Tactics of the British Intelligence against the IRA

The Tactics of the British Intelligence against the IRA

History of the IRA

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The Provisional IRA formed in response to a war between the Irish Republican Army and the British state in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1998. The IRA or what is commonly referred to as the IRA in the West was actually a breakaway from the Army and is better known as PIRA in Ireland. However, because it stood as the fighting force and face of the Irish resistance, it is typically referred to as IRA for short. The IRA was a formal fighting force up until the 1970s when fears of British infiltration caused the IRA to become a secret organization with a cell structure. The IRA published its Green Book, which laid out the rules of being an IRA volunteer. Meanwhile, on the political front was Sinn Fein, which negotiated behind the scenes with the British state throughout the period known as the Troubles (1969-98) (O’Brien, 1999; Tonge, 2002).

The IRA struggled with security and with gaining control of any territory. Thus, whatever impact or effect it achieved through its use of snipers, bombing campaigns and guerilla style violence was ultimately only a superficial victory because the group remained on insecure footing and had no realm that it could point to as having control of. The IRA also struggled with the fact that a political peace with the British seemed to be a “sell out” option and pursuing this would undermine the vision and mission of the group, so it was not a viewed as an appropriate strategy to flaunt on the surface of things, though it was a strategy supported in ways behind the scenes.

The Troubles began in 1969 as war broke out between the Irish nationalists and the unionists, the former mainly Catholic and the latter mainly Protestant. Violence against nationalists had occurred in Northern Ireland and the victims felt persecuted and vowed to avenge themselves against the “wave of sectarian violence” that happened in Northern Ireland (Bamford, 2005, p. 582). As the Irish Republican Army was perceived to be remiss in its defense of Irish Catholics in the north, the Provisional IRA formed to deal with what its members viewed as systematic persecution of Catholics in Northern (mainly Protestant) Ireland, itself officially part of the UK and not “independent” in the same sense as the Irish Republic.

The Provisional IRA targeted the UK’s economic infrastructure within Northern Ireland as well as politicians and the social order, too. The British forces cracked down hard on what it viewed as unlawful dissent, and in 1972 Bloody Sunday occurred when the British fired on protestors demonstrating against the British state in Northern Ireland. Seven months later, the IRA conducted Bloody Friday with dozens of car bombs that blasted through Belfast and Londonderry (Bamford, 2005). The purpose of this attack was to force the British to the table to talk about leaving Ireland for good. However, that was a non-starter for talks and so the stand-off continued. The aim of the IRA at that point was to cripple the economy of Belfast through a terror campaign (Maloney, 2010). Five years later, the Provisional IRA converted itself into a cell structure as mass arrests were occurring and the ranks of the IRA were being dismantled by British intelligence. Co-founder and devout Catholic Sean MacStiofain believed violence was necessary to end Northern Ireland’s occupation by the British but was arrested in Dublin in 1972. He went on a hunger strike, and because he was popular his strike caused further civil disturbances. After his release in 1973, he was barred from re-entry into the IRA and his influence waned from that point on. Eventually, the IRA agreed to disband and a political resolution was struck with Sinn Fein leading the way.


The ideology at the heart of the IRA was to use force and to show to the British through the use of shocking violence that the Irish nationalists meant business. MacStiofain’s idea was that the best tactic was escalation in hopes of wearing down the British as there was really no way the IRA could achieve a strategic victory. Because the IRA believed in force but was small in terms of actual force size, it had to rely on volunteers and guerilla style tactics to achieve its aim of escalation. The guerilla style tactics (car bombings like on Bloody Friday and sniper fire) helped to kill British soldiers and citizens, but failed to achieve the long term objective of driving the British out of Northern Ireland or bringing them to the table whereupon MacStiofain’s demands would be met. MacStiofain’s demands consisted of the following:

1) The right of Ireland to decided its own political future by acting as a single state rather than as one divided;

2) Declaration of intent by the British state to withdraw fully from Northern Ireland by January 1975; and

3) Unconditional release of all IRA members or volunteers arrested and held as political prisoners (Coogan, 2002).

Once MacStiofain was arrested, however, the IRA become a much more secretive organization with much less of an organizational structure. The Green Book served as the ideological guide for the IRA from the late 1970s onward. In 1974, the IRA targeted department stores and public housing, both in London and Northern Ireland. The British Ambassador to Ireland was assassinated in 1976. In 1979, the Queen’s cousin was murdered. In 1984, Margaret Thatcher was targeted. An MP, Ian Gow, was killed in 1990 and in 1991 Downing Street was the target in a mortar attack (Rogers, 2000). This was Irish Catholic jihad on Protestant UK. Moreover, because of the cell structure of the IRA it was difficult to know who was calling the shots and who was directing the individual attacks.

