Provisional IRA arms importation

Provisional IRA arms importation

The Provisional Irish Republican Army began importing large quantities of weapons and ammunition into Ireland for use in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. With these weapons it conducted an armed campaign against the British presence in Northern Ireland.

American Arms

In the early stages of the present Troubles, during the period 1969–1971, the Provisional IRA (IRA) was very poorly armed. They had access to weapons remaining from the IRA's failed Border Campaign between 1956 and 1962, but these weapons were outdated and unsuitable for a modern campaign.cite book | last = Taylor | first = Peter | authorlink = Peter Taylor (Journalist) | title = Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin | publisher = Bloomsbury Publishing | date = 1997 | pages = p. 52 | doi = | isbn = 0-7475-3818-2 ]

After 1969, and the split with the Official IRA, the IRA gained control over a majority of the stockpiled weaponry still held from previous IRA campaigns. They found that the stockpiles consisted mostly of World War II small arms ranging from Lee Enfield & M1 Garand rifles, to MP40 & Thompson submachine guns (SMG), plus Bren light machine guns (LMG) and Webley revolvers. [Taylor, p. 62.]

To continue and escalate their armed campaign, the IRA needed to be better equipped, which meant securing modern small arms. In previous campaigns weapons had been secured before hostilities commenced via raids on British Army and even Irish Army weapons depots. In the 1969–1971 period this was no longer feasible. [Previous raids included the 1940 Christmas Raid, the 1953 Felstead Raid, and the 1955 Hazebrouck Raid.] By 1972, the IRA had large quantities of modern small arms, particularly Armalite rifles, manufactured and purchased in the United States. The AR-18 rifle in particular was found to be very well suited to the Provisionals' purposes as its small size and folding stock meant that it was easy to conceal. Moreover, it was capable of rapid fire and fired a high velocity round which provided great "stopping power".Taylor, pp. 108-109.]

The IRA's main gun runner in the USA was George Harrison, an IRA veteran, resident in New York since 1938. Harrison bought guns for the IRA from a Corsican arms dealer named George de Meo, who had connections in organised crime. All sources agree that Harrison was funded by the "Irish Northern Aid Committee" or NORAID,fact|date=December 2007 a fundraising and support group for the IRA. Joe Cahill acted as the contact between NORAID and Harrison. In 1971, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had already seized 700 modern weapons from the IRA, including 2 tonnes of high explosive and 157,000 rounds of ammunition, most of which were US made. [cite book | last = English | first = Richard | authorlink = | title = Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA | publisher = Pan Books | date = 2003 | pages = pp. 114-115 | doi = | isbn = 0-330-49388-4 ]

Harrison spent an estimated US$1 million in the 1970s purchasing over 2,500 guns for the IRA.cite book | last = Moloney | first = Ed | authorlink = Ed Moloney | title = A Secret History of the IRA | publisher = Penguin Books | date = 2002 | pages = p. 16 | doi = | isbn = 0-141-01041-X] According to Brendan Hughes, an IRA member who later became Officer Commanding of the IRA inside Long Kesh prison, the IRA smuggled small arms from America by sea on the "QE2" from New York via Southampton. These "QE2" shipments included AR-18 and AR-15 Armalite assault rifles, accompanied by Browning and Smith & Wesson pistols and were driven from Southampton to Belfast in small consignments.

In the late 1970s, another IRA member, Gabriel Megahey, was sent to America to acquire more arms and he was able to procure more AR-15 Armalites, plus a number of Heckler and Koch rifles and other weapons. Again, the purchase of these weapons was funded by Irish American republicans.Taylor, pp. 1-5.]

Harrison was arrested by the FBI in 1981, but acquitted at his trial. Megahey was arrested by the FBI in 1982 after a successful "sting operation", where he was trying to purchase surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) for the IRA, and sentenced to seven years in prison. The last major arms shipment from America destined for the IRA was intercepted by the Irish authorities on the "Marita Ann" near the County Kerry coastline, allegedly after a tip off from IRA informer Sean O'Callaghan.

