Physical force Irish republicanism

Physical force Irish republicanism is the recurring appearance of a non-parliamentary violent insurrection in Ireland between 1798 and the present.[1] It is often described as a rival to parliamentary nationalism which for most of the period drew more support from Irish nationalists.

Defining attributes

Physical force Irish republicanism has usually been marked by a number of features:

  • A commitment to an Irish republic which stresses the rights of the Irish people as a community, agitating for independence and the ownership of Ireland rather than to individual rights, such as private property rights;
  • The holding of a series of rebellions or campaigns, sometimes with minimal support, but some of which impacted upon parliamentary nationalism;
  • A demand to break all links with the United Kingdom through the use of force.
  • The use of secret societies to plot and organise rebellions; especially the Fenians/Irish Republican Brotherhood.

The most prominent physical force rebellions and campaigns were:


It was the Volunteers of 1782 which would launch a paramilitary tradition in Irish politics; a tradition, whether nationalist or unionist, that has continued to shape Irish political activity with the ethos of "the force of argument had been trumped by the argument of force".[3] Irish republicanism an offspring of the Volunteers of 1782, owes much to influences of both the American and French revolutions.[4]

The United Irishmen of 1798 were a mass movement, largely led by liberal Protestants, who desired to "break the connection with England" and found a non-sectarian Irish Republic. To this end, they secured French military aid and launched their own rebellion. Robert Emmet's abortive rebellion of 1803 was essentially an aftershock of the 1798 rebellion. It was confined to a skirmish in Dublin, after which Emmet was hanged.

The Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 was launched in frustration with the failure of Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association movement to secure the repeal of the Union, or self-government for Ireland. The Young Irelanders had previously supported O'Connell until he cancelled plans for a mass rally under British threat of force. The 1848 rebellion was a failure; launched during the Great Irish Famine, it did not address any of the social and economic questions of the day, and weakened the parliamentary movement of the recently deceased Daniel O'Connell.

The 1867 rebellion of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was the culmination of several years of agitation by this secret, oath-bound organisation. The IRB, or Fenians, planned a national insurrection and the foundation of an Irish Republic with the aid of radicalised Irish units in the British Army. Although the Fenians had some success in infiltrating army units and had a considerable presence in parts of Ireland, the British took steps to remove seditious army units from Ireland and the rebellion was launched against the better judgement of the IRB leadership on the urgings of the American-based Fenian Brotherhood. It was unsuccessful in a military sense with only isolated skirmishes taking place but did become a focal point in Irish revolutionary folklore, inspiring later generations of rebels. Clan na Gael later conducted several bombing attacks in England and attempted to free their imprisoned allies. One such raid resulted in the hanging of three IRB men, known as the "Manchester Martyrs", for the killing of a policeman.

The 1916 Easter Rising was launched by the IRB, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. It had a dramatic impact in achieving Irish independence: Arthur Griffith continued his "doctrinaire commitment" to terror bombings as IRB policy.[5] Though support for the insurgents was small, the execution of fifteen people by firing squad, the imprisonment or internment of hundreds more, and the imposition of martial law caused a profound shift in public opinion towards the republican cause in Ireland.[6] It allowed the surviving rising leader Éamon de Valera to win a majority for the anti-occupation Sinn Féin party in the 1918 general election, which became the defining moment of the physical force doctrine.[7]

Sinn Féin then declared the Irish Republic to be in existence. Its parliament, the First Dáil, first met in January 1919, and the British declared it an illegal assembly shortly afterwards. At around the same time, the Volunteers, now organised as the Irish Republican Army began a guerrilla war, the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921), against the British Government in Ireland. By July 1921, the campaign had brought the British Government to the conclusion that it would have to negotiate with the Dáil to end the violence.

The war was ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created an independent Irish dominion known as the Irish Free State for 26 of Ireland's 32 counties. The remaining 6 were to remain in the UK as Northern Ireland. The Treaty was narrowly passed in the Dáil in January 1922.

While the leadership of the IRA, Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, in the forefront in accepting the treaty, the majority of the Army did not accept the abolition of the Irish Republic and abandonment of the First Dáil. In April 1922, they formed their own "Army Executive" and renounced the authority of the Dáil to accept the Treaty. Political leaders such as Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha, also unhappy with the Treaty, supported their actions. These tensions ultimately plunged the new Irish state into civil war (1922–1923). Ultimately, the Irish Free State put down the Anti-treaty IRA and ended the war by May 1923, though not before the deaths of many of those who had fought together in 1919–1921.

Physical force republicanism continued on after 1923. As a result of the Treaty and the Civil War, Republicans saw both states in Ireland as being British imposed "imperialist" proxies. However, by the 1930s the bulk of the Civil War Anti-Treaty republicans had accepted the Irish Free state and entered its government as Fianna Fáil. The remnants of the IRA continued to see themselves as the Army of the Irish Republic, temporarily suppressed by force of arms (though they too banned armed action by their members against the southern Irish state in 1948). They launched unsuccessful armed campaigns in England in the 1940s and in Northern Ireland in the 1950s aimed at achieving a United Ireland. The Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Féin, went through periodic splits, most dramatically in 1969 when two IRAs emerged, the Official IRA (OIRA) and the Provisional IRA (PIRA), along with two Sinn Féins: Sinn Féin – Gardiner Place or Official Sinn Féin, and Sinn Féin – Kevin St or Provisional Sinn Féin.

