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Belfast mural
The Irish Republican Army (the I.R.A.) is Catholic-based paramilitary group whose objectives were to drive the British out of Northern Ireland and reunify Northern Ireland with Ireland. The I.R.A. was committed to the use of the violence to achieve these goals. The logic seemed to be that if they blow up enough buildings and killed enough people, the British and the their supporters would give up and leave Northern Ireland.

I.R.A. was led by a seven-member military council. At its peak it only had 400 or so armed members who were supported by a network of runners, financiers, bombmakers and thousands of sympathizers. For obvious reasons, the I.R.A. was highly secretive. No one on the outside ever saw them at work and no outsider ever knew where or when they worked. "When you have been elevated to the leadership of a paramilitary organization," one former gunman told National Geographic “it has an aura within society. Whether it's fear or respect, who can say?"

Sinn Fein is the political arm of the IRA. It means "Ourselves Alone." It long claimed to have nothing to with violence. A number of American organizations provided financial and political support for Sinn Fein.

Early History of the I.R.A.

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Belfast mural
The I.R.A. has been around for some time. Activist militant Irishmen joined Feniean brotherhoods, organization that evolved into the Sinn Fein and it militant wing, the Irish Republican Army, which was founded in 1858. Money to support these movements came from Irishmen abroad, many of them having worked their way to influential positions in American trade unions.

In 1867, anti-English sentiments were inflamed when a mob in Manchester, England attacked a police van in an attempt to free two Irish-American members of the pro-Irish-separatist Fenian Brotherhood. A policeman was killed and three members of group were executed after a controversial trial. The armed Fenian rebellion of 1867 was quickly put down by the British and turned out to be a dismal failure.

Most of Ireland's revolutionaries were no from the embittered working classes or rural poor. Rather they were landowners, members of Parliament, and middle class professionals. Some were educated at Cambridge and Oxford.

Bloody Sunday

IRA funeral
On the morning of "Bloody Sunday," November 21, 1920, young killers known as "the Squad." shot 19 men suspected of being part of British team of spies and hit men, many of them while they were sleeping. The massacre was made possible by the infiltration of Dublin Castle by an activist named Christopher Blake. The British police retaliated that afternoon by firing into a crowd and onto the field during a football match between Dublin and Tipperary. Fourteen people were killed and hundreds were wounded.

After Bloody Sunday, many of the remaining British police in Ireland either resigned or were shot down. Maintaining order was turned over to the Black and Tans (named after their mismatched uniforms), a group of thugs thought of as Sinn Fein sympathizers, who sometimes shot people dead and asked questions later.

After Bloody Sunday The Irish public began to view IRA killers as freedom fighters who were avenging the injustices committed by the British. Irish prisoners went on hunger strikes, the most well known of which was by Terrence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who lasted 74 days without food before finally dying in a London jail. These events made the world look at the British as bunch of ruthless killers.

The I.R.A., Provos and Their Protestant Rivals

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Sniper at work sign
In 1921 the I.R.A accused Irish leaders of being traitors when they signed a treaty with the English, granting independence to the southern 26 Irish counties but not the six northern Protestant-dominated counties. The first battles fought by the I.R.A. were fought against their fellow Catholic Irishmen. [Source: Bryan Hodgson, National Geographic, April 1981]

In 1956, the I.R.A. began an armed campaign to reunify the north and south. In reasons internments without trial were instituted in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In 1962, the I.R.A. campaign was called a failures and called off. After the British military arrived Northern Ireland in 1969, the I.R.A. was energized.In 1972 the I.R.A. led a one-day series of car bombings in Belfast that left 11 people dead.

Provos, the Provisional Irish Republican Army as opposed to Official I.R.A., was founded in January 1970 to protect Catholic neighborhoods. In 1980, 16-year-old Michael MacCartan was shot and killed while painting "PROVO'S" on a billboard in 1980. His father survived a beating in 1976 and the bombing of a local pub in 1974. His uncle was assassinated on a street corner.

