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Provisional Irish Republican Army arms importation into the Republic of Ireland for use in Northern Ireland began in the early 1970s. With these weapons it conducted an armed campaign against the British state in Northern Ireland.
In the early stages of the Troubles, during the period 1969–1972, the Provisional IRA was 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had access to weapons remaining from the IRA's failed Border Campaign between 1956 and 1962, but these weapons were outdated and unsuitable for a modern campaign.
After 1969, and the split with the Official IRA, the Provisional IRA gained control of 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 and M1 Garand and M1 carbine rifles, to MP40 and Thompson submachine guns (SMG), plus Bren light machine guns (LMG) and Webley revolvers. The Garands were used in IRA operations as late as the summer of 1976, when a British army patrol in South Armagh was fired on by one of these rifles loaded with armour-piercing ammunition.
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. 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 for guerrilla warfare 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".
The IRA's main gun runner in the United States 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. 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 of American manufacture.
Harrison spent an estimated US$1 million in the 1970s purchasing over 2,500 guns for the IRA. 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 the United States by sea on Queen Elizabeth 2 from New York via Southampton, through Irish members of her crew, until the network was cracked down on by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1980s. These Queen Elizabeth 2 shipments included M16, CAR-15, AR-18 and AR-15 Armalite rifles, accompanied by Browning pistols and Smith & Wesson pistols and revolvers and were driven from Southampton to Belfast in small consignments.
In the late 1970s, another IRA member, Gabriel Megahey, was sent to the United States to acquire more arms and he was able to procure more AR-15 Armalites, plus a number of Heckler & Koch rifles and other weapons. Again, the purchase of these weapons was funded by Irish American republicans. A batch of M60 machine guns was imported in 1977.
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.
In 1984, the FBI warned the Republic of Ireland that a major IRA arms shipment was underway from the United States, and that the weaponry would be transferred to an Irish fishing trawler in the Atlantic. Subsequently, Irish authorities discovered that arms ship was a vessel named Marita Ann, allegedly after a tip off from Sean O'Callaghan, a Garda Síochána intelligence agent within the IRA. Three Irish Naval Service ships confronted the vessel off the coast of County Kerry, and prevented its escape by firing warning shots. A team of naval personnel and Garda officers boarded the ship, arresting the crew of five and confiscating seven tons of military equipment, as well as medications, training manuals, and communications equipment. The weapons had been donated by the South Boston Winter Hill Irish Mob.
The other source of IRA arms in the 1970s was the leader of the Libyan Arab Republic, Muammar Gaddafi, who was engaging in a strategy at this time of opposing the United States' hegemony over the Arab world by sponsoring paramilitary activity against it and its allies in Western Europe.
The first Libyan arms shipment to the IRA took place in 1972–1973, following visits by Joe Cahill to Libya. In early 1973, the Government of the Republic of Ireland received intelligence that the vessel Claudia was carrying a consignment of weapons, and placed the ship under surveillance on 27 March. On 28 March, three Irish Navy patrol vessels intercepted the Claudia in Irish territorial waters near Helvick Head, County Waterford, seizing five tonnes of Libyan small arms and ammunition found on board. The weaponry seized included 250 Soviet-made small arms, 240 rifles, anti-tank mines and other explosives. Cahill himself was also found and arrested on board the vessel. It is estimated that three other shipments of weaponry of a similar size and nature succeeded in getting through to the IRA in the same time period. Journalist Ed Moloney reports that the early Libyan arms shipments provided the IRA with its first RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and that Gaddafi also gave three to five million U.S. dollars at this time to the organisation to finance its activities. However contact with the Libyan government was broken off in 1976.
