*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
After more than 30 years organizing a variety of attacks against the British government, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) publicly ordered its members to take a new tactic on July 28, 2005: become peaceful political activists. Though some have remained dubious about the true extent to which the PIRA did disarm, the occasion marked one of the most important steps toward a settlement of the profound ideological differences in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.”
In late December 1969, just four months after extensive rioting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army stood at a crossroads. Some of the leadership –mostly from Dublin, Ireland – believed a political solution could be meted out to a conflict that had been escalating for a half-century, while others felt the need for a more aggressive defense of the Catholics in Belfast as part of the restoration of the 32-county Ireland agreed to on Easter 1916. The Provisional branch of the Irish Republican Army, soon to be nicknamed the Provos, would result from the split.
Initially, the PIRA took military action to be its primary responsibility. Though a portion of the IRA’s political wing, the Sinn Fein, would eventually give the Provos a political face, the PIRA shied away from the halls of Parliament in favor of strategic attacks on the British government in Northern Ireland. Believing the deaths of troops and administration officials in the six counties would lead to a public outcry to grant independence and allow those in the crossfire to return home to England, the PIRA galvanized nationalists from all over the Emerald Isle.
As the years wore on, it became plainly evident success would take much longer than first imagined. By the mid-1970s, the PIRA shifted strategy to attempt diplomacy, with the result being a ceasefire agreement with the British in February 1975 built on the assumption it would be the first step in a withdrawal by the “occupying force” from across St. George’s Channel. Instead, the IRA was nearly choked to death by a decrease in funding and membership – a problem remedied when the agreement broke down and violence returned in January 1976.
For both the Provos and the Original IRA, it became clear the fight for a unified Ireland would now be a two-pronged strategy involving military action and political machinations. As the 1980s progressed, the “Long War” involved targeted bombings, hunger strikes and work stoppages, as well as an increased split between Sinn Fein – the organization soon began denying it spoke for the IRA in the hopes it might achieve more influence in Parliament.
The political dissociation worked. In 1994, the IRA called for military action to stop after representatives from Sinn Fein were brought to the table as talks surrounding a settlement heated up. Though bombings and shootings would become commonplace again two years later – a form of PIRA protest due to the slow-moving nature of the discussions – the ceasefire became permanent in July 1997, which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a major step in the determination of Northern Ireland’s status with respect to both England and Ireland.
The need for an organization to carry out damaging attacks on the British government seemed to be waning. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, political leaders had agreed to enforce the disarmament of the various paramilitary organizations within Belfast and the surrounding counties by May 2000. The process began in October of the following year under the leadership of a former general in the Canadian army, John de Chastelain. With rampant suspicion of infiltration on both sides, the Provos were soon facing intense scrutiny: Would the IRA disarm at all? Could peace be achieved otherwise?
In December of 2004, pressure was ratcheted up again as vocal political leaders began pushing for photographic evidence of total destruction of the PIRA’s warmaking capability. Two months later, the IRA announced its withdrawal from de Chastelain’s decommissioning council, leading many to wonder if the resumption of activity were soon to follow.
Under the dark cloud of potential for new attacks, the PIRA made a public U-turn on July 28, 2005. Releasing a statement that the IRA Army Council would end its armed campaign and submit to the tenants of de Chastelain’s independent inspections, Seanna Breathnach stated the organization’s aim would now be “the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means.”
Nearly two months later, on September 26th, de Chastelain announced several tons of weapons had been “put beyond use.” The PIRA’s Long War had officially come to an end.