Protestant terrorist groups that battled the I.R.A. and carried out attacks of their own in Northern Ireland included the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVA), Ulster Defense Association (UDA), Ulster Defense Regiment, Royal Ulster Constabulary, UFF, the Tartan Army, and Paisley's Third Force. In addition to go after Catholics, members of the UDA also extorted protection money from construction companies, small businesses and shop owners to financed their terrorist activities. They and the I.R.A. were also accused of smuggling drugs while making a show of beating up drug dealers and even selling weapons and explosives to other terrorist groups.

The most fervid Protestant loyalists belonged to the all-male Orange Lodges, where men donned special clothes, endured painful initiation ceremonies, exchanged secret passwords and ambushed Catholics at night. On the most notorious Protestant groups was known as the Shankill Butchers because they were from the Shankill road community and they tortured their victims to death using cleavers, knives, axes and hatchets.

I.R.A. Violence and Attacks

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I.R.A. kidnap victims were sometimes tortured, tarred and feathered. One 16-year-old who was attacked by the I.R.A. was pinned down and his legs were beaten for 10 minutes with an iron bar. His attackers made sure to turn him over there times to make sure all sides were hit.

In 1972 the I.R.A. led a one-day series of car bombings in Belfast that left 11 people dead. On October 23, 1993, an I.R.A. bomb explosion at a Belfast fish and chips shop killed 10 people. The attack was in retaliation for a series of attacks on Catholic workmen in a bus. Several days after the bombing seven people are killed at an Irish Halloween party by Protestant extremists.

Between 1985 and September 1993, the I.R.A. killed a number of people — fruit vendors, wood sellers, catering workers, wood sellers, building supply contractors — in Northern Ireland simply because they worked for the British security forces. A typical victim was a building supplier killed from a car stolen from the victim's friend and driven into his driveway so the killers could get close without arousing suspicion.

IRA committed 1,125 acts of terrorism between 1988 and 1998 according to the U.S. State Department. The I.R.A. usually directed their attacks at the British, with the understanding that the people in Northern Ireland could settle their own affairs. Bombs went off at Harrods department store and mortar shells were fired at Heathrow airport three times in five days. As a result of those attacks airports in Britain were shut and thousands of travelers were affected. The I.R.A. took responsibility for the attacks.

Docklands bombing
On March 20, 1993, an I.R.A. bomb set off in Warrington, northwest England killed 2 children and injured 65 people. On April 24, 1993, an I.R.A. bomb set off in the heart of London's financial district killed one and injured 45 and caused $750 million worth of damage. An I.R.A. bomb planted under a bandstand in Hyde park killed 11 members of a military band. On February 9th, 1996, the I.R.A. announced the end of a cease fire. Less than an hour and half later a truck bomb with a half ton of explosives was set off at Canary Wharf in East London, killing two and injuring 100 (at least 39 of whom were hospitalized). The bomb damaged a new subway station and badly damaged five nearby buildings. The carnage could have been much worse: the railway station had been evacuated after Scotland Yard received a coded message. On June 15, 1996, Manchester city center was destroyed by a large bomb planted by the I.R.A.

I.R.A. Attacks on British Government and Royal Targets

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Grand Hotel, 1984
The I.R.A. fired missiles at 29 East Downing Street, the residence of the prime minister. In 1984, an I.R.A. bomb came very close to wiping out the entire British Cabinet which had gathered in Brighton for a Conservative Party conference. In 1986, three I.R.A. terrorists were shot dead on the orders of Margaret Thatcher on the streets of Gibraltar by the British SAS. The British government said the three were going to plant a bomb in the Gibraltar Governor's House.

