Political Studies Association of Ireland annual conference, Dublin Institute of Technology, 8-10 October 2010



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Dissidents, Ultras, Militarists or Patriots? Analysing the Strategies, Tactics and Support for ‘Dissident’ Republicanism

Jon Tonge

University of Liverpool

Political Studies Association of Ireland annual conference, Dublin Institute of Technology, 8-10 October 2010

Introduction: the perpetuation of violence

The emergence of ‘dissident’ armed Irish republican groups in recent years has qualified claims that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and subsequent consociational power sharing between former enemies in Northern Ireland brought closure to an ancient quarrel. Sporadic in nature, the armed campaign of ‘dissident’ IRAs is nowhere near the level maintained by their Provisional IRA (PIRA) predecessor and cannot derail an ongoing political process. Nonetheless, the continued existence of these ‘spoiler groups’, predominantly the Real IRA (RIRA) and Continuity IRA (CIRA) indicates that assumptions that violence would disappear entirely were overly optimistic. Having targeted British soldiers and police officers, the ‘dissidents’ remain committed to maintaining some form of armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, regardless of their political isolation, lack of ‘military’ utility and the onset of power sharing between Protestant British Unionists and Irish Catholic Nationalists. In the twelve years immediately following the Good Friday Agreement, ‘dissident’ republicans have killed 38 people. From 2003-9, these ‘dissidents’ were responsible for 288 shootings and assaults (Independent Monitoring Commission 2009). During the same period, there were 413 bombing incidents in Northern Ireland (Police Service of Northern Ireland 2010a). By the end of the first decade following the Good Friday Agreement, 57 dissident republican prisoners were in jail in Northern Ireland for their actions (Hansard 12 October 2009) with a larger number imprisoned in the Irish Republic. 447 persons were arrested under anti-terrorism legislation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland between 2003-9, with over 28,000 stop-and-search operations carried out under the same laws by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2009 alone (Police Service of Northern Ireland 2010b).

Grandiose ‘end of Irish history’ claims were to be expected from those politicians and their advisors with vested electoral interests in claiming to have solved an age-old problem (e.g. Powell 2008). Yet academics could also be accused of naivety in perceiving the Good Friday Agreement as the end of the story. There existed cautious scholarly assessments, but these were in a small minority. As Ruane (2004: 131) argued, ‘cultural learning under conditions of conflict is Janus-faced: if the ability to contain conflict and to make peace is learned, so too is the ability to make war’. Hayes and McAllister (2001) noted the possibility that those socialised and conditioned by violence might continue its exercise, whilst Bric and Coakley (2004: 9) were the first to contend that ‘dissident republicans already pose a serious threat to peace and stability’. An early account of the historical determinism which underscores ‘dissident’ republican thinking, based on the inevitability of armed conflict whilst the British government claims sovereignty over Northern Ireland, suggested that violent Irish republicanism might not entirely disappear (Tonge 2004).

Aside from the commonality of ‘spoiler’ groups emerging in other peace processes (Stedman, Rothchild and Cousens, 2002; Stedman 2003) assumptions of endgame in Ireland overlooked the historical tendencies towards splits within republican armed groups. Moreover, such assumptions took little account of the manner in which the sheer scale of change and compromise by those who came to be seen as ‘mainstream’ republicans, i.e. the PIRA and Sinn Fein, was likely to provoke dissent and accusations of ‘sell-out’. This article examines how the extent of compromise and reliance upon violence as a tool was more likely than not to produce new republican armed groups. The piece contends that, given that these groups (to varying degrees) mark their republicanism’s historical antecedents as pre-dating that of the PIRA and Sinn Fein, the term ‘republican dissidents’ is inadequate and reductionist, a partial account of republicanism which suggests that it is merely what PIRA did and Sinn Fein now does. A more realistic appraisal of Irish republicanism is one which incorporates numerous forms, epitomised in Laffan’s (1999) assertion that numerous republican parties under the name Sinn Fein have existed since Ireland was divided in 1920, all eventually tempted by the lure of constitutional politics and leaving behind a rump of militants. The emergence of Irish republican ‘dissidents’ reflects the latest tensions between, firstly principle and tactic and secondly, the utility of ‘armed struggle’. The article examines these tensions and discusses the heterogeneity of contemporary republican armed groups before assessing their current strengths and weaknesses.

Dissident’ republicanism, spoilers and ultras

The emergence of ‘dissident’ Irish republican armed groups might be seen as unsurprising when international and local contexts are considered. Ultra groups are very common features of peace processes, developing in response to perceived compromises, or unacceptable supposed negotiating capitulations, by the military and political leaderships of armed groups. Within Ireland, the tendency for hitherto hardline republicans to move from violence towards constitutional politics, leaving a rump of ultras outside political institutions, has been a feature of the polity since the partition of Ireland. The extent and rapidity of change within mainstream republicanism undertaken since 1986 made likely the further splits which have duly transpired.

