The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) was established in December of 1974 as an off-shoot of the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA). Following the same path as those who had earlier founded the Provisional IRA (PIRA) in late 1969, a number of revolutionary republicans from the OIRA and its political wing Official Sinn Féin (OSF, soon to be transformed into the Workers Party) left the grouping to create a breakaway left-leaning guerrilla force publicly represented by the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). Inevitably its establishment was accompanied by considerable internecine blood-letting as the OIRA, by this stage far more interested in killing fellow republicans and nationalists than British soldiers or paramilitary police, attempted to eradicate the “splitters” before they could take root. From 1975 to 1977 both groups targeted the other, leaving several people dead, including Séamus Costello, the leading military and political strategist of the INLA-IRSP. Arguably this left the Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSM), as it was collectively known, crippled from the get-go and it was never to gain the momentum many thought it initially capable of.
(Of course it goes without saying, to readers in Ireland at least, that many of those who have subsequently risen to prominence in Irish journalism and politics over the last three decades, from RTÉ to the Labour Party, were core members of the OSF at the time of Costello’s murder by the party’s armed wing, the OIRA. None of those individuals disassociated themselves from the killers and remained committed activists for many years as the party transitioned into the mainstream Workers Party).
The INLA engaged in a short if moderately successful campaign of resistance against the British Occupation Forces and government in the north-east of Ireland, dented by a number of dreadful atrocities such as the Droppin’ Well Bombing in 1982 and the loss of several prominent members to assassinations by the UK’s counter-insurgency proxies, before it too was overtaken by internal rifts. This led to more bloodshed and the emergence of the preposterously named Irish People’s Liberation Organisation (IPLO) in 1986-87. In time the IPLO was further sub-divided by new splits, until suppressed by PIRA in 1992, while the INLA and IRSP went into free-fall. By the 1990s the movement as a whole had sunk into criminality as the trade in illegal drugs saw the growth of large, well-funded and above all, well-armed narco-gangs in Dublin and Limerick. In the years leading up to and after a (now permanent) ceasefire on the 22nd of August 1998 the volunteers of the INLA were far more likely to be engaged in killing each other, or family members, or drug-dealers and their associates, than seeking an end to the UK’s continued colonial presence on this island nation.
In recent years the IRSP has seen something of a revival, buoyed up by interest from younger, radical-leaning teens and tweens disenchanted with more established organisations like Sinn Féin, though as always its electoral performances are negligible. There has been some attempt to purge the organisation of criminality, though its effectiveness is open to question. Certainly it is common knowledge in Dublin that the INLA exercises some control over a series of underworld enterprises, with a number of members associating with known gang members. In fairness, most contemporary INLA-IRSP activists are born into the same impoverished, working-class communities that have produced the foot-soldiers of the narco-cartels, so it would be difficult for these people not to be known to each other. They are fish swimming in the same small sea, a frequently overlooked constraint that also applies to the likes of the Real/New IRA. However to outsiders – and even many insiders – the optics are poor, and maintains the aura of apolitical criminality that has characterised the Irish Republican Socialist Movement for decades.
Since 2014 the INLA, or men and women who dress like INLA volunteers, has adopted a more aggressive public profile, testing just how far it can push the laws of the land (it remains a banned organisation in Ireland and the UK). Several of these public displays have taken the form of passive muscle-flexing, which may have paid off in terms of attracting press attention. The military uniforms and marching lines also make for good Facebook and Twitter bait, as the number of shares on social media can attest to, though the exact purpose of it all is a bit of a mystery. Is it just a mechanism to gain the interest of youths who would have otherwise been drawn to Sinn Féin, and in previous times, the Irish Republican Army (Provisional variety)? Or is there actually an intention to mobilise an insurgent force, the INLA proper, with the hope of engaging in a new campaign of military resistance in the north? The latter seems highly unlikely and the paucity of weapons at recent displays certainly indicates any revived militancy from that quarter is a long way off.
On Sunday the 24th of April April 2016 the movement staged it latest PR event at the annual commemoration of its fallen dead in Belfast, where up to forty individuals in a known INLA uniform led a march through the city. Before that, in the capital, commuters and tourists around Dublin had the interesting spectacle of witnessing men and women in berets and masks carrying imitation or deactivated vintage guns to an IRSP parade marking the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The use of non-lethal, bolt-action rifles is an indication of the INLA’s real military potential, quite aside from the issue of staying within the law (the same handful of weapons were reused in Belfast). Similar evidence was on display in another gathering where three Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistols were on show. The C96, better known in Irish history as a “Peter the Painter”, are vintage firearms and it is questionable whether the guns were functional.
Not entirely unrelated to the above, and allowing for undoubted observer bias, this report from the Guardian newspaper is all too accurate:
“Almost 80% of people shot by the New IRA and other republican terror groups in Northern Ireland over nearly 10 years have been Catholics and nationalists.
A study of dissident republican violence has found that from 2007 onwards the hardline anti-Good Friday agreement paramilitaries killed or wounded far more people from the communities they claim to represent than police, soldiers or intelligence services personnel.”
While the INLA has played a minimal role in these attacks when compared to the New IRA, Continuity IRA and ÓnaÉ, it is still worth noting that all recent attempts to revive an armed resistance in the Occupied North has overwhelmingly involved the terrorising of the Irish civilian population, not the British military or paramilitary forces. Which tells its own story.