Provisional Irish Republican Army

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Group.png Provisional Irish Republican Army  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
AbbreviationIRA, PIRA
PredecessorIrish Republican Army (1922–€“1969)
Interest ofJ. Bowyer Bell, Richard English, John Horgan

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA or PIRA) was[1][2] an Irish republican paramilitary organisation that sought to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and bring about an independent republic encompassing all of Ireland.[3] It was the biggest and most active republican paramilitary during the Troubles. It saw itself as the successor to the original IRA and called itself simply the Irish Republican Army (IRA), or Óglaigh na hÉireann in Irish.[4] It was also widely referred to as such by others. The IRA is designated an unlawful terrorist organisation in the UK and an unlawful organisation in the Republic of Ireland.[5][6]

The Provisional IRA emerged in December 1969, following a split in the Irish Republican Army (1922–1969). The Troubles had begun a year before, when a Catholic, nonviolent civil rights campaign was met with violence from Ulster loyalists and state forces, culminating in the August 1969 riots and deployment of British troops.[7] The IRA initially focused on defence, but it began an offensive operation in 1971. The IRA's primary goal was to force the British to negotiate a withdrawal from Northern Ireland. It used guerrilla tactics against the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary in both rural and urban areas. It also carried out a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland and England against what it saw as political and economic targets. Telephoned warnings were usually sent before such bombings. The IRA called a final ceasefire in July 1997, when Sinn Féin were admitted into the Northern Ireland peace talks. It supported the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in 2005 it disarmed under international supervision.[8][9]

Funded by Libya

In 1973 the temporarily suspended Irish priest Fr Patrick Ryan discreetly boarded a flight to Libya and, still wearing his priest's robes, made contact with Libyan military intelligence in Tripoli. During the autumn of 1973, the break with his old life became complete. As he shuttled back and forth between Dublin and Geneva, opening bank accounts and transferring funds from his new friends in Libya, the Catholic Church permanently suspended him. Weeks later, Ryan transferred several thousand pounds from Geneva through Frankfurt to Dublin – the beginning of a flood of money which he was to direct into the IRA Army Council's coffers.

Early in 1974, Patrick Ryan set up a base in Le Havre, France, staying in a tourist hotel and working around the clock to set up the IRA’s new supply lines. There were bank accounts in different names all over Europe, particularly in Luxemburg and Switzerland. There were couriers in Brussels and Paris, stewards on the cross-Channel ferries, lorry drivers who rode the routes between Dublin and the continent. And there was one fatal flaw. Unknown to the errant priest, his behaviour had caught the eye of a quick-witted Canadian tourist who was staying in the next room to him in his Le Havre hotel. The Canadian could hear him tuning in to a short-wave radio every morning as if he was trying to pick up a signal, and he noticed him down in the docks, asking about cargo vessels travelling to Ireland. The hotel told the Canadian that this man was Patrick Ryan, a seaman. The Canadian wondered how a humble sailor could afford the string of international phone calls which Ryan made.

After several days, Ryan checked out to go on one of his numerous trips round Europe. The Canadian slipped into his room and seized the contents of Ryan's waste paper basket. The next day he was on a ferry to Southampton. Hampshire Special Branch did not know quite what to make of this excitable tourist clutching a handful of waste paper. But when they examined the paper, they found phone numbers of known IRA contacts in Dublin and Europe and, mysteriously, of a council flat in east London – Catherine.

From this moment, Father Ryan was never alone again. The Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch embarked on an operation which was eventually to embrace the police Special Branch, the Security Service, MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the intelligence agencies of most of the countries of Western Europe, an extraordinary transnational manhunt.

At the beginning it was focused on Le Havre where French police agreed to keep an eye on Ryan and to report his movements to Scotland Yard. British undercover teams, supplied through MI6, took up station in Le Havre and watched as Ryan built his empire. They were there in January 1975 when Joe Cahill, an IRA veteran, and Eamonn Docherty, then the IRA's assistant chief of staff, travelled to Le Havre to meet their priest. They followed the three men as they journeyed to Paris to meet a notorious arms dealer, known as Max.

