Irish Studies

The Significance of the IRA in Britain, in conversation with Gerard Patrick Noonan

To celebrate the release of The IRA in Britain 1919-1923, Gerard Patrick Noonan discusses the significance of the IRA’s terrorist campaign in Britain and the importance of this research as the first book to uncover the topic. 

What contribution did IRA gunrunning in Britain make to the success of the IRA in Ireland?

I think IRA gunrunning in Britain was a significant factor in the success of the IRA’s campaign in Ireland in the War of Independence. The IRA in Ireland was perennially short of munitions or the right sort of munitions at any rate: rifles, handguns, machine guns, explosives and ammunition. It did not have enough of these munitions to arm all its members. It was forced to turn abroad to augment its arsenal. Irish Republicans had been gunrunning in Britain from the 1860s, at least. So the IRA tapped these sources and developed others. Sometimes the munitions were bought – on the black market or from soldiers recently returned from fighting in the First World War. Other times the weapons were stolen from British Army barracks or Territorial Army drill halls. They were then smuggled to Ireland. By my calculations, around 330 firearms, 27,000 rounds of ammunition and 470 kg of explosives were smuggled to Ireland from 1919 to 1921. (These figures are based on surviving evidence; more may have been smuggled for which evidence does not survive.) These munitions allowed the IRA in Ireland to put up as good a fight as it did, forcing the British Government to agree to a truce and peace talks in the summer of 1921. ‘I always have it before me that we have got to help supply an army …’ one gunrunner in Liverpool said. And that is what he and his comrades did.

During the Civil War, the anti-Treaty IRA worked to acquire weapons and smuggle them to Ireland. However, their former comrades now in the National Army, aware of their modus operandi, liaised with the police to frustrate them.

How significant was the IRA’s terrorist campaign in Britain?

Militarily, it was not terribly significant, apart from the first incident. However, it garnered a good deal of press attention and may have put British politicians under pressure. The main aim of the campaign was to revenge the violence of the police in Ireland, especially their newly recruited British members known popularly as the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. The campaign started off spectacularly in November 1920, with warehouses being set alight on Merseyside and causing over £600,000 worth of damage. However, from then until the campaign was halted in July 1921, largely because of police countermeasures, the attacks were on a much smaller scale and involved the burning of crops, timber yards, railway and telephone infrastructure etc. The families of men in the Irish police were targeted as well. Overall, two civilians were killed and about £669,000 worth of damage was caused to property. A coda in June 1922 saw two London IRA men assassinate Sir Henry Wilson, a Conservative MP from an Anglo-Irish family. This was a significant event, in that it contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War in Ireland later that month.

How successful were the authorities in tackling the IRA?

During the War of Independence, the police had a mixed record in tackling the IRA. They did not make any serious inroads into the IRA’s gunrunning activities, probably because they lacked actionable intelligence. The commencement of the terrorist campaign, however, seems to have jolted them and the political establishment into action. By arresting a number of significant figures, mounting patrols and protecting property, they hampered the IRA’s campaign. Overall, the IRA mounted 239 terrorist incidents between November 1920 and July 1921; convictions were secured for only 64. During the Civil War, the police worked with the newly installed government in the Irish Free State to successfully monitor and frustrate the activities of Republicans in Britain.

Why do you think this is the first book-length study of the topic?

It is curious that mine is the first book to tackle the subject. I suppose this has got to do with the fact that the topic is not terribly well known, even in academic circles. While many people have heard of the Fenians’ activities in Britain in the 1860s and the 1880s, the bombing campaign in 1939–1940 and the attacks mounted by the Provisional IRA from the 1970s to the 1990s, the IRA’s activities there during the Revolutionary period, 1916–1923, are relatively unknown. Perhaps this was because they were overshadowed by events in Ireland itself.

For more information on The IRA in Britain 1919-1923 and further Irish Studies titles please visit our website.

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