In 1980, two bombs exploded on a single day: with one killing Lord Louis Mountabatten, a 15-year-old boy and two others on a boating cruise; and other killing 18 British soldiers a few yards from the Irish border at Warrenpoint in eastern Northern Ireland Mountbatten, was killed on a boat by an explosion from a 50 pound bomb on the boat detonated from the Irish coast at 11:45am in full view of the police patrol watching the boat. It also killed his 14-year-old grandson and two other people.

According tone I.R.A. informer, the I.R.A. also reportedly made plans to kill prince Charles and Princess Diana while they say in the Royal Box at London’s Dominion Theater in 1983. Mountbatten was Queen Elizabeth's cousin and Prince Charles godfather and mentor. He also introduced o Elizabeth to Prince Philip. In 1998, one the terrorist's involved in the Mountbatten incident was released as part of the Good Friday agreement.

Good Friday Agreement and the 1998 Omagh Bombing

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Barrack buster, 2010
The violence ended when a peace accord known as the Good Friday Agreement was hammered on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, and signed by Sinn Fein and the British government. Prisoners who were e put away on terrorist charges and expected to rot in prison were released from prison. Many released former terrorists became active in efforts to encourage young people to stay away from violence.

The 1998 Omagh bombing, which claimed 29 lives, took place after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. In August 1998, a car bomb set off in a busy market in the charming town of Omagh in Northern Ireland killed 29 people, including a baby and a pregnant woman, and injured 220. It was the single worst terrorist incident in 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

An I.R.A. splinter group called the Real I.R.A. was responsible for the disaster. What was particularly awful was that someone called in to say a bomb was going to be set off in a different place and people were told to head to the place where the real bomb was set off. Among the dead were a 65-year-old women, hr 30-year-old daughter, who was pregnant with twins, and her 18-month-old granddaughter. In all nine children were killed. Another pregnant woman lost her legs.


A Basque terrorist known as the E.T.A. (Eurskadi ta Askatasuna — Basque Homeland and Freedom) wanted the Basque area of Spain and France to become an independent country. They staged a number of attacks, using car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations to get their message across and attempt to achieve their political objectives.

The E.T.A. was founded in 1959 with the aim of establishing an independent Basque homeland. Even though the group attempted to derail a train full of politicians in 1961 it didn't take up arms until 1968. Initially they were seen as freedom fighters by anti-fascists not because they were fighting for Basque independence but because they were one of the few groups who dared to take up arms against Franco's dictatorship.

The organization of the E.T.A. is similar to that of the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) in Northern Ireland. The political wing of the E.T.A. is the Herri Batasuna (the Basque equivalent of the Sinn Fien), which was founded 1978. The E.T.A. had a close relationship with the I.R.A.

The majority of Basques have never supported the E.T.A. because of their violent tactics. In a regional election in the early 1990s the Herri Batasuna won 18 percent of the votes in Basque region. The majority of Basques do not want separatism. "There was never a demand for independence before the E.T.A.," a member of the Basque Socialist party told the New York Times. "Historically, the movement was for local rights, but we've never been anything but Spain." In December 1997, 23 leaders of Herri Batasuna were jailed for seven year for collaborating with the E.T.A. The high rate of employment in the Basque region caused by declines in shipbuilding, mining, steel and other industries has helped the E.T.A. win new recruits.


The Basques are an unusual ethnic group different genetically and linguistically from every other group in Europe, and whose origins are unknown. About 85 percent of Basques live in Spain. The rest live primarily in France. The name Basque appears to be a corruption of “Vascone”, the French word for the Basque people. [Source: Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic, November 1995]

There are around 2.2 million Basques in Spain. They primarily inhabit four of seven ancestral Basque provinces (Navarre, Alava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa) in the northern part of the country. Around 212,000 Basques live in three provinces in southern France (Basse-Navarre, Labourd, Soule). Most people tend to associate the Basques with the Pyrenees, and although quite a few of them live there, the majority of them live near the ocean and in the rolling hills southwest of the Pyrenees. The traditional Basque homeland stretch for 100 miles along the Bay of Biscay (Atlantic Ocean).

