Women of the Irish Republican Army: Powerful or Powerless?

Photographer: Colman Doyle took during the time of the ‘Troubles’ in West Belfast 1970s

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is a paramilitary organization that has operated out of Ireland since 1917. There have been many versions of the IRA throughout time such as the ‘OLD IRA’ and the ‘REAL IRA’ however the focus of the group has mostly remained the same, which is that the whole of Ireland should be an independent republic free from British rule.

The focus of the group has mostly remained the same, which is that the whole of Ireland should be an independent republic free from British rule.

In 1969, the IRA was determined to see the British withdrawal from Northern Ireland but with a differing of opinion, the IRA split into two separate wings: officials and provisionals. Officials used their efforts to gain independence through peaceful action, while the provisionals used violence and extremism to make its agenda known.

This division on part of the provisionals resulted in an estimated 1,800 deaths, which included more than 500 civilians. As the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary organizations continued on what can only be described as a violent path, the British Army in the meantime retaliated which eventually marked the time known as the “Troubles” which affected Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for almost 30 years.

Women have been known to participate in many roles within the IRA. During the 1970s many women were compelled to join in some capacity as the resistance within the community helped to politicize them.

While many of these roles have involved protests and civil rights matters a number of women became known for their roles as combatants during the time of the troubles. This is an interesting development in paramilitary organizations as women were not often included in these physically violent positions.

The IRA stands as a departure in the traditional roles women hold in terrorism and changes the narrative of how they are viewed. This shift in the structure of terrorist groups raises the question of why the change in dynamics and what does it mean for how the group operates.

Does the addition of women to the group make it stronger or vulnerable? There is a tendency in research and in situations where female terrorists are actively observed to view them as victims instead of perpetrators despite overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise.

There is a tendency in research and in situations where female terrorists are actively observed to view them as victims instead of perpetrators despite overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise.

Societal norms and constructs have added to a preconceived notion that women are naturally more peaceful and less violent than men but it is naïve to allow this belief to distort the reality that women are active players in terrorism and are not to be overlooked. In fact, it could be argued that they are more dangerous than men in the sense they can use their femininity and this false image to mislead and conceal their violent agendas from others. A key member of the IRA and a prime example of this shift in gendered terrorism is Dolores Price.

In fact, it could be argued that they [women] are more dangerous than men in the sense they can use their femininity and this false image to mislead and conceal their violent agendas from others.

Dolores Price joined the Provisional IRA in the 1970s along with her sister Marian Price. During her time in the IRA, Price was known for her extreme devotion to the cause and her inherently violent nature.

Price was involved with some of the IRA’s most devastating crimes: In 1973 she participated in a car bombing at the Old Bailey in London injuring over 200 people and killing one.

Price and her sister were arrested shortly after the bombing. Originally the sentence was life imprisonment, however, their sentences were eventually brought down to 20 years. Price only served seven years for her role and participation in the bombing. While in prison Price went on a hunger strike in order to be moved to a different prison in Northern Ireland.

Other members of the IRA imprisoned for the bombing joined the hunger strike and it went on for 208 days due to the prisoners being fed forcefully by prison officers in order to keep them alive. The force-feeding was abruptly brought to an end when another member of the strike died.

Price began to resent and blame Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams for the ordering of the abduction and murder of the most high profile victim of the IRA. Price revealed that she was given the order of taking Jean McConville- a mother to 10 children, across the border where she was heinously murdered and buried by the IRA.

Price also made the accusation that Adams was responsible for the creation of a covert unit in Belfast that was used to push out informants of the IRA who were supplying information to defense agencies. Adams, who helped shape the Northern Ireland peace process, denies any knowledge of such. Price continued to be involved with political issues up until the 1990s.

Price also noted that she and her sister were fearful due to threats from other members of the IRA and the political party Sinn Féin after she made allegations against them publicly. Price died in January 2013 after being found in her home in Dublin from a suspected toxic illness due to mixing the medication.

