Nationalist Violence in Ireland

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Nationalist Violence in Ireland

The UK made public its October 18. Under terrorist threats, which it highlighted as its foremost, tier one threat, it identified Irish nationalist militants explicitly, noting an increase in activity from Northern Ireland terror groups in the past 18 months. In the last National Security Strategy document put out by the UK in 2008, authorities named Irish republican activists as a threat, but in parallel with animal rights extremists. This year’s assessment compares the Irish republican threat to that of Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear weapons, a far more serious class of threats.

Most recently, the Real IRA detonated an IED in a vehicle in Derry, Northern Ireland on Oct. 5, in an attack that caused only property damage due to the fact that militants called the attack in ahead of time. Shortly after the attack, a spokesman for the Real IRA called warned of an increase in attacks and even targeting London. There are certainly conditions in place that could allow the Real IRA to expand their operations, but the group also faces limitations, making it highly unlikely that we will see a return to The Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s.

History of Militant Irish Nationalism

The Irish nationalist movement is composed of a number of groups, spanning the spectrum from underground, violent groups to peaceful political groups involved in establishment politics. The individuals that are most interesting from a security point of view are the underground, violent groups, as they are responsible for .


Historically, The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been the most popular moniker for a wide array of groups, some violent. The IRA got its start in the early 20th century, fighting an underground, guerilla campaign for Irish independence from the United Kingdom that lasted from 1919 to 1921. The War ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which gave birth to a nominally independent Ireland, but still a dominion within the U.K, as well as Northern Ireland that remained under London's direct control. The treaty split the Irish between the "Free State" forces  -- satisfied with the conditions won from London -- and the anti-Treaty forces who not only opposed limited independence, but also wanted Norther n Ireland reincorporated under Dublin's control. The two sides fought a civil war (1922-1923) that Free State forces won, although Ireland progressively moved towards full independence throughout the 1930s, ultimately becoming a Republic with no formal or informal ties to the U.K. in 1948. Northern Ireland, however, remained under the firm control of London.

The IRA continued to exist following the Civil War as vestige of the anti-Treaty forces that fought in the Irish Civil War, conducting limited guerrilla operations against British forces throughout the entire island. During the Second World War, the IRA launched an insurrection in Northern Ireland and even attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to make contacts with Nazi Germany in order to receive material support. Following the war, IRA entered a lull until the 1960s when it was reenergized by a rise in communal violence between unionists --citizens of Ireland desiring continued union with U.K. of whom many are Protestant -- and nationalist -- mainly Catholic community in Ireland that desires the entire island to be independent from the U.K.

The third incarnation of the IRA was the Provisional IRA (PIRA) which was established in 1969 as a splinter group of what came to be known as the “Official” IRA (the group that fought in the Irish war for independence). PIRA activity really started taking off in 1972, the same year that the Official IRA called a cease-fire that effectively ended the group’s offensive operations. While the PIRA officially split from the Official IRA over the latter’s shift to the left and adoption of Marxist ideology, the PIRA still benefitted from Soviet support. The within the United Kingdom (the Irish-British conflict goes back 800 years), as well as in other western European countries, in order to distract NATO powers with domestic unrest during the Cold War

The PIRA maintained the underground, guerilla strategy, but operated in a much more compartmentalized, diffuse manner. It established cells all across Northern Ireland and just across the border in the Republic of Ireland. Highly compartmentalized groups helped the PIRA carry out surveillance, preparation and execution of attacks against UK security forces, civilian unionists and the occasional attack in Great Britain. The group was proficient at constructing and deploying IEDs, as well as carrying out shootings. During their peak in the late 1970s/early 1980s (a time period known as “The Troubles”), the PIRA was conducted over 200 attacks per year, meaning that attacks occurred on nearly a daily basis across Northern Ireland. Among their most notable attacks was the assassination of Earl Mountbatten in 1979 by secreting and detonating an explosive device onto his boat; and its “Bloody Friday” attacks in Belfast in 1972 that saw the PIRA detonate 22 IEDs in the span of 80 minutes that killed 9 people. The PIRA also proved its ability to carry out attacks in London, including the 1983 bombing of Harrods during Christmas shopping season that killed six people and wounded 90.


