The balance—if it can be called that—between the IRA’s constitutional goals of “revolutionary armed struggle” and political actions has tipped dramatically during the last decade in favour of the former. This is especially true where Irish Republican terrorism “out-of-theatre” is concerned; i.e., the conduct of terrorist operations in the UK and Europe.

The author, an analyst with the Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS, explores the recent history of this phenomenon and provides a detailed account of this latest phase of Republican terrorism: the “Armalite and the Ballot Box”.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author’s views.



By 1993 the Provisional IRA was a very different organization than it had been during its first modern decade: smaller, more efficient, and selectively much more deadly. The PIRA of 1974 could not have come within a hair’s breadth of murdering the entire British Cabinet and avoiding detection, as they did a decade later. This can be explained by two factors. The natural process of evolution meant that by the 1980s the hardcore was well-versed in the means of struggle after more than a decade of trial and error. However, the increasing professionalism also came about from conscious decisions made by a leadership that, by 1979, was dominated by young Northerners such as Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison. These men have moulded both the PIRA and Sinn Fein into complementary parts of the current manifestation of physical force nationalism.

A recent history of Republican terrorism in Northern Ireland divides PIRA strategy into four distinct phases, the latest of which was the “Armalite and Ballot Box” from 1979-present. This grew out of the beliefs of the now-dominant Gerry Adams group and their seizure of the opportunity provided by the 1980-81 hunger-strikes. They realized the futility of the sole reliance on the military struggle and sought a complementary politicization.

Initially the concentration on political mobilization proved successful. Capitalizing on the passions aroused by the hunger-strike of 1981 and subsequent electoral successes, Sinn Fein seriously contested Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 1982 and the British General Election of 1983. However, politicization never advanced beyond these initial victories. By the end of the decade Sinn Fein represented approximately 11% of the Northern Ireland electorate, demonstrating the existence of a core Republican vote. None the less, the constitutional nationalist position, in the form of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, still held the allegiance of the majority of the Northern Catholic vote. And in the 1992 British General Election Sinn Fein lost its sole Westminster seat in West Belfast to a moderate SDLP candidate.

In Eire, Sinn Fein was even more marginal. It was not until 1986 that the party abandoned abstentionism and declared itself ready to take seats in the Dail. In the 1987 Irish General Election Sinn Fein captured just 1.8% of the vote (and no seats) and in 1989 its share of the vote sank to 1.2%. The reasons for this poor electoral performance rest on the bifurcated nature of physical force nationalism and can be clearly seen in the objectives of Irish Republicanism as it stands today.


The constitution of the IRA states that one of its goals is to support the establishment of an Irish Socialist Republic based on the 1916 proclamation. Furthermore, they pledge to establish and uphold a lawful government in sole and absolute control of the Republic. These represent the official position of the Provisionals regarding the democratic government of Eire as well as make clear the socialist orientation of the organization. The means of obtaining these objectives, also laid out in the constitution, are via “revolutionary armed struggle”, the encouragement of popular resistance, political mobilization and political action in support of these objectives.

Through the past decade the internal situation in the PIRA has been characterized by a tension between those who favour more emphasis on the political program and the hardliners who believe in a more concerted military campaign.

The PIRA and Gerry Adams are mired in a situation resulting from the twin-stream policy of politicization and armed struggle, the two prongs of which are mutually antagonistic. They are committed to the continuance of the armed struggle due to the organization’s history and self-legitimation. Yet at the same time this adherence to violence limits Sinn Fein’s electoral chances outside the committed Republican core in the North. In the South Sinn Fein is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, a marginal party competing for votes in the same left-wing constituency as the Irish Labour Party and the Official IRA-spawned Workers’ Party.

With the apparent recent stalling of Sinn Fein’s electoral campaign, one possible outcome is an increased role for the hard-line militarists and a renewed emphasis on the armed struggle. It is conceivable that the electoral setbacks of 1992 will give the militarists the whip hand. In order to affect Irish Republican electoral opportunities least, especially south of the border, terrorist operations will be most usefully conducted outside Northern Ireland. Attacks will continue in the Six Counties, as has been the case previously, but more attention will be paid to military and prestige targets in England and Europe. This has increasingly been the case since 1987, and there is no immediate end in sight.