Dolores Price’s role in the IRA raises the issue that is central to the women in extremism program- what motivates a woman to become involved in a terrorist organization and what it looks like compared to the experience of a man.

There is a certain attractiveness for men to join a terrorist organization in terms of the sexualization and allure of violence but there is little to suggest that women do not join for the same reasons.

In this case, we can only theorize about why Price joined the IRA but a lot can be deduced from her actions and involvement.

In an effort to understand more about the motivations of women in terrorist organizations there is a need to explore the attraction of power and loyalty to men in the community as factors for involvement.

Power and attraction are some of the most common reasons for the justification of violence.

Dolores Prices involvement in the IRA should pose as a reminder that combatant women can have a bigger influence in terrorism than men and should not be expected to be less militant or less dangerous due to their gender.

How Foreign Critics Led the IRA to Disarm

For more than half of the 20th century, violent conflict between pro-British Unionists and Irish Nationalists – a period referred to as the Troubles – decimated communities across British-controlled Northern Ireland and the self-governing Republic of Ireland. 

Violence even occasionally spilled over into England itself. In counties bordering Northern Ireland and the Republic, violence was an everyday phenomenon. Crossing the border often proved a fateful endeavor. Much of the violence was driven by the IRA, or Irish Republican Army, an organization determined to end British rule of Northern Ireland and restore political autonomy to all of Ireland’s 32 counties. 

Though their aim was noble, they used violence – including bombings, kneecappings, and violent intimidation – to achieve it.

At the height of IRA violence, their bloody campaign instilled terror in the Irish people, claiming hundreds of innocent lives. Irish people with relatives in Northern Ireland, like my grandparents, were thwarted from communicating with or visiting family across the border. Crossing in the wrong sort of car, or entering the wrong neighborhood would guarantee harm at the hands of violent nationalists. Things carried on this way for half a century.

If the IRA was so powerful, why has it ceased to be a source of violence in the 21st century? After declaring a ceasefire in 2005, the IRA lost its status as a major Irish political player. The IRA’s r reasons for disarming are complex, but they are entwined with events outside of Ireland, surprisingly. 

It’s not too much to suggest that Irish-Americans were complicit in the deaths of hundreds of Irish civilians.

Irish-American support buoyed the IRA throughout its history, even as its leadership faltered, and its mission’s clarity flagged. IRA allies across the Atlantic ranged from middle-class Americans of Irish descent to Irish expatriates, and even to high-ranking members of the US Congress. Such ideological and financial support held powerful sway over IRA activities. 

Preceding a 1970s crackdown, these were the IRA’s primary sources of funding. As such, Irish-American sentiment had a clear connection to IRA tactics. For decades, this informal Irish American lobby aided and abetted the IRA’s bloody pursuit of independence. It’s not too much to suggest Irish-Americans were complicit in the deaths of hundreds of Irish civilians.

The Belfast Telegraph headline on the day of the IRA ceasefire in 1994


9/11 reminded Irish-Americans how painful terrorism is.

The 1990s and early 2000s brought about an ideological shift. After decades of support, an increasing number of Irish-Americans shunned violence in favor of peaceful, political negotiations. 9/11 reminded Irish-Americans how painful terrorism is. 

The US government arrested a number of IRA operatives trafficking weapons on American soil. And three IRA bombers were arrested in Colombia while training FARC rebels to fight US forcesThese developments turned Irish-American opinion against the IRA’s use of terrorism and support for the group waned.

As the IRA lost American funding and connections, the pressure to disarm mounted. The loss of the Irish-American street wasn’t the only consideration in the IRA’s disarmament, but it surely factored into the 2005 decision.

These are not bygone days we’re discussing. These shifts occurred in the 21st century, and as such the implications are profound. Foreign support was crucial to the IRA’s survival. Likewise, it is integral to the operations of terrorist organizations like ISIS and Latin American cartels. Foreign support comes from individual donors, government agencies, and front charitiesEven Bitcoin has become a means of financing extremism as terrorist organizations increase their reach and diversify their resourcesForeign money and connections are used for weapons, education, outreach. Absent these resources, all these activities would be limited.

