top of page

Continuity IRA (CIRA)

Insurgency Overview

The Continuity Irish Republican Army (CIRA) is a paramilitary republican organization active throughout the island of Ireland since 1986. Since the Irish War of Independence, passing through the Troubles, until nowadays, at least five different organizations have distinguished themselves as the "Irish Republican Army", Óglaigh na hÉireann in Gaelic. Each claimed to be the only one entitled, directly descending from the ancient Fenian army of the Irish War of Independence.

History and Foundations

CIRA was formed in 1986 following a split from the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the main Republican group in the Troubles. The reasons for the split, similar to the one that led to the separation of the PIRA in 1969 from the Original IRA (OIRA), are rooted in disagreement with the organization’s policy of abstention (3).  Following the rise in popularity due to the 1981 hunger strikes, Gerry Adams, a leading member of Sinn Féin (SF) and the PIRA, convinced himself to capitalize on the electoral success, trying to start a new phase of participatory politics. (5). 

Since the 1921 partition of Ireland, the political arm of the IRA had always refused to take seats in the Dublin and Stormont Parliaments. However, In September 1986, the PIRA General Army Convention (GAC), the most important body of the organization, decided to suspend the policy of "abstentionism.” Immediately after the resolution was passed, several members of the Army’s Executive Council, a wider level of GAC, left the PIRA (5). According to dissident militants, provisional (provo) leadership was no longer carrying out the anti-British campaign, giving up the "Brits out" line (7). The newborn split group ultimately took the name of Continuity IRA, while another split faction called Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), headed by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, emerged from Sinn Féin’s lines (5).

The organization became militarily active only in 1996, bombing the Killyhevlin Hotel, in Fermanagh County (6). The inactivity between the group's creation and the beginning of military activities is due to the fear of reprisals by the PIRA and as well for a general lack of resources, such as weapons and money. Despite initial logistical difficulties, the CIRA launched a series of bombing actions in collaboration with other republican groups, such as the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). This new attack campaign forced the British army to use military helicopters in the South Armagh, known as Bandit County. The usage of helicopters for military operations was a common practice during the Troubles, and which had been interrupted by peace treaties (6). 

On August 15th 1998, the most devastating attack of the Troubles took place. It is still unclear whether the CIRA or the RIRA orchestrated the attack. At 3:10 PM a car bomb exploded in downtown Omagh, Tyrone County, despite warnings and vain attempts to evacuate the area. The explosion caused 31 deaths and 220 injuries. Although Continuity IRA has consistently denied any link to the massacre, several clues have thus been suggested that the CIRA played a significant, even though unattributed, role in the attack (3). The attack was condemned without any hesitation by all Irish and British political forces, including Sinn Féin (SF) (6). Even though the Real IRA is now considered the main Omagh bombing suspect, evidence from Michael McKevitt's trial, the former RIRA leader, suggests that the Continuity IRA provided logistical and practical support for the attack (8).

During the 2000s, the CIRA experienced a period characterized by internal splits and conflicts. In 2006, another split group started a series of pipe bomb attacks against the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) (1). The police force active in Northern Ireland, (NI) strongly hostile to the republican forces and historically composed of a solid Protestant majority (7). With constancy and attention, the organization continued to grow and develop new units throughout Ireland. These cells, called Active Service Units (ASU), are established not only in major centers such as Derry, Belfast and Dublin, but also in counties like Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Louth and Limerick (6). In 2007, Sinn Féin recognized the PSNI as a legitimate police force and this event served as justification for the majority of the paramilitary activities carried out by Continuity IRA and Real IRA. However, 2010 was a crucial year for the organization: a power shift shook the CIRA leadership. The core of the group saw a shift from the south of the island to Northern Ireland and a generational renovation, with the formation of a younger Council. This led to a more decentralized organization and the various ASUs became more independent from the Continuity Army Council (3).  

Objectives and Ideology

Despite the political and mediatic disaster following the Omagh tragedy, the Continuity IRA still emerges as the only Republican paramilitary group that has never declared a cease-fire (3). The organization pursues republican guerrilla warfare according to an historical, traditional and, overall, determinist approach. CIRA's path is militant republicanism and views it as the only way forward (8). 

Following the republican tradition, CIRA categorically rejects the British presence on the island and does not recognize the authority of the PSNI. Paramilitary actions are strategically confined to Northern Ireland, and they target police stations and government buildings, which are attacked by bomb and arson blitzes (8). The justification for the armed struggle is based on military targets blaming: the PSNI and the British Army are portrayed by the CIRA as occupying forces and, for this reason, as legitimate targets. According to this logic, republican dissidents would not use violence as common criminals but as a self-defense tool (7).

One of CIRA's pillars is the historic fight against petty crime and drug dealers, through which the organization has attempted to build an alternative to state presence (7). Even if the intensity of CIRA's activity was significantly lower than past Republican standards, an amount of popular support is always necessary for the continuity of the armed campaign. Ahead of the 2010 elections in Northern Ireland, the Economic and Social Research Council estimated that population support for nationalist dissidents was 8.2% among the Ulster. This data goes up to 15% in the 26-35 age group, and those who sympathize with or justify Republican political violence mostly identify themselves as left-wing and nationalist, which seems to be the main basis for dissidents’ support (7). 