Out-of-theatre operations

Irish Republican terrorists committed 120 incidents in Great Britain from 1980-1993. In addition there were 53 acts of Irish Republican out-of-theatre terrorism during 1970-1990, in places as diverse as Washington, D.C. and Kinshasa, Zaire. However, the overwhelming majority of these acts have occurred in Western Europe. The importance of these campaigns to current PIRA policy is clear. A recent report on the organization’s chain-of-command indicates that the GHQ staff includes a Director of Overseas Operations along with the traditional Director of Northern Operations and the Quarter-Master General.

In the most detailed prior analysis of Republican out-of-theatre operations, covering the period 1968-1983, academic Michael McKinley concluded that Irish Republican terrorists either did not intend, or perhaps were unable, to extend the conflict beyond the borders of Northern Ireland under “normal” circumstances. His view, at least to the end of 1983, is that out-of-theatre operations were abnormal. If McKinley is correct then the question which must be asked is what has changed in the interim? In what way have the “normal” circumstances of the situation been superseded?

As noted previously, Irish Republicanism during the 1980s, especially physical force nationalism, can be characterized as a movement undergoing the stress of new challenges and new directions. The “normalcy” of the 1970s was, with regard to out-of-theatre operations, little different from previous campaigns in the 1880s or 1939. The central focus was on Northern Ireland, with bombings occurring in England in a relatively haphazard fashion and largely for tactical reasons. The usual explanations for these incidents were revenge for British actions in the North, a bargaining chip and/or the desire to re-focus London’s attention on the Six Counties. Such operations were peripheral to the central campaign. While these tactical reasons continued to be valid in explaining out-of-theatre operations in the 1980s, the tenor of the campaign, especially post-1987, reflects a strategic rather than tactical shift.

The England Department

Irish Republican terrorist groups have a long and cyclical history of campaigns of political violence in England. This tradition of bombings and shootings in England was revitalized during the 1970s by the Provisionals, but on a much larger scale. In the first cycle, Metropolitan Police figures list 276 bombings from March 1973 to February 1977 (179 of these in London) as well as 14 terrorist shootings (11 in London) resulting in 58 fatalities (18 in London) and the injury of 685 people (353 in London). The targets ranged from military barracks and fuel storage tanks through transportation centres (train and subway stations) to department stores, public houses and restaurants. A total of 130 Republican terrorists were charged.

In contrast, there was a significant decline in the number of incidents and casualties through the 1980s until 1987, as well as a discernible shift in the targets, at least in the first half of the 1988-1993 campaign. The vast majority of bombings and shootings throughout the 1980s were directed against military installations and personnel. Civilian casualties were rare and usually occurred when victims were in the vicinity of an operation directed at a military target. Two major exceptions to this pattern—the 1983 Harrods and 1984 Brighton bombings—possessed special qualifying factors.

In Brighton the target was the PM and Cabinet, which the Provisionals regard as a legitimate Establishment target. It was not a deliberate attempt to target ordinary Britons and the “civilian” casualties (an MP was killed as were the wives of several prominent Tories) stemmed from their proximity to a “legitimate” target.

Such could not be said unequivocally with regard to the Harrods incident. The casualties were, in the main, Christmas shoppers. Initial speculation that the bombing was the unauthorized work of a “rogue” Active Service Unit (ASU) have been debunked by reliable sources stating that the bombers were on an official mission with specific approval to attack the Establishment symbol, but to avoid civilian casualties. A 30-minute warning was phoned in but proved inadequate to clear the department store.

In 1991 the mainland campaign underwent a decided sea-change. Civilian targets ranging from department stores to public houses and rail lines became, as in the 1970s, targets of choice. However this time, sufficient warning was given in most cases to avoid the possibility of civilian casualties.

Of the 120 incidents from 1980-1993 a breakdown of targets reveals that 88 were civilian (including 19 official facilities), and 32 were military. From 1980-1990 the number of civilian targets was just 24, clearly demonstrating the regression in strategy in 1991 which saw a return to the targets of the 1970s. As in Northern Ireland itself a plateau had been reached. Irish nationalist terrorists can only be successful in their own terms if they can maintain the level of attacks in Britain and balance this with assaults on prestige targets.

The current trend is likely to continue so long as the Provisionals are able to maintain ASUs in England. Attacks on civilian targets will continue to be interspersed with assaults on “soft” military facilities such as public concerts by military bands. The ultimate goal—pushing the British public and government into abandoning its commitment in Northern Ireland—appears unlikely. A MORI poll conducted in 1991 for Britain’s second independent television network, Channel 4, found 61% of those polled wanted to bring British troops home. A decade earlier the figure was 59%, and 53% in 1984. Bombings in England are unlikely to change these figures much and, in fact, seem to elicit the opposite response.