Undermining terrorism by cutting off foreign support is demonstrably effective. If we’re serious about ending radicalism, we must penalize overseas supporters as ardently as we oppose terrorists themselves. 

The War on Terror tends to focus on terrorist recruitment, disarmament, and direct combat. But it must also address the connections terrorist organizations have to secondary agencies funding them. In the case of the IRA, by cutting off foreign support was demonstrably effective. 

If we’re serious about ending radicalism, we must penalize its overseas supporters as ardently as we oppose terrorists themselves. This works, whether the supporters are Saudi officials, European civilians, or members of the Irish-American middle class. 

Brexit and Northern Ireland, Troubles Afoot?

As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union in March 2019 there remain many who are concerned about what this will mean for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Twenty years after the end of the ethno-national Protestant and Catholic paramilitary conflict known as The Troubles, the British Isles once more fear the start of the terrorist violence. In 2016, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, one of the most pressing questions regarded what to do with Ireland and Northern Ireland border – and how to keep violence from reemerging there.

The Troubles were a 30 year (1968 – 1998) ethno-conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The two sides to this territorial conflict had distinct visions for Northern Ireland: the majority Unionist Protestants fought to keep Northern Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.

While the minority Catholic Unionists fought to unite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 3,600 people were killed, thousands more were injured, and an intolerable unease lingered for three decades. 

Fears of Troubles-era violence and the paramilitary groups’ reemergence grow daily as Brexit negotiations continue. According to the United Kingdom’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency, MI5, Northern Ireland violence is now classified as severe, indicating the belief that chances of attacks in the region are high. In Britain the threat level is moderate.

Violence in Northern Ireland never ended completely. Despite the Good Friday Agreement, radical Protestants and IRA splinter groups (such as New IRA, formerly known as Real IRA) consistently, violently attack one other.

Examples of such attacks include early July attacks in Derry wherein a group of boys, some as young as eight, fired AK-47 rifles and threw IEDs at police officers. The attacks were claimed by New IRA. On the other side, an office at the Irish Republican party Sinn Fein was targeted in an arson attack. No one was harmed, and no one claimed the attack, but the party publicly stated that the attack was anti-democratic.

There is legitimate concern that Brexit negotiation tensions will exacerbate this unending Troubles Epilogue, provoking broader terror operations and ubiquitous violence. But what is it about these negotiations that they can re-ignite great contention in Ireland? 

The reintroduction of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a border where citizens from both countries would have to go through customs to enter the other side. Among other things, The Good Friday Agreement stipulated that the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland border remain open to the point of figurative invisibility. No stopping travelers and traders, in other words, at Customs to awkwardly hand-over paperwork.

Brexit negotiators have borne this in mind, but lately, news outlets, political analysts, and political leaders alike opine that there is a growing possibility of a “No Deal Brexit.” Such a thing would mean the UK and EU agreed to shrug off the unresolved nature of the border problem and proceed regardless, triggering the installation of a hard border – imagine what this will do to trade alone.

According to recently released technical papers, the British government’s publicly stated opinion on trade and travel hardships caused by a prospective hard border boils down to, “…ask Dublin.” The rhetoric exasperates leaders on both sides unsettled by a lack of deference for the seminal Good Friday Agreement.

The looming threat of a No Deal Brexit is not the only cause for concern. A bill passing through Parliament allows for stops and searches within a mile of the Irish border in Northern Ireland for purposes of combating terror. Unsurprisingly, there has been backlash over this bill in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Fears are based on the growing perception that the British government isn’t even interested in putting a good face on violating the Good Friday Agreement’s spirit which seeks to defuse tension rather than fuel it with hard borders. London must redouble its investment in resolving the border question lest it reignites an old fire. With tensions on the rise and violence already occurring in the area, the scars of the past are opening. A No Deal Brexit could be a straight shot to terrorism’s reappearance on the British Isles.

Picture by Margaret McLaughlin