The surveillance teams watched as Eamonn Docherty came back again and again to Le Havre, often travelling on to Switzerland to check the latest banking arrangements. They watched, too, early in 1976, when the IRA's chief of staff himself, Seamus Twomey, came with Docherty to meet Ryan for the most important mission of all – the striking of an alliance with Muammar Gaddafi. The three men travelled to Libya together and spent a week there arranging the details of their mutual aid before flying back to Paris for a further week of discussion among themselves.

The teams watched also as Ryan's romance continued with the shy English spinster, Catherine. Ryan had begun to exploit the innocence of the besotted woman. He needed an English driving licence in a false name, so he spun her a story about how he could not get one in his own name while he was living in France. Catherine got it for him and smuggled it through Customs in her girdle. She carried bundles of cash back to London for him and sent them to a bank in Ireland. He said the money was for the dream home where they would eventually live together. It was really for Maurice Prendergast, then the IRA's director of finance. By 1976, Fr Patrick Ryan had become a pivotal figure in the IRA. In less than two years, he had pumped nearly one million pounds into IRA bank accounts, most of it from Libya.[10]

Arms from Libya

For almost 25 years, virtually every bomb constructed by the Provisional IRA and the groups that splintered off it has contained Semtex from a Libyan shipment unloaded at an Irish pier in 1986. The arrangements for the biggest arms consignment ever received by the IRA had been made between Thomas "Slab" Murphy, a 36-year-old pig farmer from South Armagh, and Nasser Ali Ashour, a diplomat and Libyan intelligence officer. Ashour, five years older than Murphy, was believed by MI6 to have been an acolyte of Moussa Koussa, who later became Col Muammar Gaddafi's intelligence chief. Muammar Gaddafi had long sought to boost his revolutionary credentials by assisting terrorist groups bent on destabilising Western governments. His determination to help the IRA intensified when the British allowed bases at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire to be used by the American F–111s that bombed Tripoli in April 1986. Murphy had been among the IRA men who trained in Libya in the 1970s and was chosen by Joe Cahill to renew the links with Libya forged by Fr Patrick Ryan a decade earlier. In March 1973 Cahill had been arrested by the Irish Navy in Waterford, aboard the Claudia, a ship from Libya loaded with five tons of weapons. Joe Cahill was sentenced to three years' imprisonment by the Irish Special Criminal Court and stated at his trial:

"If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I did not succeed in getting the contents of the Claudia into the hands of the freedom fighters in this country".


The first vessel that Murphy used was the Casamara, a British–registered 65ft yacht, that set sail from Malta on 6 August 1985. Its 10–ton cargo was taken on board during a rendezvous with the Libyan ship Samra off the Mediterranean island of Gozo. That cargo yielded 300 boxes of weaponry including AK–47s, Taurus automatic pistols from Brazil, seven Soviet–made RPG–7s and three Russian DShK 12.7mm heavy machine guns.

Another shipment, again picking up 10 tons of arms off Gozo and landing them at Clogga Strand, was arranged for October 1985. The following year, Murphy made at least seven trips to the Mediterranean to meet Libyan officials. On 28 April 1986, he flew to Athens on a false passport to see three senior IRA men. Murphy boarded another plane the next day for a meeting with Ashour. Sitting on a boat off a Greek island, they discussed a third shipment of 14 tons, later landed at Clogga Strand.


For the fourth shipment, a new vessel, the Villa, was chosen. It took 30 Libyans two nights in October 1986 to load the Villa, a converted Swedish oil rig replenisher, with 80 tons of arms. The Villa was too large to anchor off Clogga Strand so its cargo was landed at nearby Roadstone Pier, Co Wicklow. It included seven rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), 10 surface–to–air (SAM) missiles and, most significantly, a ton of Semtex–H plastic explosive. Manufactured at Pardubice, 90 miles from Prague, more than 1,000 tons of Semtex had been exported to Libya from communist Czechoslovakia. Odourless and not detectable by X–rays, Semtex does not explode even when exposed to a naked flame. When used with a detonator, however, it can produce a blast many times more powerful than a fertiliser–based explosive. The Villa shipment was to transform the IRA's ability to wage war against the British state.

Adrian Hopkins, a Wicklow man who was the boat skipper for all four shipments, told the French police:

"The delivery of the load went off smoothly. On land there were two trucks which brought the cargo to another place unknown to me. Tom told me several times that nothing would be circulated until we had delivered the whole stock."