European Opportunities

Why has the PIRA chosen to conduct operations in Europe? The simple answer is that it combines opportunities not available elsewhere with considerably less pressure from the security forces. In the late 1980s there were 66,000 British military personnel based in western Germany abutting the Dutch border. They are highly visible and, outside of their bases, relatively “soft” targets. Increasingly during the current campaign, targeting has shifted from military barracks which are on security alert to individual, often off-duty, personnel.

Irish Republican terrorism outside the UK can be divided into three separate campaigns: 1973 where all but one of the incidents were letter-bombs; 1978-1980 which included explosive bombings and shootings; and 1987-1990 which appears to be a duplicate of the campaign a decade earlier. The handful of incidents which occurred in 1981 are attributable to sympathizer groups in response to the Maze hunger-strike and two attacks by a coalition of the small INLA and the German Red Cells.

All British military personnel are regarded as legitimate targets but especially if, as is the case with the majority of troops in Germany, they have served a tour in Northern Ireland. In 1980 the PIRA paper, Republican News, published this rationale concerning British troops:

Between tours all of them are either stationed in Britain or overseas and here they can rest from the dirty work they are doing…they think they can forget about Ireland until the next tour, but we intend to keep Ireland on their minds so that it haunts them and they want to do something about not going back…Overseas attacks also have a prestige value and internationalize the war in Ireland…we have kept Ireland in the world headlines.

Over a decade later this rationale of terror, hand-in-hand with violence as communication, remains unchanged.

The aborted bombing in Gibraltar in 1988 fulfils all the conditions noted. A major symbol of the British government and military, the Rock also has a direct connection to Ulster. Inside one of the large caves is a replica of a Northern Irish village where troops train for tours in the Six Counties. It has also been alleged that Colonel Gaddafi chose Gibraltar as his price for the mid-1980s arms shipments and in revenge for the 1984 British expulsions of diplomatic personnel as well as British assistance in the 1986 raid on Libya. Furthermore, the Royal Anglian Regiment, which was the immediate target, had just returned from a tour in Northern Ireland.

While some of the terrorist operations indicate a certain degree of planning and preparatory reconnaissance, others betray a distinct lack of forethought and appear to have been targets of opportunity. The mistaken identity shooting of two Australian tourists in the Netherlands in May 1990 falls into the latter category. Their fate was sealed by the fact that their rental car bore British license plates.

The non-UK target breakdown 1970-90 reveals that 39 were military (including twice when civilians were mistaken for servicemen), 13 involved official facilities or personnel (all pre-1982), and one incident where a Belgian policeman was shot. There were no incidents where civilian targets were deliberately struck. This follows from the fact that non-official civilian targets in Europe have little connection with Northern Ireland.

The mobility of the European ASUs was striking with their use of safe houses in the Netherlands and France as well as in western Germany. Both Belgium and Luxembourg are also likely to have been used to prepare for operations and hide afterwards, although no safe houses have yet been uncovered in either state. The generally open borders among the Benelux states and throughout Western Europe greatly aided PIRA operations.

There has been a lull in European incidents since mid-1990, which can largely be attributed to the arrest of two ASUs and the seizure of arms in Belgium and the Netherlands in June and December 1990. More attention has been paid to operations in England since that point. However, the opportunities arising from the relaxation of internal border controls in 1992-93 is being closely studied. There are reports that a new European campaign is being contemplated in 1994. As a means of keeping the security forces wrong-footed, further attacks in Europe within the foreseeable future cannot be ruled out.

Operations Outside Europe

It is generally accepted that Irish nationalist terrorists will confine attacks on British targets to the European theatre and Great Britain. Outside of Europe there are sizeable Irish immigrant communities in Australia and North America, but few potential targets, aside from diplomatic representatives and the occasional Royal visit. Operations have occurred in both these continents, but have been confined to financing and arms-purchasing endeavours.

The common wisdom is that offensive operations in North America, especially the United States, could alienate significant funding sources in the Irish community. This would undoubtedly play a part in considerations of PIRA’s strategic leadership. However, there have been recent claims that the role of the Northern Irish Aid Committee (Noraid) in financing PIRA, especially in the past decade, has dwindled and has never been as important as the British authorities have alleged. And given Libyan largesse in the mid-1980s, America’s role as a weapons source, except with regard to certain specialized items, has also diminished.