The Basques call their homeland Euskal Herria, or "Land of the Basque language." It encompasses the Spanish provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Álava and parts of Navarra as well as Labourad, Basse-Navarre and Soule in France.

Basque History

The Basques are one of the earliest established peoples in Europe. Descending from pre-Celtic tribes, they have inhabited the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains for more than 5,000 years, long before Indo-European tribes arrived in Europe and Romance language speakers occupied Spain and France. An old Basque saying goes, "Before God was God and boulder were boulders, the Basques were already Basques."

The Basques have asserted their independence at least since Roman times and have defended their homeland in the Pyrenees against incursions by Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, French and Spanish. The Basque are proud of their military history. A large celebration , for example, is held in the Spanish town of Irún to commemorate a 16th century victory over French invaders.

Christianity was introduced to the Basques in the 5th century but they remained pagans until relatively late (some pagan rituals remain today). Even so Basques were important fighters in the Reconquesta against the Muslims and Counter-Reformation against the Protestants. Many early Jesuits were Basques.

The Basques have also managed to endure by isolating themselves in remote hills and forests in the Pyrenees region, where they stayed out of harms way. They traditionally governed themselves with village councils and ancient charters called “fueros”. "These fueros," a Basque politician told National Geographic, guaranteed local autonomy, provided a constitution, and regulated daily life, often in great detail — the obligation to provide fire for a neighbor's kitchen, for instance, even specifying the rites for mourning the dead."

During the Middle Ages the Basque regions recognized the suzerainty of Castile in return for Spanish acceptance of Basque fueros and exemptions from taxes, military service and trade restrictions. This system endured until the Carlist Wars of 1876, when Spanish landlords abolished the 1000-year-old fueros.

Persecution of the Basques by Franco

The Basque region enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy under the Spanish Republican government in the early 1930s. The Basques were severely persecuted by Franco because they supported the defeated Republicans in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. To break the will of the Basque resistance , Franco enlisted Hitler's new Luftwaffe to bomb Basque towns such as Guernica. The Spanish Civil War led to death of 50,000 Basques and another 300,000 were imprisoned or exiled. The massacre at Guernica inspired a famous Picasso painting.

After Franco's victory Basque nationalism was suppressed, efforts were made to crush Basque culture and identity and many Basque leaders were forced into exile. Under Franco Basque schools and newspapers were closed and laws were passed prohibiting the use of the Basque language and public displays of Basque culture. In the 1970s playing a Basque flute or carrying the Basque newspaper “Engin” could land you in jail. Most Basques know someone who was tortured by the police. After Franco's death Catalonia and the Basque area were granted limited home rule.

E.T.A. Violence

About 800 people were killed by E.T.A. violence between 1968 and the mid 1990s. E.T.A. activities have included political assassinations, car bombings, and murdering members of the Basque police force. They also kidnapped wealthy industrialists and politicians and held them for ransom or the release of prisoners. The Spanish government has repeatedly refused pay ransoms and negotiate with the Basque separatists after kidnappings, a policy which resulted in the death of many kidnap victims.

The first victim of E.T.A. violence was Meliton Manzanas, a secret police chief in San Sebastian, killed in 1968. In December 1973, the E.T.A. was responsible for the assassination of Franco's chosen successor, Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco, in Madrid. A bomb blew his car 60 feet into the air. In 1995, the E.T.A. attempted to assassinate the leader of opposition Popular Party (later Prime Minister) Jose Maria Aznar with a car bomb. The attempt failed.

The bloodiest year was 1980. A total of 118 people were killed. In 1981 and 1983 each about 100 people killed. Spain heaved a huge sigh of relief when there were no major incidents during the 1992 Olympics.