Libyan Arms

The other source of IRA arms in the 1970s was Libya, whose leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, sympathised with their campaign. [cite book | last = Bowyer Bell | first = J. | authorlink = J. Bowyer Bell | title = The Secret Army: The IRA | publisher = Transaction Publishers | date = 1997 | pages = pp. 556-571 | doi = | isbn = 1560009012] The first Libyan arms donation to the IRA occurred in 1972–1973, following visits by Joe Cahill to Libya. Cahill was arrested on board the vessel "Claudia" on 28 March 1973 in Irish territorial waters off the coast of County Waterford. The "Claudia" was found to be laden with five tonnes of Libyan arms and ammunition. [Bowyer Bell, p. 398.] The weapons captured included 250 Russian made rifles, 240 other guns, anti-tank mines and other explosives. It is estimated that three shipments of weapons of similar size and makeup did get through to the IRA during the same time period. [Taylor, p. 156] Moloney reports that the early Libyan arms shipments furnished the IRA with its first RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and that Gaddafi also donated three to five million US dollars at this time. [Moloney, p. 10.]

In the 1980s, the IRA secured larger quantities of weapons and explosives from Gaddafi's Libya — enough to supply at least two infantry battalions. [A court action is currently (May 2006) underway against Libya by victims of IRA violence. See [,,1759494,00.html here] .] These shipments were as a direct result of Gaddafi's desire to strike at the British Government for their support and assistance during the US Air Force's bombing attacks on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986. The USAF planes involved in the bombings had taken off from British bases on 14 April 1986. 60 Libyans died in the attack, including Gaddafi's adopted baby daughter Hanna. This second major Libyan contribution to the IRA came in 1986–1987. The arms shipments included:
* 9mm Browning, Taurus, Glock and Beretta handguns
* AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles
* MP5 SMGs
* Rocket propelled grenades (RPGs)
* Soviet made DShK heavy machine guns (HMGs)
* FN MAG machine guns
* U.S. military flamethrowers
* Semtex plastic explosive
* SA-7 shoulderheld SAMs

However, on 1 November 1987, during transit to Ireland, one third of the total Libyan arms consignment was intercepted by Irish and French authorities aboard the "mV Eksund" (sometimes referred to simply as "Eksund"), along with five crew members, among them Gabriel Cleary. The vessel was found to contain 120 tonnes of weapons, including HMGs, 36 RPGs, 1000 detonators, 20 SAMs, Semtex and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition. [cite book | last = O'Brien | first = Brendan | authorlink = Brendan O'Brien (Irish journalist) | title = The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin | publisher = O'Brien Press | date = 1999 | pages = p. 142 | doi = | isbn = 0-86278-606-1] There were shipments before the "Eksund" which were not intercepted however and it was these shipments over the preceding year that drew the attention of various intelligence agencies:
* The "Casamara" took on ten tonnes of weapons in September 1985 off the Maltese island of Gozo. These weapons were landed off the Clogga Strand near Arklow later that month. The shipment contained five hundred crates of AK-47s, pistols, hand grenades, ammunition and seven RPG-7s.
* The vessel "Dushkas" left Maltese waters on 6 October, 1985 carrying HMGs. These weapons were also landed in Clogga Strand.
* In July 1986, there was a shipment of fourteen tonnes, including, according to the authorities, two SAM-7s.
* In October 1986, another shipment of eighty tonnes which included one tonne of Semtex, reportedly ten SAM-7 missiles, more RPG-7s, AK-47s and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition arrived aboard the vessel "Villa". [Bowyer Bell, p. 570.]