Personnel and Organization

Just as PIRA has evolved as an organization during the past two decades, so has the manner in which they have conducted out-of-theatre operations. In the early 1970s attacks in England were conducted in an almost haphazard fashion. The best example was the 1973 London bombing campaign when the entire ASU was arrested as they attempted to fly out of Heathrow the afternoon of the attacks. Since that time the in-and-out operational concept has been abandoned in favour of sleeper units.

By the mid-1970s, under the guidance of Director of Mainland Operations Brian Keenan, operations in Britain became more structured. In January 1977 there appeared the first press report of “the self-styled Great Britain Brigade” of PIRA. The report stated this was organized in a cell structure, usually recruited amongst the Irish community in Britain, and was trained by Provisionals who came to the mainland for short periods. Ten years later a much more detailed picture is available of what is now called the England Department. A PIRA source has claimed that it is kept separate from all other IRA operations and is the most closely guarded cell structure within the IRA. Even the IRA leadership follows the need-to-know principle regarding this group.

Two decades after the first failures in 1973, the England Department has evolved into perhaps the key PIRA grouping. Nowhere is this evolution more apparent than in how the leadership staffs and organizes the out-of-theatre operations. The most clearly discernible trend has been the use of many young, unknown activists with clean records. In fact, this is a growing trend in operations within Northern Ireland itself. In February 1992 Northern Ireland Secretary Brooke produced figures demonstrating that up to 50% of those charged with terrorist offences had no previous paramilitary traces.

This is largely in response to the fact that the Security Forces (SF) in both Northern Ireland and Eire have extensive intelligence files on known activists. They are kept under loose surveillance and their disappearance for any prolonged period alerts the authorities to their potential involvement in operations. The importance of surveillance within Ireland cannot be overstressed, as it has led to some of the most important SF successes against ASUs operating outside the North.

In early 1979 the Royal Ulster Constabulary were engaged in “Operation Hawk” employing 70 officers using advanced electronic equipment and targeting senior PIRA people. In late February the Director of Mainland Operations, Brian Keenan, arrived from Eire and was spotted in the company of Martin McGuinness who was under covert observation. Keenan was immediately arrested on the basis of a 1975 warrant arising from fingerprint evidence found in a flat used by convicted London bombers. This was a major coup, for not only had the RUC captured the organizer of the mid-1970s bombing campaign in England, but also discovered in his possession evidence of contacts with Palestinian activists in the UK.

However, the fact that a PIRA member is known to the SF doesn’t always mean success. The case of Patrick Magee illustrates both the problems the PIRA had in finding experienced activists to operate in England, and how the fact that a terrorist is known to the police may not necessarily impede his activity. Magee had a central role in the 1978-1979 bombings which resulted in his arrest in Holland in 1980. Unfortunately a British extradition request failed and he was released. He then played a central role in a bombing conspiracy in England in 1982-1983 which was foiled by an informer, whereupon he escaped to Eire. Within months he returned again to plant the long-delay time bomb which devastated the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984. He stayed on and worked together with the ASU, planning the abortive seaside campaign in 1985 when he was finally arrested again following another surveillance operation.

That Magee was able to operate for so long despite being a known activist illustrates the problems facing the police. Conversely his repeated use, each operation raising the risk of capture, indicates how, during the early 1980s, the Provisionals were drawing their out-of-theatre operatives from a very small, identified pool. By the end of the decade the Patrick Magees were no longer in a visibly active role, having been replaced by more expendable, unknown activists with clean records and no visible Republican ties.

This shift in personnel involved in mainland operations was also mirrored in Republican terrorism in Europe. The one striking anomaly concerns the Gibraltar ASU, where three of the four activists had terrorist convictions, while the fourth had been charged previously although the charges were withdrawn. This high profile contributed to the failure of the operation, as the known activists were picked out, followed and eventually killed by SF agents. The use of known militants in this operation indicates that the operation was an ad hoc attempt, hurriedly put together to avenge several PIRA failures during 1987.

The organization of out-of-theatre operations personnel is also more complex both in terms of support and tasking than it was during the 1970s. During that period, those activists involved in the mainland campaigns went to ground within the Irish community in Britain. This was also true, but to a much lesser degree, in Europe. The British police and security intelligence bodies eventually developed informers and infiltrated these communities, which made them less of a haven. In response, the Provisionals cultivated contacts among the marginal violent fringe of left-wing politics in Britain. This occurred much later in England than in Europe, where as early as 1978 there were solid indications that left-wing activists in the Netherlands were actively assisting ASUs in operations there and in West Germany.