Hopkins said he was paid $500,000 given to him in plastic bags handed over in the White Horse pub in north Dublin. Many of the arms contained in the Libyan shipments were of little practical use for the predominantly urban campaign the IRA was fighting. Murphy was intent on bringing down British helicopters near his border farm but the size and complexity of the Libyan anti–aircraft weapons meant this was never achieved.


The fifth shipment was to be even bigger and Murphy was keen to show the IRA's gratitude. "At the preparatory meetings with Tom, the latter insisted I should buy a German shepherd dog and offer it to Nasser from Joe Cahill," Adrian Hopkins said. Murphy also authorised the purchase of a double bed, a large clock and two cans of olive oil, which were picked up at a factory near Valletta, as gifts for Nasser. The gifts, including the dog, were transported to Tripoli on board the Eksund, an ageing 237–ton freighter.

Fifty Libyan soldiers were on the jetty at Tripoli to help load 130 tons of weaponry over two nights. Hopkins later recalled:

"According to the agreed code, I transmitted a message to Tom via a shipping company in London. I used the code word Stockholm which indicated the unloading date, 29 October 1987."

Murphy had been given the code name "Halliday" while Hopkins was "Pender". But as the Eksund left Libya, it was being monitored by MI6 and the French intelligence services and tracked by a Royal Navy hunter–killer submarine. When the crew saw a spotter plane overhead as the vessel was five miles off Roscoff, Hopkins messaged Murphy:

"Pender to Halliday. The unloading of cargo date plus 17."

This was the prearranged code indicating that the Eksund and its cargo were about to be scuttled. Two tons of Semtex, 1,000 Romanian made AK–47s, 1,000 mortars, 600 Soviet F1 grenades, 120 RPG–7s, 20 SAM–7s, 10 DShKs, 2,000 electric detonators, 4,700 fuses and more than a million rounds of ammunition were found in the hold of the Eksund. Adrian Hopkins and four IRA men were arrested, convicted and jailed.

No more shipments

Thomas "Slab" Murphy flew into Split in Yugoslavia to meet Nasser Ali Ashour on May 28 1989, to discuss more shipments but it was eventually judged too risky to attempt them. One of his former allies, the IRA quartermaster Michael McKevitt (since convicted of IRA offences) defected to the Real IRA in 1997, taking large amounts of Semtex and other IRA weaponry.

The IRA's Libyan connection was detailed in Toby Harnden's book "Bandit Country: the IRA and South Armagh" (Hodder & Stoughton 1999).[11]


An event carried out

Harrods bombingA car bomb by the IRA outside Harrods that killed 6 people in 1983


A Provisional Irish Republican Army victim on Wikispooks

Robert BradfordNorthern Irish MP who was assassinated in 1981.


Related Quotation

UK/Torture“we don't use torture because it doesn't work. Like the CIA we had to learn the hard way. In Northern Ireland, IRA terrorist suspects were waterboarded in the 1970s. Even using such techniques, it took time to overcome the subject's resistance and by then the intelligence gained was virtually worthless.”Harry Ferguson


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Northern Ireland Information Service - MisinformationBook1994David MillerIt is now well established (and has been admitted by the government), that the task of the Information Policy branch of Army headquarters in the early to mid 1970s was disinformation. False stories were spread in order to discredit the IRA as well as other enemies of the Intelligence services, such as Loyalist politicians and the Labour government.
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  1. McConville son says Gerry Adams 'threatened backlash'
  2. IRA has disbanded but army council still exists, peace monitors report
  3. Moloney, Ed (2002). A Secret History of the IRA. Penguin Books. p. 246. ISBN 0-14-101041-X.
  4. Moloney, p. 707
  5. Home Office – Proscribed Terror Groups – Home Office website. Retrieved 11 May 2007
  6. {{URL||optional display text}}
  7. The Provisional IRA by Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie (ISBN 0-552-13337-X), p. 117.
  8. "IRA has disbanded terrorist structure, says report"
  9. I.R.A. "Ex-Commander to Shake Hands With Queen"
  10. "The priest who worked for the IRA" by Nick Davies in The Scotsman, July 1988
  11. "Libyan arms helped the IRA to wage war"