Subsequent Garda Síochána (Irish police) arms finds in 1988 included several hundred AK-47s, Russian DSHK HMGs, FN MAG machine guns and Semtex.O'Brien, p. 143.] The author Ed Moloney claims that the Eksund shipment also contained military mortars and 106 millimetre cannon, an assertion never confirmed by the Irish authorities. [Moloney, p. 22.] It is also estimated that Gaddafi gave the IRA the equivalent of £2 million along with the 1980s shipments.

Other arms sources

As well as these major sources of arms, the IRA has also bought weapons on a smaller scale from various arms dealers in continental Europe. In the 1970s, some guns were purchased by Dáithí Ó Conaill in Czechoslovakia and in the 1980s, Belgian FN FNC rifles were obtained, probably smuggled through the Netherlands. The PLO at one stage offered weapons and training to the IRA, but they declined on the grounds that it was impossible to smuggle arms out of the Middle East without alerting Israeli intelligence. AK4 rifles from Norway/Sweden were also secretly obtained. [cite web | title = Uncovering the Irish Republican Army | author = Sean Boyne | url = | publisher = "Jane's Intelligence Review" | date = 1 August, 1996 | accessdate = 2007-03-26]

Recent arms deals

In the 1990s, the Provisional IRA South Armagh Brigade imported a number of high velocity Barrett Light 50 and Barrett Model 90 sniper rifles from the United States. [O'Brien, pp. 354-355.] [cite book | last = Harnden | first = Toby | authorlink = Toby Harnden | title = Bandit Country | publisher = Hodder & Stoughton | date = 1999 | pages = p. 372 | month = | isbn = 034071736X] These weapons were used by two Armagh ASUs to conduct a sniping campaign against British Army patrols operating in the area. The last British soldier killed in Northern Ireland, Stephen Restorick, was shot dead with a Barrett rifle in 1997. Soon after, the leader of one of the Armagh sniper squads, Michael Caraher, was captured and his Barrett rifle recovered.

Despite their ceasefires of 1994 and 1997 the IRA continued to buy arms. They needed a new source of weapons, since the Libyan pipeline had been closed. In May 1996, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's internal security service, publicly accused Estonia of arms smuggling, and claimed that the IRA had contacted representatives of Estonia's volunteer defense force, Kaitseliit, and some non-government groups to buy weapons. However he did not say when the contacts had taken place. [cite web | title = Russia Reform Monitor No. 137 | author = J. Michael Waller | url = | publisher = "American Foreign Policy Council" | date = 15 May, 1996 | accessdate = 2007-03-26] [cite web | title = No. 93, Part II | author = Deborah Michaels | url = | publisher = "Open Media Research Institute" | date = 14 May, 1996 | accessdate = 2007-03-26] Between 1999–2000, the breakaway PIRA faction, the Real IRA bought arms including rifles and RPG launchers in Croatia and Serbia, but they are not under the control of the Provisional leadership. [cite web | title = Police find piece of rocket launcher and point finger at Irish dissidents | author = Jamie Wilson & David Pallister | url =,,371714,00.html | publisher = "The Guardian" | date = 22 September, 2000 | accessdate = 2007-03-26] In July 1999, three men, Anthony Smyth, Conor Claxton, and Martin Mullan, along with an accomplice, Siobhan Browne, were arrested by the American FBI and ATF agencies and accused of buying 44 handguns from arms dealers in Florida in the United States and posting 15 of the weapons to Ireland and the United Kingdom. [cite web | title = IRA denies sanctioning US gun plot | author = Jamie Wilson | url =,,204840,00.html | publisher = "The Guardian" | date = 7 August, 1999 | accessdate = 2007-03-26] Later estimates put the number of guns sent to Ireland at more than 100 pistols and machine-pistols. [cite web | title = Dublin stalls over gun plot | author = Henry McDonald | url =,,190432,00.html | publisher = "The Observer" | date = 20 February, 2000 | accessdate = 2007-03-26] All three men were cleared of conspiracy to aid terrorists and to commit murder. They were later sentenced on the less serious smuggling charge. [cite web | title = 'IRA arms' trial ends in confusion | author = Michael Ellison | url =,,331940,00.html | publisher = "The Guardian" | date = 14 June, 2000 | accessdate = 2007-03-26] The IRA leadership denied knowledge of the arms buys.

