An investigation into paramilitary vigilantism in Northern Ireland

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Research on terrorism has tended to suffer from an overemphasis on case-study and journalistic research, to the detriment of research which is based on the collection and analysis of data in an empirical manner. Attempting to redress this imbalance - and recognising too that terrorism is not a homogenous phenomenon - this study aimed to carry out empirically valid research on one clearly defined range of terrorist activity. This range of activity took the form of paramilitary vigilantism in Northern Ireland. The vigilante activities of the terrorist groups in Northern Ireland have increased dramatically in the wake of the 1994 cease-fires, though the phenomenon has been a feature of the Troubles since the early 1970s. Despite this long history, virtually no research of any kind has been carried out on this topic.

This study had two broad aims: first, to demonstrate an appropriate method in which to carry out meaningful empirical research on terrorism based on previous psychological and criminological research; and second, to produce much needed information on an under-explored - but increasingly important - form of terrorist activity within the context of Northern Ireland. Data was collected on 500 vigilante incidents which occurred in a thirty month period between 1994 and 1996. Information was gathered through a variety of means including media reports, police publications and the files of a victim support group. Each incident was entered into a database and was coded on a total of 35 separate variables.

Using the database, this study was able to provide hitherto unavailable demographic information on the vigilantism. Previous research on terrorist activity had explored which factors involved in operations were linked to the outcome. Chi-square analysis was used to examine which factors were significantly associated with the outcome of incidents from the perspective of the paramilitaries. In all, ten variables were found to be significantly associated with success or failure at p<.01. A further three variables were found to be significantly related to the outcome when a more restricted definition of success was used. All thirteen of these variables were examined in detail to consider the ways in which they influenced the outcome of the vigilante attacks.

The study found that the patterns and relationships identified through statistical analysis emphasised that the vigilantism tended to be logically planned and displayed clear evidence of rationality in a number of different respects. The study also found evidence showing that social psychological forces such as deindividuation and social facilitation were having a significant impact on the behaviour of the attackers. Overall, this investigation validated the expectation that event-based research which is focused on patterns in behaviour does represent a valid, productive and useful manner in which to research terrorism. Finally, the implications of the research - both in academic and applied terms - are outlined and discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University College Cork
Publication statusPublished - 2000


  • terrorism
  • Northern Ireland Troubles
  • Northern Ireland
  • paramilitaries
  • paramilitary vigilantism

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