The Provisional Irish Republican Army is a guerrilla force determined to wage a joint military and political battle aimed at ending Britain's rule in Northern Ireland and eventually joining both the North and South of Ireland into a united socialist republic. The group is outlawed in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and membership in the Provisional IRA is illegal in both states. The ``Provos,'' as they are called, were formed in 1969 and split away from the mainstream official IRA because they felt the IRA was becoming a Marxist political organization to the point of neglecting guerrilla operations against the British. The two groups constitute an extremist part of the Republican/Nationalist movement in Ireland, which seeks to end the British presence in Northern Ireland and to unite the North and South into a single country.
Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA. It seeks the same ends as the guerrilla force, but says it confines its efforts to legal political activity. Sinn Fein candidates have contested and won races in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Roman Catholics constitute 37 percent of Ulster's population, and a majority of them supports the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which denounces the use of force as a means to end British rule in Northern Ireland.
Although British troops were originally committed to Northern Ireland in 1969 mainly to protect Catholic civil rights demonstrators and to back up political and economic reforms insisted on by London, many Republicans still view Britain as trying to perpetuate the status quo, in favor of Protestant ``loyalists'' (loyal to Britain).
Northern Ireland's Catholic minority suffered for decades from economic deprivation and institutionalized discrimination. It was frozen out of a political process dominated by Protestants.
Republicans contend that life will be better for Catholics if the North is united with the South. But most of Northern Ireland's Protestant majority doesn't want to unite with the overwhelmingly Catholic South. Britain's position has been that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the ``United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'' (the U.K.) for as long as the majority of those living in Northern Ireland want to remain so.