In July, 1997, Miguel Angel Blanco, a young member of Parliament was kidnapped and murdered. He was found on the side of a road with his hands tied behind his back and two bullets in his head. Millions took to the street to protest E.T.A. violence after his death was announced. Around the same time of Blanco's death a Spanish Civil Guard member was found in a makeshift dungeon dug into the floor of a factory basement. He had been held for 532 days. When he was found the victim mistook his rescuers for his captors and begged them to kill him. [Source: Newsweek]

In June 1998, Popular Party councilor Manuel Zamarreno was killed by a car bomb. In February 2000, regional Socialist leader Fernando Buesa, a passionate critic of the E.T.A., and his body guard were killed by a bomb. In January a politician was killed by bomb in Madrid after a 14 month truce.

Dirty War Against the E.T.A.

In the 1980s, when Basque separatists were killing about 100 people a year, the Socialist government of former prime minister González decided to fight fire with fire and initiated a "Dirty War" against Basque separatists. Death squads used in the campaign against the E.T.A. reportedly killed, kidnapped, purchased weapons from the apartheid South African government, bribed French officials, paid off witness to remain silent and used French gangsters as mercenaries. Between 1983 and 1987, 27 people were killed by government-sponsored security forces.

Incompetent French gangsters hired as mercenaries killed seven people by mistake and once held a French furniture salesman for 10 days, thinking he was someone else. Two low-ranking national police officers were sentenced in 1991 to life sentences for their involvement in a botched kidnapping attempt.

The Spanish government had no legal authority to carry out the activities conducted by the government-sponsored Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups (GAL). Some of the tactics used by the "Dirty War" death squads was not unlike those used by shadowy death squads in Latin American countries like El Salvador and Argentina although a lot less people "disappeared" (27 in Spain compared to 9,000 in Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

According to a 1996 article in El Mundo, the Spanish government intelligence agency abducted three homeless people in 1988 and tested an experimental drug on them. One of them reportedly died during the five-day experiment. The drug was reportedly was supposed to be used in an abduction of a Basque terrorist.

The E.T.A. was dealt a severe blow in 1992 and 1993, when many its top leaders were arrested in their hideouts in the French Pyrenees with the help of the French police. Originally, when the going got to be too rough in Spain, E.T.A. members there slipped across the border into the Basque region of France, where the French government generally regarded them as refugees and took no action against them. In the 1980s, French authorities began cooperating with Spain and this lead to a weakening of the E.T.A.

As of 1995, 560 Basque political prisoners were still in jail and 2,000 accused terrorist lived in exile, mostly in France. One Basque architect told National Geographic at that time, "They arrested our son, Markel, ten years ago. He has never been charged, but he is still in prison...The war is over. The soldiers should be returned.”

Peace in Basque Country

The Spanish government long said it would not sit down and negotiate with the E.T.A. until they renounce violence and then only to discuss amnesty for jailed rebels and possible incorporation of the E.T.A. into the political system. Basque groups such as Action for Peace has helped Basques in the Basque region to not be intimidated by the E.T.A.

E.T.A. acts of violence were often followed by huge anti-violence demonstrations. Over a million people marched in the streets of various cities in Spain after one of the founders of the Basque Socialist Party and a former president of Spain's highest court were gunned down in February 1996. Six million more marched after a Miguel Angel Blanco (See Above) was murdered in July, 1997. After Blanco's murder a line of two million demonstrators stretched for 2 miles in Madrid. A demonstration in Bilbao was almost a mile long. Hundreds of thousands more took the streets in 1998 after an E.T.A. car bombing killed Fernando Buesa.

In 1994, one the E.T.A.'s founders, Jlen Madariaga, publicly called for an end to terrorism. Inspired by the April 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord, the ETA agreed to a truce in September 1998, the Spanish government expressed it willingness to talk with the Herri Batasuna. The truce lasted 14 months until December 1999. In January and February 2000, three people were killed in two car bombings.

The Basque Nationalist Party, a moderate group, controls the regional Basque government. The party is lead by Xabier Arzalluz, who has said, "we are not fighting for a Basque state but to be a new European state."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2012

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