As Cochrane (2008: 109) reflects, in preferring the term ‘ violent resister’, ‘to be categorized as a “spoiler” is to be labelled (implicitly at least) as an extremist who prefers violence to peace’ Opposition to peace is characteristic of dissident republicans in the short-term, given that, firstly, they regard the Northern Ireland peace process as a betrayal of principles and, secondly, whilst they recognise the limited utility of their violence, they believe that the British will never be ‘talked’ out of Ireland and, as such, the tactic of ‘armed struggle’ cannot be abandoned. However, dissident republicans do not see themselves as committed to violence for its own sake, instead offering only limited tactical actions (although this is also a consequence of constrained capacity) and a broader political outlook, however unrealisable. In seeking refuge in historical points, republican ‘dissidents’ can clearly be placed in Darby’s (2001) ‘zealots’ category, fundamentalism being considerably more evident than practical orientation.

Republican zealots point to the limitations of constitutional politics as vindication of their role, such as the partition of Ireland despite Sinn Fein’s 1918 election victory, or the unwillingness of the Irish and British governments to concede a vote on a united Ireland. Republican ‘dissidents’ can be classed as limited spoilers (Stedman 1997) in terms of their military capacity, a barrier to the development of full peace whilst unable to halt a political process. Given the non-negotiable nature of ‘dissident’ spoiler demands, their inclusion in a peace process seems a remote prospect. Similar conclusions were once drawn concerning Sinn Fein and PIRA; however the peace process was predicated upon recognition of their (limited) mandate and constructed by the placing of their republican demands into an indeterminate timeframe. ‘Dissident’ groups exist because of such downgrading. Given their irreconcilability, the ‘military’ defeat of dissidents is the option most likely to be pursued by the British and Irish states, but, as in other peace processes, the ‘crushing’ scenario carries the risk of disproportionate response rather than realistic threat assessment, with the potential risk of destabilisation (see Rubin 2008). Whilst the ‘dissidents’ enjoy little support, this was true of previous IRAs in earlier formations, prior to security force excesses. Moreover, what might be termed the ‘Stedman requirements’ (2003) for combating spoilers in terms of a fully-functioning democratic polity and thriving civil society are not fully fulfilled. Consociational power-sharing is embryonic, enforced and built upon an electoral chasm, whilst two separate civil societies, divided by nationality, religion and political outlook, continue to exist in Northern Ireland, with little evidence yet of integration (see Maney and Ibrahim 2006).



Contextualising the development of the republican ultras

The extent of mainstream republican change undertaken by Sinn Fein and PIRA was startling. It began with their recognition of Dail Eireann, the Irish Parliament, in 1986, an institution previously dismissed as illegitimate and partitionist, given that it presided over only 26 counties (the Irish Republic) on the island of Ireland, rather than over the 32 county Irish state demanded by republicans. Eight years later, a PIRA ceasefire was declared, one which, following brief fracture in 1996-97, extended into the disbandment of the organisation in 2005. The earlier insistence by republicans that the PIRA would not get rid of its weapons was replaced by full decommissioning of its arsenal. These moves were undertaken despite the absence of an undertaking from the British government to withdraw from Northern Ireland, previously a non-negotiable demand of the PIRA and Sinn Fein. In 1998, Sinn Fein supported the Good Friday Agreement, a deal which makes clear that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom for so long as the majority of its citizens so choose. Previously, Sinn Fein had contemptuously dismissed this as a ‘Unionist Veto’, arguing that only the wishes of the electorate mattered, not merely those of the population with the ‘artificial statelet’ of Northern Ireland . Following the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein entered a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive at Stormont, despite having previously refused to recognise the political entity of Northern Ireland, let alone its political institutions. The Irish identity and political aspirations of nationalists in Northern Ireland were recognised by the establishment of an Irish dimension, via a North-South Ministerial Council and modest cross-border bodies. Republicans had previously dismissed an Irish dimension as a ‘sickening English term’ (An Phoblacht, June 1975: 6). In 2007, Sinn Fein declared support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which lost nearly 300 officers due to PIRA actions. This backing for the police allowed devolved power-sharing government to be restored, under an Executive headed by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.

According to ‘dissident’ republicans, republicanism cannot be based upon repudation of all that was previously held as essential to the integrity of the ideology. For mainstream republicans, the changes chronicled above represent merely revised tactics, not the abandonment of republican principles or end goals. Academic explanations of these changes can be divided into three broad categories, which are not mutually exclusive. The lack of fidelity to traditional republican politics and the absence of deep-rooted commitment to the supposed cornerstone of Irish republicanism, the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule and proclamation of an Irish Republic, eased the changes within Sinn Fein and the PIRA brought about by their leaderships (Alonso 2006; Maillot 2004; McIntyre 1995, 2001, 2008). Under this interpretation, republicans in Northern Ireland were mainly creatures of their time, joining the IRA predominantly to hit back at perceived oppressors; the RUC and British Army, whilst some were motivated due to sectarian antipathy towards local Protestants. These local and temporal motivations outweighed vaguer concepts of support for an indivisible Irish Republic, supposedly the primary concern of the modern day ‘dissidents’. Given the removal of those security forces, the rationale behind ‘armed struggle’ diminished.