Decommissioning of arms

Following the announcement of their cessation of violence and commitment to exclusively peaceful means, the Provisional IRA decommissioned its arms in July–September 2005. Among the weaponry estimated, (by Jane's Information Group), to have been destroyed as part of this process were:
* 1,000 rifles
* 3 tonnes of Semtex
* 20–30 heavy machine guns
* 7 surface-to-air missiles (unused)
* 7 flame throwers
* 1,200 detonators
* 20 rocket-propelled grenade launchers
* 100 hand guns
* 100+ grenades [cite web | title = IRA guns: The list of weapons | author = | url = | publisher = "BBC" | date = 26 September, 2005 | accessdate = 2007-03-26]

The panel overseeing the decommissioning of PIRA weaponry and weapons stockpiles, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) headed by General de Chastelain oversaw the decommissioning process. The decommissioning process has taken place using estimates of IRA weaponry submitted by the British and Irish Governments. [Colonel al-Gaddafi is known to have given the British Government a detailed inventory of weapons he gave to the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s, this list was handed to British intelligence in 1995. See Bowyer Bell Page 578] General de Chastelain said he had seen rifles, particularly AK-47s, machine guns, ground-to-air missiles, explosives, explosive material, mortars, flame throwers, hand guns, timer units and ballistic caps, and some weaponry that was "very old", including a Bren machine gun.

The IICD's final report was issued on 26 September 2005 and the panel stated to the press: [The IICD PDF report is available [ here] .]

"We have observed and verified events to put beyond use very large quantities of arms which we believe include all the arms in the IRA's possession… Our new inventory is consistent with these estimates. We are satisfied that the arms decommissioning represents the totality of the IRA's arsenal."
and while they could not report on the quantity or types of weapons destroyed they said:
"The experience of seeing this with our own eyes, on a minute-to-minute basis, provided us with evidence so clear and of its nature so incontrovertible that at the end of the process [PIRA weapon decommissioning] it demonstrated to us — and would have demonstrated to anyone who might have been with us — that beyond any shadow of doubt, the arms of the IRA have now been decommissioned."

Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Bertie Ahern also stated at the time:

"The weapons of the IRA are gone, and are gone in a manner which has been verified and witnessed" [cite web | title = IRA 'has destroyed all its arms' | author = | url = | publisher = "BBC" | date = 26 September, 2005 | accessdate = 2007-03-26]

However despite the conclusion of the IICD agreeing with the figures provided by the British security forces, unnamed sources in MI5 and the PSNI have reported to the press that not all IRA arms were destroyed during the process, a claim which so far remains unsubstantiated. [cite web | title = House of Commons Hansard Debates for 8 Feb 2006 (pt 26) | author = | url = | publisher = House of Commons | date = 8 February, 2006 | accessdate = 2007-03-18] These reports have since been scotched by the group overseeing the activities of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland — the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). In its latest report, dated April 2006, the IMC points out that it has no reason to disbelieve the IRA or information to suspect that the group has not fully decommissioned. Rather, it indicated that any weaponry that had not been handed in had been retained by individuals outside the IRA's control. Excerpt from the IMC's 10th report:

"Indeed, our present assessment is that such of the arms as were reported to us as having been retained, would have been withheld under local control despite the instructions of the leadership. We note that, as reported by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), the leadership claimed only to have decommissioned all the arms "under its control". The relevant points are that the amount of un-surrendered material was not significant in comparison to what was decommissioned and that these reports do not cast doubt on the declared intention of the IRA leadership to eschew terrorism and to follow the political path. We will continue to monitor the position." [10th Report of the IMC Page 15 April 2006, available [ here] .]


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