The PIRA was the beneficiary of Soviet funding and training and materiel support through proxies such as Libya, Socialist South Yemen, East German Security forces (the Stasi) and many other groups within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence during The Troubles. This training and support made the movement more effective against the British security forces, and receiving military grade explosives (Semtex) from the Libyans improved the quality of the PIRA’s explosive devices. Old hands in the PIRA that avoided arrest and political reconciliation are able to pass on their training to the next generation, but that doesn’t compare to the kind of training that the PIRA got working with the likes of Libya, South Yemen, Italian Red Brigade or German Red Army Faction during the height of the Cold War.

However, the PIRA began a cease fire 1994, causing a dramatic drop in attacks during the mid-1990s and then finally officially ended its armed campaign in 2005. As PIRA attacks began declining in 1994, the Continuity IRA, a PIRA splinter group which had formed in 1986, stepped into the spotlight and resumed where the PIRA had left off. But the CIRA campaign was shortlived, as the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 devolved powers from Westminster to Belfast, including the establishment of a Northern Ireland assembly. Although the CIRA never officially lay down its arms and still periodically carries out mostly armed attacks.

It was around this time that yet another militant nationalist group formed calling itself the Real IRA (RIRA; also known as Oglaigh na hEireann – The Army of Ireland, a name that was used by the IRA of the early 20th century). This is the most active militant group today and whose recent activities have caused the latest warning. The RIRA has been carrying out a low-level militant campaign against security forces in Northern Ireland that has been steadily escalating since 2008. They have deployed over a dozen IEDs (most where contained in vehicles) since 2008 although not all of them had detonated. They have also conducted shootings against other nationalists either for going against the RIRA’s hardline republican stance. There have been 37 incidents so far this year compared to 22 in 2009 and approximately 15 in 2008. So while incidents of violence are increasing in frequency, it’s still nowhere near the levels of the PIRA in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the RIRA shows a high level of discipline and organization. It has conducted bombings attacks all across Northern Ireland that show high levels of uniformity, indicating that cells across the region are on the same page. Perpetrators have routinely used hijacked taxi cabs to maneuver an IED into position, then called in the bomb threat (typically around 30 minutes in advance) in order to prevent casualties from the resulting explosion. Detonating car bombs in urban settings without killing or injuring people requires high level s of discipline and coordination – more so than detonating a device without warning, as the actors need to have good timing and pre-arranged communication lines open to media or security forces to transmit the warning.

Granted, some recent attacks have been lethal or nearly lethal. A string of incidents in which IEDs were placed on vehicles or near specific homes (all of which were linked to security forces) did appear to have more malicious intent. But it is important to note that these attacks were in pursuit of a very specific target intended to undermine the authority of security forces (intended to raise the question: if they can’t protect themselves and their loved ones, how can they protect the populace?”) so fall under a different category of attacks.

Tradecraft has been improving but, but the bomb makers behind the RIRA don’t appear to have perfected their art. In 2008 and 2009, we saw a series of IEDs discovered but did not go off. The RIRA continues to , as seen in an August 10 incident in which a device placed under a security guard’s car only partially detonated. Overall, though, RIRA tradecraft is improving, and is expected to get better as the bomb makers get more practice.


As can be seen from the history above, the “IRA” moniker has been used by multiple, different groups with nuanced strategic and significant tactical differences. The RIRA of today is has very little continuity with the PIRA of the 1970s and virtually no connections back to the IRA of the Irish War for Independence besides the name. These disparate groups all have fought under the banner of Irish independence, but their common usage of the moniker, “IRA” should not lead one to believe that the groups using this name have had a continuous history. Other groups with a similar cause (such as the Irish National Liberation Army) have similar aims, but have not adopted the IRA title. The name “IRA” has a kind of brand recognition, and so it has been adopted by today’s militants, but it does not mean that they pose the same threat to stability in Northern Ireland as their predecessors. As each group was appeased politically, the more radical elements of the previous group took up the banner and continued the fight. So over time, the groups using the name “IRA” were distilled down to the very most radical members who were unwilling to negotiate politically.

What the RIRA is not

There are some key differences between today’s RIRA and the previous PIRA that draw a sharp distinction between the groups’ capabilities. Those differences fall under the categories of political support, sectarian violence, targeting and financial and materiel support.

Currently, there is no mainstream party (or any party with seats in Northern Ireland’s assembly, for that matter) that offer any kind of justification or support for the RIRA’s activities. The RIRA are acting as their own political advocate through the release of statements , but there is no significant political movement that is positioned to capitalize on the violence, like Sinn Fein could do back during The Troubles. This lack of political support, plus the fact that RIRA’s leaders remain anonymous, make it difficult for the group to engage in any kind of negotiations in order to exploit their militant capability for political concessions.

