Irish Republican Army

Irish Republican Army
Irish Republican Army

At any one time there are believed to be over 3,000 terrorist groups active in the world. Despite recent concerns, extremely few of these groups are active in the United States, but one group that has had a presence stretching back through recent decades is the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Some 40 million Americans claim Irish ancestry and when terrorism emerged out of the political and civil unrest in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, there were concerns that militant republican groups like the IRA would find among this diaspora a ready source of funding, weapons, recruits, and political support.

Since then there have been frequently voiced concerns—particularly from paranoid U.K. governments—that the United States is the major source of financing and weapons for the IRA’s campaigns of violence. The media have played on such fears and a steady stream of films and novels have portrayed (usually with a sympathetic eye) Irish terrorists working, fighting, and dying for the cause on the streets of U.S. cities. But how realistic is this picture?

Certainly, there is a small degree of support among Irish Americans for the IRA, and accompanying this support have been money and weapons. However, the extent of this assistance has generally been hugely overestimated. In the Irish War of Independence fought from 1919 to 1921 more than $10 million was raised in the United States for the IRA (an impressive sum equivalent to nearly $100 million today) (Coogan). This bounty, however, contrasts starkly with the far more frugal support provided in the recent conflict.

The Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID) raised some $600,000 in the United States in the first years of the 1970s, but by the end of the decade they were struggling to raise even $100,000 (Bishop and Mallie). Fifty years on, it was clear that support for Irish extremism had declined dramatically in the United States. It was a trend that would continue.

By 1998 a detailed study into the finances of the IRA revealed that while the organization had an annual budget in the region of $10 million per annum, the vast majority of this sum was being raised within Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (Horgan and Taylor). As little as $50,000 was coming from the United States (less than 1 percent of the IRA’s annual income).

In terms of weapons as well, the role of the United States has generally been overstated, but at least in the 1970s there was more genuine cause for concern on this issue. When the recent round of troubles kick-started in 1969 the IRA was desperately short of weapons.

With its large Irish community and lax gun laws, the United States was the first port of call in the search to acquire arms. In 1970 five Irish Americans in Philadelphia organized a shipment of over 400 Armalite rifles (a weapon used for deer hunting in the United States), which were all successfully smuggled into Ireland.

But such large shipments were rare. Most weapons from the United States were smuggled in very small batches, hidden in suitcases or concealed in freight goods. Like the Armalites, most of these weapons were hunting guns or other small-caliber items, bought legally in stores and shows throughout the United States and smuggled slowly overseas.

There was precious little weaponry of serious military caliber. In an attempt to address this, IRA representatives involved themselves with organized crime elements in efforts to acquire more potent weaponry, such as M60 machine-guns and later Stinger surface-to-air missile systems (Bell).

However, these isolated efforts tended to backfire for the IRA and, even before the end of the 1970s, the United States had largely become a peripheral source of weaponry (although a very limited amount of munitions smuggling has continued even into the cease-fire era).

While prepared to raise funds and purchase weapons in the United States, it has always been very clear that the IRA has not been prepared to commit acts of violence in the country. In theory, they have many potential targets (e.g., the British Embassy in New York).

However, the IRA has always understood that there would be a serious public and political backlash if it engaged in violence in the United States and it has strict orders in place to absolutely prohibit that from happening.

With the declaration of cease-fires in the mid-1990s, support for extremist republicans has dwindled even further in the United States. The largest of the dissident groups, the Real IRA, is now believed to bring in no more than $10,000 to $15,000 per annum from the United States, and sometimes even less than this.

The U.S. operations of the dissidents have also been seriously hurt by effective undercover and surveillance operations by the FBI in particular. Indeed, throughout both the 1980s and 1990s police and federal agents have proven very effective in identifying and prosecuting those involved in procuring weapons and funds for the IRA.

Such losses have hastened the decline of illicit support for the movement, especially as a more moderate Irish republicanism has emerged to the fore with the advent of the ongoing peace process. At the start of the twenty-first century, it is fair to say that the level of support Irish terrorists now enjoy in the United States is extremely meager indeed.