New IRA same old stance

A new republican anti-ceasefire group in Northern Ireland is a threat, but its goals are likely to be unfulfilled, writes Peter Geoghegan

In DECEMBER 1969, the Irish Republican Army held an extraordinary convention at Knockvicar house in Boyle, County Roscommon. During the preceding months, the Troubles had exploded into life across the border. Many rank and file members, particularly in Northern Ireland, demanded an aggressive campaign of violence against the British state; in contrast, the IRA’s Marxist leadership, based in Dublin, saw limited utility in “the armed struggle”.

The December 1969 convention ended with two leading republicans, Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Sean MacStiofain, establishing a new organisation, the Provisional IRA. By the end of 1970, the press had introduced the terms “Official IRA” and “Regular IRA” to differentiate between the two groups. In 1972, the Officials announced a ceasefire. Within a few short, bloody years O’Bradaigh and MacStiofain’s group had become the IRA.

The history of Irish republicanism is a fissiparous one. Now, it appears that a new republican group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the irredentist IRA mantle effectively vacated when the Provisionals decommissioned in 2005.

Last week, the Guardian reported that the Real IRA, Derry-based Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner. The move would leave only the Continuity IRA (a small armed group formed after the 1986 Sinn Fein split) outside the new republican umbrella.

The leaders of the unified outfit have styled themselves as the “IRA army council”, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. There are reasons to be fearful of this development: among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in April 2011. The Real IRA was responsible for the worst republican atrocity of the entire Troubles, when their bombs killed 29 at Omagh in August 1998.

The “new IRA” has an old enemy in its sights: the British presence in Ireland. “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 group said in a statement released last week. In a none-too-subtle riposte to Sinn Fein (which a number of dissidents were formerly members of), the statement railed against “a phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont”.

So how serious a threat to the peace are this new group? They may be small, but their numbers are not insignificant. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland estimated that there are 650 people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein rules with a gloved iron fist, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry.

As much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for dissident republican groups, according to a study published in 2010. Supporters are mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation. The author of that research, Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool, believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for the movement, but doubts whether it will succeed.

“I don’t think it gives dissidents any great tactical advantage. Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,” Professor Tonge told The Scotsman.

“Their intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity.”

Dissidents are hoping to profit from an association with a globally recognised brand name: the IRA. The decision to band together has been a publicity boon, reported by media outlets across the world. Whether increased coverage will lead to an influx of new dissident recruits is less clear-cut.

Northern Ireland today is hardly a utopian society. Over 70 per cent of people live in segregated communities. Sectarianism remains intransigent, as evidenced by riots during last month’s Twelfth of July celebrations.

But Northern Ireland is a very different place from the “cold house for Catholics” of December 1969. The structural factors that underpinned the emergence of the Provisional IRA emergence do not exist in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Religious discrimination in housing has ended. If workplaces are not as mixed as they could be, fair employment legislation has brought an end to sectarian hiring. The income gap between Catholic and Protestants has closed. The creation of a Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause. There is no organised loyalist agitation, a la 1969.

Professor Tonge believes that the formation of a new grouping is “more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents”.

Dissidents will take succour from the deep well-spring of Irish republican history, from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen of 1798 through the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish Republic established in 1918-19. Although eulogised today, the Irish republican rebels of the 1916 Rising were spat at in the streets of Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the failed rebellion.

Even the term “dissident republican” is not as modern as many would imagine. As Henry McDonald noted in the Belfast Telegraph recently, it “was coined in the mid-1970s when the Official IRA was engaged in a shooting war with the fledgling INLA”.

While heaping opprobrium on Sinn Fein, today’s dissidents see parallels between that party’s recent past and their present, especially on the issue of electoral politics and the absence of a mandate. In 1985, Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said of Sinn Fein’s electoral performance: “Ultimately it is not votes but the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring about freedom and justice in Ireland.” It is a nostrum many dissident republicans still subscribe to.

Of course, violence has not – and almost certainly never will – lead to the promised land of Irish republicanism, a United Ireland, a fact Gerry Adams and McGuinness eventually recognised (albeit many years – and lives lost – after the IRA’s 1960s left-wing leaders).

Even with a newfound sense of unity, dissident republicans possess only a fraction of the capability of the old IRA. The group lack weapons – underlined by last year’s trial of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gun-running charges in Lithuania. In the post-9/11 dispensation, funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Nevertheless, the dissident threat has certainly increased in recent years, particularly as IRA veterans left the mainstream movement in the wake of Sinn Fein’s support policing. In March 2009, two off duty British soldiers were shot dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later PC Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted ever greater numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is increasing but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of a dissident coalition heightens further the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior dissident figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

Conversely, last week’s announcement represents the present weakness of dissident republicanism. Dissidents are hoping to achieve collectively where they have largely failed in isolation – not by forcing the British out of Northern Ireland, but by stymieing moves to make Northern Ireland a normal place.

As long as the army stays off the streets and there is no return to political policing, the dissidents, together or alone, have little hope of achieving even their most modest goals.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, August 1.