The Rules of Hijacking: Coercion and Legitimacy in the "Urban Statelets" of the IRA


Much of the political violence literature emphasizes the importance of coercive capacity in securing both local control and local support in times of conflict. But armed groups sometimes enjoy extensive support even in areas where the state has high penetrative capacity and high levels of control. To retain this support armed groups need to maintain a certain degree of local legitimacy. This paper examines the way in which the Provisional Irish Republican Army balanced coercion and legitimacy in its interactions with civilians in the Catholic urban neighbourhoods of Northern Ireland, the "urban statelets of Belfast and Derry" as one British civil servant referred to them in 1976. Drawing on memoirs by former IRA volunteers, on other published accounts of car hijackings and on state archives it argues that the need to maintain popular support, local legitimacy and an identification with the local community severely inhibited IRA actions, narrowing their strategic and tactical options, limiting their operational capacity and shaping their actions at the micro-level. It points to the delicacy of the balance between coercive power and legitimation in the securing of local control by armed insurgents.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i20356609v15i1p107

Keywords: Territory; legitimacy; coercion; terror; Ireland; political violence


Arjona, Ana (2008), “Local Orders in Warring Times: Armed Groups’ and Civilians’ Strategies in Civil Wars”, Qualitative Methods: Newsletter of the American Political Science Association Organized Section for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research.

Arjona, A., Kasfir, N. and Mampilly, Z. (eds. 2015), Rebel Governance in Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beetham, J. (2012), “Political Legitimacy” in Amenta, E. Nash, K. & Scott, A. (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology. Chichester: Wiley.

Bosi, L. (2013), “Safe Territories and Violent Political Organizations”, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 19(1), 80-101.

Bradley, G. & Feeney, B. (2012), Insider: Gerry Bradley's life in the IRA, Dublin: O'Brien.

Bryce, C. (2014), The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, London: Picador.

Cobain, I. (2020), Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island, London: Granta.

Collins, E. & MacGovern, M. (1997), Killing Rage, London: Granta.

Coogan, Tim Pat (1987), The IRA, Glasgow: Fontana.

Diplock Report (1972), Report of the Commission to Consider Legal Procedures to Deal with Terrorist Activities in Northern Ireland, Cmnd. 5185. London: HMSO.

Duyvesteyn, I. (2017), “Rebels & Legitimacy; An Introduction”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 28(4-5), 669-685.

English, R. (2003), Armed Struggle : the History of the IRA, London: Pan.

Ford, Major General Robert (1971), “Future military policy for Londonderry. An appreciation of the situation by CLF’, 14 December, 1971. PIN 7141, attached to General Ford’s Statement to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

Geis, A., Nullmeier, F., and Daase, C. (eds) (2012), Der Aufstieg der Legitimitätspolitik. Rechtfertigung und Kritik politisch-ökonomischer Ordnung. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

Gilmour, R. (1998), Dead Ground: Infiltrating the IRA, London: Little, Brown.

Goan, C. (2017), “Experiencing the Troubles”, in Smyth, J. (ed.) Remembering the Troubles: Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland, Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame Press.

Hamill, H. (2010), The Hoods: Crime and Punishment in Belfast, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

IRIS: The Republican Magazine, July/August 1982. Published by Sinn Féin.

Kalyvas, S. (2006), The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kasfir, N. (2015), “Rebel Governance—Constructing a Field of Inquiry: Definitions, Scope, Patterns, Order, Causes”, in Arjona, A., Kasfir, N. and Mampilly, Z. (eds. 2015), Rebel Governance in Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21–46.

Kelley, K. (1982), The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA. London: Zed Books.

Malthaner, S. (2015), “Violence, Legitimacy, and Control: The Microdynamics of Support Relationships between Militant Groups and their Social Environment”, Civil Wars, 17(4), 425-445.

McKeown, M. (1986), The Greening of a Nationalist, Dublin: Murlough

Moloney, Ed (2002), A Secret History of the IRA, London: Penguin.

Moloney, E. (2010), Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland. London: Faber and Faber.

O'Brien, B. (1999), The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin, Dublin: O'Brien.

O'Callaghan, S. (1999), The Informer, London: Corgi.

Ó Dochartaigh, N. (2005), From Civil Rights to Armalites: Derry and the Birth of Irish Troubles, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Ó Dochartaigh, N. (2013), “Bounded by Violence: Institutionalizing Local Territories in the North of Ireland”, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 19 (1) 119-139.

O’Doherty, M. (1998), The Trouble with Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA, Belfast: Blackstaff.

O’Leary, B. (2005), “Mission Accomplished? Looking Back at the IRA”, Field Day Review 1, 216–246.

Ministry of Defence (2006) Operation Banner. An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland.

Rickard, K., & Bakke, K. M. (2021), “Legacies of Wartime Order: Punishment Attacks and Social Control in Northern Ireland”, Security Studies, 30 (4) 603-636.

Schlichte, K., & Schneckener, U. (2015), “Armed Groups and the politics of legitimacy”, Civil Wars, 17(4), 409-424.

Silke, A. (2007), “Rebel's Dilemma: The Changing Relationship Between the IRA, Sinn Féin and Paramilitary Vigilantism in Northern Ireland”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 11(1), 55-93.

Sluka, J (1989), Hearts and Minds, Water and Fish: Support for the IRA and INLA in a Northern Irish Ghetto. London: Jai Press.

Staniland, P. (2012), “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders”, Perspectives on Politics, 10(02): 243-64.

Taylor, Peter (1997), Provos: the IRA and Sinn Féin. London: Bloomsbury.

Taylor, Peter (2001), Brits : the war against the IRA. London: Bloomsbury.

Worrall, J. (2017), “(Re-) Emergent Orders: Understanding the Negotiation (s) of Rebel Governance”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 28(4-5), 709-733.

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia License.