The Green Book gave sufficient warning to any volunteer interested in joining: “Loose-talk costs lives. In taxis / On the phone / In clubs and bars / At football matches / At home with friends / Anywhere!” was the warning—no one was supposed to talk about their work in the IRA to anyone: “Whatever you say—say nothing” went the direction and a black-masked figure holding an automatic weapon on the cover of the book helped to drive home the point that this was not a war that one could write home to Mom about. It was a war of attrition and there would be no honors given to fallen comrades. The first line of the book sufficiently represents the level of paranoia within the IRA throughout most of the Troubles: “The most important thing is security!” (IRA Green Book, 1977, p. 2).

Underlying this insistence upon secrecy was a nationalistic and religious culture of anger and frustration towards the English state that had been nursed in the breast of many a young Irishman. Those who saw the fight against England as a noble and necessary one could be attracted to the IRA—but they were warned that it would not be something they could put on their resume. This would be a war waged on the sly without any support from the Irish populace at home and with a great deal of scrutiny coming from the British abroad. The fierce Catholic nationalism that the IRA fed upon was most embodied by MacStiofain—but in the end he too called for a ceasefire, sensing that the war was unsustainable and unwinnable.


The Green Book was a significant propaganda tool, but the IRA also used Sinn Fein and various publications, such as the Sinn Fein newspaper An Phoblacht. Irish organizations that promoted the Irish identity and the Irish language were also important spheres of influence, as they appealed to a specific way of looking at oneself. Various theories can be used to help explain how the cultivation of an Irish nationalistic and Catholic identity supported the drive of young men towards the IRA, as it represented a form of action against one’s oppressors.

Stereotyping played a part in the development of support for the IRA: seeing the British or the Protestants as faceless, inhuman beings allowed a violent mentality to be cultivated, and seeing them all as united against one’s country, faith, and ideals also helped. Stereotypes exist because of pre-conceived ideas that are formed for a variety of reasons and propagated and perpetuated through groups and individuals. People tend to view their own groups better than they do others. The reason for this is that they have a sense of pride in their group (Hilton & Von Hippel, 1996). The IRA fed on the culture of Irish nationalism that had been developed for 400 years—even since Henry VIII’s apostasy and Act of Succession forced Irish Catholics to choose sides.

Another way to understand why some Irish nationalists joined the IRA is Social Identity Theory (SIT), which posits that individuals develop a sense of who they are based on their group membership. So if a person belongs to a group, like a counter-culture group such as punk rockers, the person’s identity and sense of self will be shaped by his sense of belonging to that group. A Communist’s sense of identity will stem from his belonging to the Communist Party. However, identity can also be formed by seeing what one is not—i.e., not a member of another group, which is typically viewed as less favorable to one’s own group. SIT is also a way that people can put themselves in a position of superiority or inferiority to other groups (Branch et al., 2018). As Branch et al. (2018) note, SIT can be used to show “why individuals seek to place themselves within or outside particular social groups and may suggest why some individuals could be more vulnerable” to attacks from other groups (p. 11). With this in mind, the concept of social identity can be used to explain why some people identify one way and identify others in a different light. Ultimately it is about self-preservation and self-promotion. As McLeod (2008) notes, social groups are a source of pride and self-esteem, so it just makes sense that one would score one’s own group as better than another group. One wants to feel good about oneself and the group to which he belongs and by which he identifies.

Labeling theory was put forward by Edwin Lemert and is used to show how labels of deviance only have meaning because they are applied typically by people or groups who have power (Lumen, 2019). They stick because the people with power use them to define others. The labeled deviants embrace the label because they are 1) not in a position to defend themselves against since they do not have power, and 2) because they feel that if others are going to judge them and see them as deviants then they will just be deviants. Labeling theory helps to explain why deviance and crime arise as well and how stereotyping plays a part in controversial policing issues that racial profiling (Lumen, 2019). Many youths felt a sense of identity and purpose in the IRA: they saw themselves having a job to do—it gave them meaning to their lives, a goal to fight for.