Paramilitary attacks toward Northern Ireland’s security forces have the main objective of destabilizing the post-Good Friday Agreement (GFA) context and provoking a repressive overreaction that would make London's colonial regime publicly evident. By destabilizing the Northern Irish context post-GFA the paramilitary organization would fulfil a double goal: the delegitimizing of SF, which recognized the PSNI, and the demonstration that Ulster is still going through civil war today as it was in the last century (7).

Military and Political Abilities

As a result of the Balkan Wars, the CIRA was able to supply itself with weapons and equipment, necessary to conduct its armed struggle through and beyond the various ceasefires (6). The Omagh bombing proved disastrous for the already limited popular support for the post-GFA armed struggle. Unlike the Real IRA, which declared a cease-fire and reorganized under the New IRA banner, the CIRA never abandoned its arms, despite its very limited military capacity (6). By the late 1990s, the IRA tended to have only a dozen volunteers: a policy of cautious growth was adopted, recruiting only individuals radically aligned with the party's political line. (6). By 2006, following splits and internal clashes, CIRA had about fifty active members.

Republican Sinn Féin is considered the political wing of the movement, even though the party denies any connection with the CIRA and does not support armed struggle in its media. The Northern Irish legislature strictly prohibits the publication of material in support of any form of terrorism or armed group (7). Despite this, Saoirse and other newspapers linked to Republican dissident groups regularly publish the various statements of CIRA (7).

Approach to Resistance

Tiger kidnapping, extortion, drug dealer protection, robbery, fuel theft, cigarette smuggling, and drug trafficking are the main activities CIRA uses to self-finance. The group also receives donations from flankers residing in the United States.

Republican paramilitaries continue to be viewed by Belfast institutions as a serious threat to Northern Irish society. In reports by the Independent Monitoring Commission, the Continuity IRA is considered directly or indirectly responsible for numerous violent attacks against PSNI property or members. Shootings and bomb attacks against police stations and law enforcement agencies are reportedly traced to members of the organization (4). It is also reported that paramilitaries continue to improve and develop their organizational and military capabilities through the continuous purchase of new weaponry. This is done through the recruitment of new members, mainly young males without a paramilitary background, who are trained in the manufacture of IEDs. 

The Continuity IRA is still considered one of the main dangers in Northern Ireland (4). Although a process of normalization has been underway for years, Catholic and Protestant communities are still "segregated" and the so-called "culture of violence" is still present in Northern Ireland. Songs, murals, and commemorations celebrating the events of the troubles. Marches, often organized indirectly by paramilitary groups, serve mainly to mobilize youth in working-class neighborhoods. Because of the unclear structure of the groups and little informal support for Republican dissidents, attempts to dismantle these recruitment mechanisms are arduous. (7).

International Relations and Potential Alliances

The RSF is considered a stable political interlocutor, if not the political arm of the CIRA. The party is in charge of issuing communiqués on behalf of CIRA and manages the welfare system related to the families of political prisoners. RSF considers CIRA's actions legitimate and in continuity with the tradition of militant republicanism (8). 

In 2012, various radical republican groups, such as the RIRA and Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), decided to converge into a single armed republican front, named the New Irish republican army (New IRA) (2). However, The IRA chose not to converge with the newly formed organization, toward which, however, it feels no animosity (8).  

On the contrary, the two groups are in all likelihood in constant contact and possible joint operations cannot be ruled out (2). Furthermore, frequent and active cooperation between CIRA and INLA is well reported, mostly during the 90s (3). The provisionals have had dealings with various entities such as ETA, RAF, PLO, Red Brigades, and Qaddafi's Libya; currently, there are known ties between NIRA and Hezbollah (2), the CIRA seems isolated in its struggles because of the small size of its structure.

Works Cited

(1). BBC News NI, (August 14th, 2023) “Dissident republicans: Why Northern Ireland police are still a target”.  

(2). Clarke Kevin, (2023), “New Irish Republican Army (New IRA)”, The Modern Insurgent.

(3). Frampton Martyn, (2010), “The Return of the Militants: Violent Dissident Republicanism”, International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR). London.

(4) Independent Monitoring Commission (November 4th, 2010). “Twenty-fifth report of the independent monitoring commission (Six-monthly paramilitary report)”, London: The Stationary Office.


(5). Kenny Paul D., (2010), “Structural Integrity and Cohesion in Insurgent Organizations: Evidence from Protracted Conflicts in Ireland and Burma”, International Studies Review 12, no. 4.

(6). Loenhardt Walter, (2019), “Continuity IRA, 1986“.

(7). Luuk Arlar, (2013), “Violent Dissident Republicanism: A Persistent Specter of the Past

(8). Tonge Jonathan, (2004), “They Haven't Gone Away, You Know’. Irish Republican ‘Dissidents’ and ‘Armed Struggle’ “, Terrorism and Political Violence, Volume n.16, Issue 3, pp. 671-693. DOI: 10.1080/09546550490510007.

Additional Resources


bottom of page