There has been violent opposition to British involvement in Irish affairs for centuries. Sometimes this has been popular, sometimes not, and the various groups that have formed have gone under many different names. None, though, has as complicated a history as the Irish Republican Army. Currently, different groups claim they are the flag-bearers of the IRA, so the only way to begin to answer this question is to examine the history of groups using this name.
The name IRA was first officially used during the Irish War of Independence, which ran between 1919 and 1921, and was made up of volunteers who wanted to overthrow British rule. Guerilla attacks were the most common form of warfare and after this steady period of conflict the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, partitioning the country into the 26-county Irish Free State (later to become the Republic of Ireland) and the British-ruled six-county Northern Ireland.
The first split
The IRA experienced its first split at this point, with pro and anti-treaty factions forming. Most pro-treaty IRA men either became soldiers in the new Free State army or retired from service. The anti-treaty IRA fought a civil war against their former comrades between 1921 and 1923, before dumping arms in 1924. Later they engaged in periods of guerrilla attacks of varying intensity on the army and police in Northern Ireland – and mainland Britain – until in 1969 events in Northern Ireland prompted a change in the organisation.
Sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland had been going on for centuries, but demands from a growing and educated Catholic middle class for civil rights equal with Protestants had created fresh tensions and vicious attacks. The old guard of the IRA in Northern Ireland – that was still run from Dublin – were ill-equipped to defend their communities from Protestant violence and frustration grew among many Catholics. A split occurred in 1971, with a new “Provisional” IRA forming – an organisation that was proactive in its violence in the hope of achieving a reunification of Ireland and British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. The popularity of the other “Official” IRA quickly diminished, leaving the Provisional IRA as by far the main player in violent Irish Republicanism.
It is this manifestation of the IRA that most people will be familiar with, and the one that became well equipped and well organised throughout the Troubles. After stuttering ceasefires in the early and mid 90s the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and a Provisional IRA ceasefire held until they officially called an end to their war in 2005 and decommissioned their weapons arsenal the same year.
The claims to history
But the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t accepted by a minority of IRA members, some of whom went on to form or join splinter groups such as the “Real IRA” and “Continuity IRA.” Though far less equipped and skilled than the Provisional IRA, the “dissidents,” as they are collectively known, continue to recruit, train and carry out attacks on the security forces and other economic targets. They believe they alone have the right to call themselves the IRA and inherit the history of the organisation. An umbrella group calling itself simply the IRA is now believed to be uniting the various factions. The dissidents call Sinn Fein – the Provisional IRA’s political wing – and their former comrades traitors, and the insult is thrown back at them. Now, only time – and a person’s political leaning – will decide who will inherit the history, and name, of the organisation in the future.