Contact with Libya was opened again in the aftermath of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, which was said to have impressed Gadaffi. In the 1980s, the IRA received further larger quantities of weaponry and explosives from the Libyan Government, reportedly enough to equip least two professional infantry battalions. Four shipments of guns, ammunition and explosives were made between 1985 and 1986, providing large quantities of modern weaponry to the IRA, including heavy machine guns, over 1,000 rifles, several hundred handguns, rocket-propelled grenades, flamethrowers, surface-to-air missiles, and Semtex explosive. – an odourless explosive, invisible to X-ray, and many times more powerful than fertiliser. From late 1986 to 2011, virtually every bomb constructed by the Provisional IRA, and splinter groups such as the Real IRA, contained Semtex from a Libyan shipment unloaded at an Irish pier in 1986.
These shipments were in retaliation for the British Government's support for the US Air Force's (USAF) bombing attacks on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, which in turn were in retaliation for the 1986 bombing of the LaBelle discotheque in Berlin. The USAF planes involved in the bombings had taken off from British bases on 14 April 1986, and Libya reportedly suffered 60 casualties in the attack. This second major Libyan contribution to the IRA came in 1986–1987.
There were four shipments which were not intercepted, in a huge intelligence failure of both Irish and British agencies described as 'calamitous' by journalist Brendan O'Brien. The arm supplies from Libya developed as follows:
In total, the arms shipments included:
It is also estimated that the Libyan government gave the IRA the equivalent of £2 million along with the 1980s shipments.
However, on 1 November 1987, during transit to Ireland, one-third of the total Libyan arms consignment being carried aboard the MV Eksund was intercepted by the French Navy while the ship was in the Bay of Biscay, 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. Ed Moloney claimed that the Eksund shipment also contained military mortars and a 106-millimetre cannon, an assertion never confirmed by the Irish authorities. Despite the Eksund fiasco, the IRA was by then equipped with a quantity and quality of weaponry and explosives never available to them at any other phase of their history. Furthermore, according to Brendan O'Brien there was actually an 'over-supply', especially regarding the 600 AK-47s still in the hands of the IRA by 1992.
The Garda Síochána (the Police Service of the Republic of Ireland) uncovered numerous arms destined for the IRA in 1988. These included several hundred AK-47s, Russian DSHK HMGs, FN MAG machine guns and Semtex.
By 1996, Jane's Intelligence Review reported that "it is believed that the bulk of the material presently in IRA arsenals was shipped from Libya in the mid-1980s with the aid of a skipper, Adrian Hopkins, hired for the purpose by the IRA."
On 31 October 2009, a cross-party delegation of Northern Irish politicians travelled to the Libyan capital Tripoli for the first face to face meeting with Libyan government ministers to discuss compensation claims for victims of IRA violence.
As well as these major sources of arms, the IRA 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. There was contact between the IRA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and specifically the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), starting from the mid-1970s which included the training of IRA volunteers. At one stage, the PLO offered weapons and training to the IRA, but they declined on the grounds that it was impossible to smuggle arms out of the Levant region and Palestine in specific without alerting Israeli intelligence. Tim Pat Coogan wrote that assistance from the PLO largely dried up in the mid-1980s after the PLO had forged stronger links with the government of the Republic of Ireland. AG-3 rifles from Norway were also secretly obtained.
In the 1990s, the Provisional IRA South Armagh Brigade smuggled in a number of Barrett M82 and Barrett M90 .50 BMG rifles from the United States. These weapons were used by two South Armagh sniper teams to conduct a sniping campaign against British Army patrols operating in the area. The last British soldier killed in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, 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 arrested and a 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 defence force, Kaitseliit, and some non-government groups to buy weapons. However he did not say when the contacts had taken place. 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. Later estimates put the number of guns sent to Ireland at more than 100 pistols and machine-pistols. All three men were cleared of conspiracy to aid terrorists and to commit murder. They were later sentenced on the less serious smuggling charge. The IRA leadership denied knowledge of the arms buys.
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:
The panel overseeing the decommissioning of IRA 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. 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:
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 [IRA 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.
The weapons of the IRA are gone, and are gone in a manner which has been verified and witnessed.
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. 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.