Domestic fundraising provided most of the support for the IRA throughout the Troubles, which indicates that there was some support for the organization at home, though some money-making schemes via illegal activities were also used, though grudgingly (Woodford & Smith, 2018). Because of the cell structure later on, however, funding difficulties made the work of the IRA less possible, and the strategy of putting the pressure on the British through escalation could not work. The Troubles went on for decades because the spirit of the war persisted longer than the ability of the IRA to actually do much more than random acts of terror. Funding needed for a prolonged and impactful guerrilla-style war on the British was simply not available.

Counterterrorism Strategy

The counterterrorism strategy employed by the British was to give full power to the police of Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The RUC was comprised totally of Protestant loyalists and as an organization it was authorized by the Special Powers Act to conduct searches and seizures without requiring a warrant. The RUC could imprison suspects without providing them their due process rights; and the RUC could put down any and all public demonstrations that it saw as potentially threatening (Tonge, 2002). The strategy was completely authoritarian and meant to be as oppressive towards the IRA as the IRA meant to be antagonistic to the British. IRA volunteers were viewed as criminals without exception and by painting them as such in the press, the British were able to “localize the conflict” and prevent popular support from abroad from pouring in (Tuck, 2007, p.169).

Because by the 1980s the IRA essentially consisted of little more than secretive street gangs, there was a need for more use of British intelligence. However, there was not a lot of cooperation between RUC and British intelligence, and so the main method was to enforce containment through measures like the Falls Road curfew, which really only exacerbated the situation and caused the IRA to dig down and entrench (Tuck, 2007).

To get a better hold on the situation, British intelligence employed dubious methods uncovered during the later Stevens Enquiry. The Stevens report consisted of “three Enquiries into allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland” and it highlighted “the willful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, and the extreme of agents being involved in murder” (Stevens, 2003, p. 3). The report showed that the RUC and British agents did target Irish nationalists and engage in guerilla-style assassinations in the same vein as the IRA. This was called “tactical flexibility” on the part of the British and in essence it was a tactical reflection of the enemy’s methods. The same war tactics were used on both sides, but because the British controlled the narrative, they were able to depict the IRA as the terrorists.

The British protected informants and looked the other way when those informants committed crimes, as it was important to be able to penetrated IRA cells and this meant that a certain discretion had to be allowed in terms of operating within the realm of the criminal underworld. Eventually there was more coordination between British intelligence and the police, which helped to create greater cohesion and synergy between departments, which further put pressure on the IRA. The British continued to infiltrate the IRA throughout the Troubles, to the point where it was believed that “one in six IRA volunteers worked for the FRU,” the Force Research Unit of the British Army (Moran, 2010, p. 8). In the end, it was a combination of these ruthless tactics and infiltration that led to the ultimate ceasefire and political truce, as both sides saw the impracticality of continuing the Troubles any longer.


Bamford, B. (2005). The Role and Effectiveness of Intelligence in Northern Ireland. Intelligence and National Security, 20(4), 581-607.

Branch, S., Shallcross, L., Barker, M., Ramsay, S., & Murray, J. P. (2018). Theoretical Frameworks That Have Explained Workplace Bullying: Retracing Contributions Across the Decades. Concepts, Approaches and Methods, 1-44.

Coogan, T. P. (2002). The IRA. New York: Palgrave.

Hilton, J. L., & Von Hippel, W. (1996). Stereotypes. Annual review of psychology, 47(1), 237-271.

IRA Green Book. (1977). Accessed 14 Dec 2015 from https://tensmiths.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/15914572-ira-green-book-volumes-1-and-2.pdf

Lumen. (2019). Theoretical perspectives on deviance. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sociology/chapter/theoretical-perspectives-on-deviance/

Maloney, E. (2010). Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland. NY: Faber, Faber.

McLeod, S. (2008) Social Identity Theory. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html

Moran, J. (2010). Evaluating Special Branch and the Use of Informant Intelligence in Northern Ireland. Intelligence and National Security, 25(1): 1-23.

O’Brien, B. (1999). The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Fein. NY: Syracuse University Press.

Rogers, P. (2000). Political violence and economic targeting aspects of provisional IRA strategy, 1992-97. Civil Wars, 3(4): 1-28.

Stevens, J. (2003). Stevens Enquiry: Overview and Recommendations. Metropolitan Police Service.

Tonge, J. (2002). Northern Ireland: Conflict and Change. UK: Longman.

Tuck, C. (2007). Northern Ireland and the British Approach to Counter-Insurgency. Defense and Security Analysis, 23(2): 165-183.

Woodford, I., & Smith, M. L. R. (2018). The Political Economy of the Provos: Inside the Finances of the Provisional IRA—A Revision. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 41(3), 213-240.



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