Second, the RIRA has not been able to agitate significant sectarian conflict. Unionists, the longstanding rival of Irish nationalist forces and majority of inhabitants in Northern Ireland responsible for much of the tit-for-tat violence seen during The Troubles, have largely refrained from violence. This is largely because, aside for periodic protests against unionist parades, they have not been targeted in any serious militant campaign since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the power that it devolved to Northern Ireland. It is important to remember that, during The Troubles, the PIRA had a sparring partner in the form of the Unionist militias who contributed to the death toll at a slightly lower, yet comparable rate. By not conducting blatant attacks against unionist or protestant communities, the RIRA has avoided an expansion of the violence that could result from bringing their long-time rivals into the dispute.

Despite recent statements from the RIRA that they intend to target London, like their predecessors did, there has not been a militant Irish nationalist linked attack in London since 2001. Conducting an attack in London , or anywhere in Great Britain for that matter, is must more challenging due to the fact that militant Irish nationalists have an extremely thin support network there and a very hostile security apparatus that has put an immense amount of focus on preventing terrorist attacks since the al Qaeda linked 2005 bombings. While militant Islamists currently pose the more immediate threat, the tactics of carrying out an attack whether you are an Irish or Islamist militant are very similar, and so watching for attacks from one group will naturally give you higher visibility into the activities of others. It would be very difficult for the RIRA or any other militant Irish nationalist group to conduct an attack in Great Britain right now, but never impossible. It’s likely, though, that they would escalate in Northern Ireland first, though, as UK security forces are a softer target there.

While it doesn’t require massive amounts of funds to run an underground, guerilla movement, the RIRA still needs resources to survive and continue its campaign. A recent MI5 sting operation against an Irish Republican dissident revealed that they man sold his business in Portugal in order to fund (what he thought was) a weapons purchase in Strasbourg, France. The RIRA has also used criminal activities to fund its movement, conducting bank robberies, abductions and engaging in drug selling in order to raise cash. Relying on such ad-hoc means of income can be disruptive to a group’s primary objective. It’s an ideological as well as operational distraction to have to conduct bank robberies or abductions in between bombing attacks on police stations and often the allure of fast cash earned through criminal means can quickly lead to . It also gives the government the ability to paint the group as criminals and thugs rather than the noble nationalists that the RIRA makes itself out to be. As STRATFOR pointed out in 2008, Moscow could be tempted to reactivate old links if their relationship with the UK deteriorates. There is little evidence to suggest that Russia has anything to do with the recent increase in activity, but finding a strategic benefactor could provide a huge lift to the RIRA and allow it to focus purely on political violence and not have to conduct criminal violence to pay the bils.

Why Now?

The increase in violence has coincided with the world wide recession that has hit both the UK and especially Northern Ireland very hard. Unemployment especially has risen from 2007 to 2009, with overall unemployment rising from 3.7% to 7% and unemployment among working age males (the primary RIRA constituents) rising from 3.8% to 9%. Unemployment obviously isn’t the only factor that contributes to the recent rise, but there is certainly a strong correlation between the rise in unemployment and the rise in militant nationalist activity. And the economic situation there isn’t set to improve. Around 32 percent of the Northern Ireland workforce is employed in the public sector and depends on 16 billion pounds ($25.6 billion) worth of transfer payments from London each year. This dependency on London is the result, in part, of the United Kingdom’s attempt to pump enough cash into the country, and provide enough jobs, to mitigate sectarian tensions. These looming budget cuts could have a direct impact on Northern Ireland’s jobless rate and its ability to provide incomes to unemployed people, . Those kinds of sentiments are exactly what the RIRA can prey upon for recruitment and public support.

Our current assessment of the RIRA is that they have the capability to conduct deadly and disruptive attacks in Northern Ireland but due the group has made a conscious decision to avoid fatalities by calling threats in ahead of time or detonating their devices in areas where there are no people. The group shows a relatively high level of discipline by following this model consistently across all regions of Northern Ireland, indicating that hierarchical control over tactics is strong. This combination of tactical capability and control means that the RIRA could rather easily and quickly escalate the violence by not calling in attacks ahead of time and targeting more densely populated areas. The RIRA could also agitate sectarian violence by attacking specifically unionist targets and exploit Northern Ireland’s current economic situation. However, the challenges of finding strategic benefactor and battling against a sophisticated British security apparatus, at least for the moment, will prevent the RIRA from recreating what the PIRA did during The Troubles.

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