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The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Morality of Terrorism

Timothy Shanahan

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Is terrorism ever morally justified? How should historical and cultural factors be taken into account in judging the morality of terrorist acts? What are the ethical limits of state counter-terrorism?

For three decades the Provisional Irish Republican Army waged an 'armed struggle' against what it considered to be the British occupation of Northern Ireland. To its supporters, the IRA was the legitimate army of Ireland, fighting to force a British withdrawal as a prelude to the re-unification of the Irish nation. To its enemies, the IRA was an illegal, fanatical, terrorist organization whose members were criminals willing to sacrifice innocent lives in pursuit of its ideological obsession. At the centre of the conflict were the then unconventional tactics employed by the IRA, including sectarian killings, political assassinations, and bombings that devastated urban centres - tactics that have become increasingly commonplace in the post-9/11 world.

This book is the first detailed philosophical examination of the morality of the IRA's violent campaign, and of the British government's attempts to end it. Written in clear, accessible prose, it is essential reading for anyone wishing to acquire a deeper understanding of one of the paradigmatic conflicts of the late 20th century.

Key Features

  • Applies Just War Theory, Consequentialism and Human Rights theory to an evaluation of the IRA's campaign
  • Discusses the moral basis of British counter-terrorism including shoot-to-kill policies and collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries
  • Located at the intersection between moral philosophy, political theory and history
  • Presents a sophisticated analysis of the Northern Ireland Troubles and of the moral challenges posed by terrorism more general


1. The Meaning of August 1969: Calibrating the Standard Republican Narrative
2. Blood Sacrifice and Destiny: Republican Metaphysics and the IRA's Armed Struggle
3. Republicanism's Holy Grail: 'One Nation United, Gaelic, and Free'
4. Permission to Kill: Just War Theory and the IRA's Armed Struggle
5. 'Pointless Heartbreak Unrepaid': Consequentialism and the IRA's Armed Struggle
6. Violating the Inviolable: Human Rights and the IRA's Armed Struggle
7. 'Crime is Crime is Crime': British Counter-Terrorism in Northern Ireland
8. 'When the Law Makers are the Law Breakers': State Terrorism

About the Author

Timothy Shanahan is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, CA. He is author of Reason and Insight: Western and Eastern Perspectives on the Pursuit of Moral Wisdom (2003) and The Evolution of Darwinism: Selection, Adaptation and Progress in Evolutionary Biology (2004), and editor of Philosophy 9/11: Thinking about the War on Terrorism (2005).


'By far the most cogent critical analysis of the Irish Republican movement I have read, written from a position as close to impartiality as we are likely to get.'
- Ian McBride, King's College London