In England there has always been an element of the left-wing which has sympathized with the aims if not the means of the PIRA. Various “Hands Off Ireland” groups and the Troops Out movement are indicative. Like any such grouping, the fringes are bound to attract those desiring action rather than talk. In the first months of 1981 letter-bombs were sent to several MPs, the PM and the Prince of Wales, signed by the English Republican Army and claiming support for the Provisionals. These were believed to be the work of a small group of English sympathizers. By 1989 there was growing evidence that the ASUs involved in the current mainland campaign had been assisted in renting safe houses and other support activity by English left-wing activists. In early 1993 three members of the Trotskyist Red Action splinter group were arrested in connection with PIRA attacks in England.

Along with this personnel shift has come a distinct change in how out-of-theatre operations are conducted. It is now generally accepted that tasks involved in an overseas campaign are divided among autonomous cells assigned to duties such as reconnaissance and logistics. Their preparation supports the cell assigned the actual terrorist acts.

One final point worth noting is that the out-of-theatre ASUs have experienced several turn-overs in personnel over the course of the current campaign. Some members have returned to Ireland and been replaced by new activists. Changes such as these can be expected where the Provisionals have committed to a long-term campaign. The inevitable deaths and arrests leave vacancies. A total of 15 individuals linked to the European campaign were arrested or killed from 1988-1990. The English total from 1987-1991 was 19. The attrition rate since 1987 in England and Europe alongside the continued series of attacks presupposes that new personnel are being regularly introduced into the network.

Recent news reports citing intelligence sources claim up to 12 activists are currently operational in England. They are believed split into a less-experienced team responsible for low-risk bombings, and an elite unit tasked with incidents such as the mortar attack on No. 10 Downing Street and the massive truck bombs in London. It is clear from the foregoing that Provisional out-of-theatre operations were a much more professional and deadly story by 1993 than they had been two decades previously.


In a paper written in 1990 analysing the international dimensions of terrorism, noted terrorism analyst and academic Paul Wilkinson wrote that the strengthening of international police and intelligence co-operation, combined with the greater organizational problems of operating abroad, had tended to discourage international terrorist attacks outside the borders of the terrorists’ own country. This analysis is much less applicable to the recent operations of Irish nationalist terrorists. Indeed the Wilkinson paper was to have been given at a conference on International Terrorism in London which was cancelled due to the discovery of a PIRA bomb at the site.

Every terrorist or paramilitary political group has its own particular mix of operational tactics and long-term goals which may be characterized as its terrorist strategy. Some of these are chosen deliberately by the group while others are often forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control: the physical environment, government counter-measures and the like. It is a combination of the deliberate and the uncontrollable which has led to Irish nationalist out-of-theatre terrorism.

The PIRA, as well as the INLA, have deliberately chosen to conduct operations in England and Europe, largely for the reasons noted previously: greater publicity and a desire to hit the British establishment where it felt secure. Intertwined with this are two incontrovertible facts beyond the control of Irish Republicanism. Operations in Northern Ireland have been badly hurt by SF successes and they have also lost most of their shock value after more than two decades of violence. Attacks in England and Europe still have the capacity to disturb.

In 1980, in a masterly study of Irish nationalism, Sean Cronin stated that the weakness of the Provisionals was political, as its struggle can not be won by military means alone. Yet IRA tradition has always lauded the superiority of military over political means. More than a decade later this strict dichotomy no longer holds. A major, if not the prevalent, thread running through PIRA history during the 1980s has been the growth of Sinn Fein and its struggle with the diehard militarists. Indeed, despite the apparent “talks about talks” between representatives of the British government and Sinn Fein in 1993 PIRA continued its mainland bombing campaign.

If, in 1993, Sinn Fein is the political wing, and PIRA the military wing, of physical force nationalism, Cronin must be rewritten. While it is still true that the struggle won’t be won by military means alone, it is also clear that Sinn Fein’s balancing act, as perfected by Gerry Adams and company, has faltered. The once clear rallying cry of the 1980s—the Armalite and the ballot-box—has proven hollow. Following the 20th anniversary of the current “troubles” the Provisionals are an organization in flux. And it is in this context that one must place the recent upsurge of violence in England and Europe. Out-of-theatre operations are increasingly the normal face of physical force nationalism.


February 1994


Editors Note:

The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :


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