Were the IRA freedom fighters or terrorists?

During the 1970s and 1980s, the IRA were considered the biggest threat to security within Britain. Who were the IRA, and what did they wish to achieve?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you cannot download the worksheet, complete the tasks in the yellow boxes on this webpage.

Oppression = Long term, unfair treatment by an authority.
Freedom fighter = A person who takes part in a revolutionary action against an oppressive government to gain freedom.
Liberate = Set something free.


There is one city in Britain today that is unlike any other. It has a series of walls several miles long that splits the city in two. The walls are made of concrete, bricks and steel and are up to 25 feet high. The police force in this city are the only police force in the country to still carry guns, and every police car is armoured to withstand the heavy damage it might face.

What city is this? Click the button below the pictures to find out.

TASK ONE: What were the aims and motivations of the IRA?

Complete a 12-piece storyboard outlining the formation and actions of the IRA. Your storyboard should cover why the IRA formed, what they wished to achieve, and what methods they used to try and achieve their objectives. Read the information below to complete your storyboard.

Who were the IRA, and why did they bring violence to Northern Ireland?

At the beginning of the 1900s, the whole of Ireland was ruled by the UK. The UK was a Protestant country, whereas the majority of Ireland was made of of Catholics. This caused huge unrest in Ireland: many Irish Catholics wished for Ireland to be run independently, away from British rule. They were known as Nationalists as they believed in an independent nation of Ireland. There was a growing number of protestants in the north of Ireland that wished to remain a part of the UK. They were known as Unionists as they wished to remain in a union with the UK.

In 1921, the division between the Nationalists and Unionists in Ireland became so bad that the country was split in to two: the Republic of Ireland in the south, which became its own country, and Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the UK. Although this seemed like a sensible thing to do, there were still many Catholics living in Northern Ireland that were not happy about still living in the UK. They continued to argue that the whole of Ireland should rule itself as one country.

In 1921, Ireland split into two countries – the Republic of Ireland, which became its own country; and Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the UK.

Over the next 50 years, Catholics living in Northern Ireland were not treated as well as Protestants. In 1971 it was found that Protestant male unemployment was 6.6% compared to 17.3% for Catholic males. A big part of this was down to the discrimination Catholics faced when applying for jobs. Moreover Catholics found it harder to own a home in Northern Ireland, and less Catholics were able to vote compared to Protestants.

Civil rights groups in Northern Ireland began protesting peacefully about the discrimination Catholics in Northern Ireland faced in the late 1960s. The police in Northern Ireland frequently used violence to bring an end to these demonstrations, despite them being peaceful. Extreme Unionist groups in Northern Ireland were also prepared to stop the civil rights groups. In the Northern Irish city of Londonderry (known as Derry to Catholics), riots broke out in 1968. Similar riots broke out in Belfast in 1969 as Catholics were attacked and driven from their homes.

The Derry riots of 1968 are a good example the demonstrates how hated the British police were by Catholics in Northern Ireland.

British troops were poured into Northern Ireland to help reduce tensions between Catholics and Protestants. To many Catholic Nationalists, this looked like a move by the British government to put down the Catholic push for rights.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) were a Catholic Nationalist group that began to use violence against the British army and Unionist groups from 1970. They hoped that by doing this they could liberate Northern Ireland from the UK. They wished to drive out the British so that Northern Ireland could join the independent Republic of Ireland.

Violence erupted in Northern Ireland following the actions of the IRA in a period that is now known as ‘The Troubles’. The IRA carried out bombings, assassinations and ambushes that targeted British military positions in the hope to disrupt the British military. The group wore balaclavas to keep their identity hidden, and successfully imported guns, explosives and ammunition from countries abroad. Those who were imprisoned carried out hunger strikes so that they could be released from prison to rejoin the fight. The IRA called their actions the “Long War” as they knew a long violent effort was needed to drive the British out.

An IRA gunman preparing for an attack in Belfast in the 1970s.

The IRA even targeted people and groups outside of Northern Ireland. In 1974, the IRA successfully bombed both the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London, killing numerous people. In 1984, the IRA even attempted to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a hotel in Brighton, which ultimately failed. The group also carried out a series of bombings in pubs and other public places across England throughout the 1970s and 80s, killing hundreds of innocent people. Their hope was to scare the British away from Northern Ireland.

The IRA attempted to kill Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

Their actions had some large support from some areas of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Many hated the violence the British police and army used in Catholic neighbourhoods, and backed the IRA to ‘defend’ their communities. Yet people on both sides of the Nationalist/Unionist divide hated the violent actions of the IRA. It was estimated that, between 1969 and 1994, the IRA killed about 1,800 people, including approximately 600 civilians.

Murals supporting Nationalists and Unionists can be found throughout Belfast today. Although the period of The Troubles has ended, tensions and division remain. This man has a mural to the IRA on the side of his house. Notice the IRA fighters painted above the Republic of Ireland flag. The chains surrounding the mural are meant to represent UK rule. A phoenix rising from the ashes breaks through the chains at the top of the mural.

Eventually, peace was made between the UK government and the IRA. Peace talks began in 1988 between the IRA and Unionists. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and Nationalists and Unionists began to form a government together. To ensure this happened, the UK government agreed to release IRA members from prison.

TASK TWO: Complete your terrorist table

In the table that you worked on for your last lesson, create a new column on the IRA. Put details in to your table about the aims, motivations, punishments and public reaction of the IRA.

TASK THREE: Were the IRA freedom fighters or terrorists?

The actions and existence of the IRA is controversial. By that, it means that people have very strong opinions on either side of a debate. People cannot agree on whether the IRA were freedom fighters or terrorists. Read the two arguments below, and decide which argument you agree with more. Make sure you explain why.

Sentence starter:
I agree with ____’s argument more.
I agree with this argument more than the other because…
This shows that the IRA were freedom fighters/terrorists because…

2 thoughts on “Were the IRA freedom fighters or terrorists?

  1. The IRA are were terrorists as they deliberately carried out carried out bombings, assassinations and ambushes that targeted British military positions in the hope to disrupt the British military. The could have been done in a more peaceful manner such as a peaceful protest.


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