While the "Official" republican movement wanted to move away from traditional physical force republicanism and towards Marxist political activism,[8] the "Provisionals", reacting to the outbreak of communal violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, wanted to first defend the Catholic population of the North from attack and then launch an armed offensive against British rule there. The PIRA proceeded to do this from 1969 until 1997 (see Provisional IRA campaign 1969–1997), when it called a ceasefire. The PIRA is responsible for roughly 1,800 deaths in the "Troubles". Its political wing, Sinn Féin entered negotiations towards a political settlement in Northern Ireland.

In 2005, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams called on the Provisional IRA to move from physical force activity to exclusively democratic means.[9] Three months later the IRA Army Council announced an end to the IRA's armed campaign, stating that it would work to achieve its aims using "purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means" and that IRA "Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever."[10]

Patrick Pearse, "President of the Provisional Government", leader of the 1916 Rising

The "Officials" eventually abandoned militarism altogether but not before spawning a militant splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in 1974 and its political wing the Irish Republican Socialist Party. The INLA is a Marxist revolutionary group and has carried out over 100 killings during the Northern Ireland conflict. It has been on a "no first strike" ceasefire since 1998.

When Sinn Féin voted to recognise the Dáil of the Republic of Ireland and enter it (if elected) in 1986, a small group that included many of the founders of the Provisional movement broke away from Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA and formed Republican Sinn Féin and its own small Continuity IRA. They continue to oppose both states in Ireland.

Another small splinter group emerged from the Provisional IRA in 1998, when it was clear that the organisation was preparing to accept a political solution short of a united Ireland. This group of disaffected PIRA members called themselves the Real IRA and want to continue "armed struggle" against British rule in Northern Ireland. Neither the CIRA nor the RIRA have the support, numbers or capability once possessed by the Provisional IRA.


During the Troubles, Sinn Féin presented republican political violence as a "force of nature" caused by British rule in Ireland, which would continue until the reunification of Ireland.[11][12] This idea is encapsulated by Patrick Pearse's axiom, "Ireland unfree shall never be at peace".[13]


  1. The Provisional IRA by Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop (ISBN 0-552-13337-X), p. 20
  2. Northern Ireland (Hot Spots in Global Politics series) by Jonathan Tonge (ISBN 978-0745631417), page 39
  3. Bartlett, Thomas (2010). Ireland: A History. Cambridge University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-521-19720-5.
  4. Harmon, Maurice (1968). Fenians and Fenianism. Scepter Publishers Limited. p. 65. ISBN 9780295950747.
  5. Charles Townshend, The Republic: The Fight For Irish Independence, p. 53.
  6. Marie Coleman, The Republican Revolution, 1916-1923, Routledge, 2013, chapter 2 "The Easter Rising", pp. 26–28. ISBN 140827910X
  7. Charles Townshend, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence (London 2014), p. 55.
  8. Mallie and Bishop, pp. 52–54
  9. "Adams calls on IRA to end armed struggle". The Times
  10. "Full text: IRA statement". The Guardian. 28 July 2005. Retrieved 17 March 2007.
  11. O'Doherty, Malachi (1998). "8: The Trouble with Guns". The Trouble with Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. ISBN 0-85640-605-8.
  12. Grant, P. (2001). Rhetoric and Violence in Northern Ireland, 1968–98: Hardened to Death. Springer. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-230-59695-5.
  13. Breen-Smyth, Marie (2016). The Ashgate Research Companion to Political Violence. Routledge. p. 171. ISBN 978-1-317-04210-5.

Further reading

Primary and secondary sources

  • Aoife Ui Phaolain (2014). "Language Revival and conflicting identities in Irish independence". Irish Studies Review. 22 (1).
  • Coogan, Tim Pat (1978). The Troubles. Dublin.
  • English, Richard (1998). Irish Freedom. London.
  • Elliott, Marianne. Robert Emmet: The Making of a Legend. Dublin.
  • Fitzpatrick, David (2012). Terror in Ireland 1916-23. Dublin.
  • Geoghegan, Patrick (2002). Robert Emmet: A Life. London: Gill and Macmillan. ISBN 0-7171-3387-7.
  • Gough, H.; Dickson, D. Ireland and the French Revolution.
  • Robert Kee (1971). Ireland: A History. Dublin.
  • Lawlor, Philip (2011). The outrages, 1920-1: IRA and the Ulster Specials in the Border Campaign. Cork: Mercier Press.
  • Lee, Joseph (1986). The Modernisation of Irish Society. London.
  • McCardle, Dorothy (1971). The Irish Republic. Dublin.
  • McIntyre, A. (2008). Good Friday; the death of Irish Republicanism. New York.
  • Smyth, Jim. The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century. Dublin.
  • A. T. Q. Stewart. A Deeper Silence: The Hidden Origins of the United Irish Movement. Dublin.
  • Whelehan, Niall (2012). The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the wider world. Cambridge.