Dissident republicans ‘intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity,’ a leading expert on paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has told the Sunday Business Post. Speaking in the wake of last week’s announcement that the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner, Professor Jon Tonge said that he doubted the move would give anti-ceasefire republicans ‘any great tactical advantage’
‘Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,’ said Tonge, a Professor at the University of Liverpool and author of a 2010 study that found that as much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for anti-cease groups. ‘There would have to be some horrendous mistake by the security forces for the dissidents to gain widespread support.’
Details of the unified organisation remain sketchy but its formation has heightened fears that dissidents could be planning a renewed campaign of violence. Last Friday, the day that the new republican grouping was announced, a shot was fired at a Police Service of Northern Ireland vehicle in West Belfast. Óglaigh na hÉireann, a republican splinter group not aligned to the new faction, is believed to be behind the attack. The attack follows serious disturbances in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast during last month’s Twelfth of July Orange marches.
The anti-ceasefire umbrella group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the IRA mantle. Leaders have styled themselves as the ‘IRA army council’, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. Among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic PSNI recruit, in April 2011.
Estimates of dissidents’ strength vary. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland put the numbers of people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity at around 650. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein remains the dominant political force, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry. Their ranks were swelled by an influx of disillusioned former mainstream IRA members from 2007 on, after Sinn Fein’s decision to support policing in Northern Ireland.
Supporters of dissident republicanism are ‘mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation,’ said Professor Tonge, who believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for an increasingly disparate movement. ‘It’s about saying ‘we are the IRA now’’, he said.
In a statement released to coincide with the announcement, the new group said that anti-ceasefire republicanism has ‘come together within a unified structure, under a single leadership, subservient to the constitution of the Irish Republican Army.
‘The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,’ the statement continued. In a thinly veiled attack on Sinn Fein, the dissidents criticised the ‘phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont’.
Condemnation of the statement from across the Northern Irish political spectrum has been swift. ‘This latest attempt by dissident republicans to form yet another ‘new IRA’ highlights the lengths that they will go to in order to create destruction within our society,’ Ulster Unionist Party justice spokesman Tom Elliott MLA told the Belfast Telegraph.
Sinn Fein reiterated their public calls for the dissidents to stand down. ‘There is no community support for these groups. They need to desist and they need to realise that they cannot achieve a united Ireland in this way,’ Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA for North Belfast, said in an interview to the republican newspaper An Phoblacht earlier this week.
‘That is not to say that they cannot be dangerous,” Kelly continued.
‘They have in the past killed people, the majority of whom have been from the nationalist community. However, these actions can take us nowhere.’
The dissident threat has risen in recent years. In March 2009, the Real IRA shot two off duty British soldiers dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later the Continuity IRA killed PC Stephen Carroll in Craigavon, County Armagh.
Since 2009, security forces have intercepted increasing numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is on the rise but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of an anti-ceasefire coalition further increases the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.
The dissidents lack weapons, a point underlined by last year’s successful prosecution of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gunrunning charges in Lithuania. Post-9/11 funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.
Given these constraints, a return to large-scale violence in the North is unlikely, says Professor Tonge. ‘You cannot dismiss the idea that violence will ever return, but the structural factors aren’t there any more.’ The religious discrimination that fuelled the Troubles is largely a thing of the past. Crucially, the income gap between Catholic and Protestants has all but disappeared. The creation of a post-peace process Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause.
Anti-ceasefire republicans are, however, still capable of bringing mayhem to the streets of a Northern Ireland. Any upsurge in violence could have repercussions for North’s fragile local economy. House prices here have declined by more than 50 per cent, when adjusted for inflation, according to a recent survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed continues to rise. Since the credit crunch began in August 2007, NI’s unemployment register has risen by 39,100 or 166 per cent.
‘(The dissident threat) is not good from an economic development perspective but the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have moved on,’ Nigel Smyth, director of CBI Northern Ireland told the Sunday Business Post. ‘It doesn’t feature in business conversations. We’ve been through this and worse before.’
‘The formation of a new grouping is ‘more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents’, said Professor Tonge.
‘The dissidents themselves do not believe that they can get the British out of Northern Ireland. What they do think they can do is to stop Northern Ireland becoming normal.’
This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 5 August.