Page last updated at 13:32 GMT, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The IRA's history of splits

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

Real IRA graffiti in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, November 2007
The emergence of the Real IRA reflects another schism in Republicanism

The attacks against the military and police in Northern Ireland are part of a pattern in Irish history in which dissident groups split away from mainstream Republican organisations to maintain their dream of a united Ireland.

The question always arises as to whether these groups themselves then take over as the main flag-bearers.

The Provisional IRA did so in 1969 when it broke away from what became known as the Official IRA. There were ideological differences, but the main motivation was that the Provisionals felt that not enough had been done to protect Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

Although "provisional", they proved remarkably permanent.

The two groups claiming the latest attacks - the Real IRA for the killing of the two soldiers and the Continuity IRA for the policeman - are themselves breakaways from the Provisional IRA, whom they accuse of abandoning the aim of an all-Ireland republic by ending its armed campaign in 2005 and joining the new power-sharing Northern Ireland government.

Lessons from history

But because they exist does not necessarily mean that breakaways will succeed. The history of Irish republicanism shows that only when the conditions are right can dissident groups take over.

The Irish Republican Army was founded in 1919 in the uprising against British rule in Ireland. It was a very successful guerrilla organisation but, even in victory, it almost immediately faced what has become the traditional republican dilemma: should there be a compromise which falls short of the all-Ireland ambition?

There was a split between those led by Michael Collins who accepted that while British rule in 26 counties of Ireland would end, in the North, where there was a majority in favour of the ties with Britain, it would not. Collins negotiated and signed the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921, allowing six counties in the North to remain with Britain, as Northern Ireland.

Those opposed launched their own war. One of their leaders declared: "We repudiate the Dail", the Irish parliament, which accepted the compromise agreement. Collins was himself shot dead in an ambush but the dissidents were beaten as the majority of the people favoured the compromise. In this case, the breakaway group did not succeed.

However, the IRA, clinging to its traditional aim, never went away and from time to time resurfaced as one faction more militant than another gained control.

There was an IRA bombing campaign in Britain in 1939 and 1940, when there were, by the British count, 127 "outrages". But amid the crisis of a world war, the campaign achieved little beyond keeping the dream alive.

Ideological split

After the war, the IRA tried again, this time concentrating their efforts against Northern Ireland.

They waged a "border campaign" from 1956 to 1962 but again it fizzled out.

The IRA was not well armed. I remember the armoury in the cadet corps at our school being carefully locked in case, as had happened at other schools in England, there should be a raid on its old Lee Enfield rifles.

And then it went quiet until the Troubles began in 1968.

The intervening years had not been well-used to ensure the future political stability of Northern Ireland. The Nationalist/Catholic minority erupted in protests which developed into a long war against Britain.

The Provisionals took over from the old IRA, which they accused of being diverted into socialist policies aimed at appealing to the Loyalist/Protestant working class in Northern Ireland.

The Provisionals saw the issue differently and more simply - fight the British and get them out of the whole of Ireland.

Compromise again

In the end, the British Army and the "Provos" fought each other to a stalemate. The fact was that the Provisionals had also run up against the resistance of the Loyalist majority in Northern Ireland whose hostility they could never overcome. Leading figures Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness decided that the time had again come for the historic compromise of accepting the division of Ireland, while continuing to work for unification by political means. In return they achieved a power-sharing government.

Not all agree. The Real and Continuity groups, each with their own support and personalities, share the old commitment as their names declare. The Continuity IRA was founded in the late 1980s after a dispute about whether to recognise the parliament in Dublin, seen by Continuity supporters as a partition parliament. The Real IRA came in 1997.

In the euphoria surrounding the end of the Provisional IRA campaign, it was sometimes overlooked that these groups constituted a significant threat.


In its report of November 2008, the Independent Monitoring Commission, the international group set up as part of power sharing, said: "CIRA [Continuity Irish Republican Army] was active in undertaking and planning attacks on PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] officers."

The Commission said of the Real IRA: "We conclude that RIRA [Real Irish Republican Army] is a serious and continuing threat and that it is likely to remain so."

The Commission also said that the two groups had not been that successful in coordinating their activities at a strategic level though there had been some local cooperation.

The two attacks of recent days perhaps indicate a greater degree of coordination.

But the atmosphere these days is very different from the angry days of the late 1960s that saw the birth of the Provisionals.

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