Source of IRA Arsenal
The two main sources of weaponry for the IRA have been the USA and Libya. The main gun-running network in the USA was controlled by a veteran Irish Republican called George Harrison. He supplied arms not only for the 'Border Campaign' (AKA 'Fifties Campaign') of the IRA, which was conducted for a number of years up to 1962, but also for the campaign that started in 1969. His network was finally broken up in the early 1980s by the FBI but it is believed that weapons supplied by him are still in use.
Other gunrunning attempts were made in the USA, but many ended in failure. As the table shows, the US federal agencies, especially the FBI, have become increasingly proficient at disrupting IRA arms procurement activities in the USA. (The FBI formed a special unit to concentrate on Irish paramilitaries.)
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. However, in the early 1990s Libya's Colonel Gadaffi decided to give no further aid to the IRA and has informed the UK authorities as to what material was shipped to the IRA. The UK authorities have, in turn, passed this information on to the Irish authorities, according to intelligence sources in the Republic.
With the Libyan source of supply closed off, and increasing difficulties with procuring material in the USA, it is perhaps not surprising that during the ceasefire the IRA resisted pressure to decommission its weapons. Apart from political considerations, the IRA was conscious of the difficulties of procuring and importing new stocks of weaponry.
One of the roles of the IRA's Southern Command is to store much of the organization's armaments. Small stocks are stored within Northern Ireland for the immediate use of active service units (ASUs). There are also believed to be some arms dumps in border counties in the Republic that come under the control of the Northern Command. However, the bulk of the bigger arms reserves are more likely to be stored in dumps deeper within the Republic. IRA quartermasters have chosen this strategy partly because the land area of the Republic is approximately three times larger than that of Northern Ireland but with a smaller police/army presence. It is considered easier to find a safe hiding place for the materiel south of the border as opposed to north. It is believed that some of the most important dumps are in the Munster area and that they were prepared originally to receive arms being imported aboard the trawler Marita Ann, a cargo that was seized by the Irish Navy in 1984. The dumps were probably then used to receive some of the arms that were imported from Libya in the mid-1980s.
The IRA's quartermaster general (QMG) is a man living just south of the Border near Dundalk and he controls the arms dumps in various parts of Ireland. Another key figure is a man based in Limerick who reports to the QMG and who is responsible for major arms dumps in the Munster area.
IRA chiefs have learned over the years how to counteract sophisticated surveillance/detection equipment that may be deployed by security forces. For instance, in order to defeat airborne surveillance, major arms bunkers are now generally built inside farm buildings or under silage pits. However, the security forces in the Republic have made headway in seizing IRA equipment. Between 1985 and 1993, the Gardai, assisted by the Irish Army, seized more than 800 firearms of all types, including heavy machine guns, as well as 300,000 rounds of ammunition.
Since at least the late 1970s, the IRA has been actively seeking to acquire surface-to-air missiles to shoot down helicopters, which are particularly vital in the resupply of British military bases in the strongly Republican region of South Armagh. The joint police-military base in the town of Crossmaglen, for example, is always supplied by helicopter from the military base at Bessbrook; even the rubbish is flown out. It is believed that the IRA has one SAM-7 surface-to-air missile system, imported from Libya in the mid-1980s. However, the organization has not used this weapon, giving rise to speculation that the system is faulty or that the IRA has no one who knows how to use it. Since the end of the ceasefire in 1996, however, the priority of the IRA has been to mount bomb attacks in London rather than targeting security forces in Northern Ireland.
If the IRA was to resume attacks in Northern Ireland, the organization has more than enough assault rifles, handguns and ammunition to keep a campaign going indefinitely. In terms of assault rifles, for instance, the IRA has an over-supply and will not be obliged to import further large quantities for the foreseeable future unless the security forces become very lucky and make major seizures. Moreover, the estimated three tonnes of Semtex in IRA possession is also sufficient to allow the organization to continue indefinitely with a bombing campaign on the UK mainland and/or in Northern Ireland. In April 1996, the IRA demonstrated that it was prepared to expend a sizeable amount of Semtex in a single bomb when it used about 30 lb (13.6 kg) of the explosive in the attempt to blow up Hammersmith Bridge in London.
Being a guerrilla organization of long standing that has endured a quarter century of armed activity, the IRA has sought to supplement imported war material by developing its own. The advantage of the latter is that supply is not dependent on the vagaries of smuggling into Ireland by air or by sea. The IRA can call on the services of a small number of experienced engineers to help it build weapons such as home-made mortars. The organization has also been making use of a new breed of volunteer: the university-educated computer expert who can construct sophisticated timing and remote-control mechanisms for use in bombs and mortars. It is believed that the IRA used the period of the ceasefire to upgrade such mechanisms and to develop techniques to combat British Army 'disruptive' radio signals by using radar guns and microwave receivers. (In 1993, the Gardai uncovered an IRA workshop at Kilcock, Co Kildare, which was producing a wide range of advanced electronic detonators.)
During the years of the 'Long War', IRA members have become skilled in making explosives from such substances as nitrobenzene and fertilizer, either for use in large bombs designed to blow up buildings or in smaller devices designed to be thrown at the North's security forces. Homemade weapons have included the nail bomb (an anti-personnel device) and the 'drogue bomb' (an anti-vehicle grenade consisting of about 230 g of explosive packed into a big baked bean tin attached to a throwing handle). Homemade explosives are known by such names as 'Anfo' (fertilizer and diesel oil mix) and 'Annie'.
Intelligence sources in the Republic believe the IRA also used the period of the ceasefire to develop a 'Mark 17' mortar, which is said to be one of its most destructive weapons yet. It is believed that the mortar has already been tested in the Carlingford Lough area of Co Louth, just south of the border. Over the years, the IRA has deployed with some success its homemade 'throw-away' mortars - crude weapons that can have a devastating effect at short range. The mortar tubes are normally mounted on the back of a hijacked truck and are fired by a timing device after the bombers have made their getaway. During the 1980s, the IRA deployed its 'Mark 10' mortar, which fired a six-inch shell with 24 lb (10.9 kg) of explosive up to 300 m. This was the type used in the attack on 10 Downing Street during the Gulf War.
The Source of the IRAs Arsenal
Note: As well as the arms listed above, it is believed the IRA has other weapons including Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifles, Taurus pistols and FN FNC assault rifles. Security forces have made estimates of the IRA inventory partly on the basis of material known to have been imported from Libya, from which has been subtracted material seized by the authorities north and south of the border as well as Semtex estimated to have been used in various bomb attacks.
Sean Boyne is a Dublin-based journalist who specializes in defence matters and international affairs. Part 1 of this article, which dealt with IRA organization and strategy, was published in the July issue of JIR.
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