rifles
  • Several tonnes of Semtex plastic explosive
  • Various arms dumps across Ireland

  • The backbone of this arsenal has long been the AK-47 and Armalite rifles, suspected to number at least 500.

    The AK-47 has since earned a worldwide reputation in military circles as being "the terrorist's weapon of choice" because they are cheap, easy to acquire, reliable and relatively easy to maintain.

    In the 1990s the IRA acquired a number of highly accurate Barrett Light 50 sniping rifles and began using them against British soldiers in the border area of south Armagh. The last British solider to die in Northern Ireland prior to the current IRA ceasefire, Stephen Restorick, died after being shot with one of these weapons in 1997.

    The IRA is known to have a number of heavy machine guns, thought to be the Russian-made Degtyarev, which it has used in ambushes. The IRA used heavy machine gun fire to bring down an army helicopter in 1988.

    Estimates of how many handguns it possesses are among the most difficult to make - though security forces have long known that the IRA developed long-standing supplies from America.

    Other weapons are thought to include various rocket launchers and even ground-to-air anti-aircraft missiles, though it appeared that prior to the ceasefires there was no one in the organisation capable of firing one.

    Libya connection

    But the IRA's acquisition of arms through Libya in the 1980s helped transform the organisation into one that could fight a devastating and sustained campaign.

    The Eskund gun-running ship, seized in 1987
    Eskund: 150 tonnes of arms seized
    The first arms connection with Libya was discovered in 1973 when a ship laden with guns and ammunition, the Claudia, was apprehended off the Irish coast.

    According to Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, he resumed contact with the IRA in 1986 after the UK assisted the US in bombing Tripoli.

    It is believed that three substantial shipments of arms reached Ireland before the French authorities apprehended a ship, the Eskund, laden with some 150 tonnes of weaponry.

    Infamous weapon

    It is these supplies from Libya which provided the IRA with its most significant and infamous weapon: Semtex.

    Semtex plastic explosive
    Semtex: Smuggled from Libya
    The plastic explosive was first made in Czechoslovakia and is virtually odourless, easy to use and, unlike home-made bombs, stable.

    The IRA began using it to create landmines for attacks against soldiers in border areas. But instead of using up supplies as a primary explosive, the IRA used Semtex as a "booster" for large home-made bombs.

    It is generally believed that the IRA still has at least 2.5 tonnes of Semtex with a shelf life of perhaps another 20 years.

    It is also believed to have a huge stockpile of electronic or mechanical detonators while forensic evidence has pointed towards the organisation having members capable of constructing sophisticated circuitry.

    Homemade devices

    What none of these estimates take into account is the fact that the IRA could destroy each and every gun, rifle and ounce of Semtex - but still possess 30 years of experience in constructing its own armaments from non-military materials.

    It has also spent years developing its own mortar bombs - though not all of models developed either fired or detonated on impact.

    The largest of these, known as "barrack busters", were first used in 1992 and caused massive damage to heavily fortified police stations and army bases.

    Given that the IRA was able to carry out these kinds of bombings for so long, it indicates that the organisation chose to plough resources into the technical and logistical planning side of its operations, rather than relying on sheer manpower alone.

  • Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

    Devolution crisis





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