The second category of explanation for republican diversion into constitutional policies lies in the failure of tactics. English (2003) and Patterson (1997) highlight how the contradictions of the ‘armalite and ballot box’ strategy soon became apparent. PIRA violence provided a ceiling to Sinn Fein’s electoral growth, given the latter’s support for the former. One of these two elements needed to be removed and it was more logical and convenient to end the ‘armed struggle’. McGladdery (2004) and Moloney (2002) emphasise the inadequacies of that struggle in delivering results, emphasising the importance of the failure of the English bombing campaign and the demise of the arms supply line from Libya respectively. Smith’s (1995) account gives greater credibility to the IRA’s campaign, but emphasises the need of republicans to ‘cash in’ those military chips by the mid-1990s.

A third broad explanation of republican change is rooted in the changed structural conditions experienced by republicans (Bean 2007). Second-class citizens suffering actual and relative (to the Unionist population) deprivation at the outset of the PIRA campaign, republican communities had de-ghettoised amid determined amelioration of their economic plight by the British government, as part of its strategy to diminish the conflict. Bean’s argument is supported by republicans who remained loyal to the direction taken by the leadership of Sinn Fein and among those who defected. Amongst the former, one former IRA life sentence prisoner, Michael Culbert, expressed the new reality:

When I was coming home on weekend leave from the prison [in the early 1990s] I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in our communities. Things had changed and changed for the better. We couldn’t claim that we lived in a ghetto anymore. I knew then that the war was over (interview, 6 August 2008; see Shirlow et al. 2010).

Amongst those later to associate with ‘dissident’ republicanism whilst denying any particular new allegiance, Tony Catney, former Director of Elections for Sinn Fein, described how that party’s growth:

coincided with the rise of a monied class, which had previously felt that its interests were best served by remaining politically anonymous, now wanting to assert itself in any new political dispensation. This view I will describe as ‘new Catholic money’. Largely apolitical but nationalistic in its aspirations this section of the electorate found much that was attractive in Sinn Fein’s demand for parity of esteem and equality of opportunity’ (Fourthwrite, 2, Summer 2000: 7).

Yet Catney indicated that his unease on the implications of this new support, fearing that the imperative of electoral advancement within this new repository of support would eclipse Sinn Fein’s original ideals. He cautioned:

despite the unchecked electoral growth [of Sinn Fein] republicans are well advised to think cautiously where it may all lead. Riding the two horses of working class resistance and Catholic new money – unnatural bedfellows – carries with it an inherent contradiction. That contradiction may be masked in a state of political flux but it carries the potential to arrest progress once the political dust has settled. Therein lies the danger (Ibid.)

For Catney and other post-1998 ‘dissidents’, Sinn Fein’s accommodation with the emergent Catholic middle-class had diluted republicanism and removed its challenges to the existence of Northern Ireland, in favour of an equality agenda pursued through state institutions. The culmination of working, rather than removing, the state lay in Sinn Fein’s 2007 decision to support the PSNI. This decision provoked some dissent even among those hitherto supportive of the changes wrought by the peace process. There was seemingly a ‘growing gap between the official traditional aims proclaimed at Bodenstown and Milltown cemeteries [where many republican dead are buried] and the realistic, everyday politics practised at Stormont and Leinster House’ (the Irish Parliament) (Fourthwrite, 1, 2000: 9). The contradictions were apparent in the way Sinn Fein’s regular commemorations of IRA members killed in operations designed to kill members of the police and British Army until 1997 were now accompanied by the condemnation of those continuing such actions as ‘traitors to Ireland’ by Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister. McGuinness argued that such actions were bereft of any mandate following the support expressed by nationalists for the Good Friday Agreement. Previously, he had criticised the lack of military clout of dissidents, declaring at Sinn Fein’s 2007 special conference on policing that: ‘We fought the British to a standstill. These people have yet to fight them to a start’.

Mired in Militarism’? The Real IRA and 32 County Sovereignty Movement

Of the ‘dissident’ groups which have emerged, the most important has been the RIRA. Whilst vulnerable to splits, it has contained the deadliest capacity. This was evidenced in the RIRA’s killing of 29 civilians at Omagh in 1998, four months after the Good Friday Agreement was reached, an action which yielded widespread revulsion and forced the organisation to call a temporary ceasefire. Sinn Fein condemned the bombing, arguing that the RIRA were ‘not psychopaths’, but were nonetheless a group ‘mired by militarism who would be defeated due to their inability to recognise that armed struggle was a mere tactic, not a principle, of Irish republicanism’ (An Phoblacht/Republican News August 1998). This mainstream republican analysis criticised the ‘dissidents’ as groups who elevated the need to perpetuate an armed campaign above the attainment of goals. ‘Dissidents highlighted how Sinn Fein had failed to advance the stated goals of Irish republicanism in their compromises. Most difficult to rebut was the pithy criticism offered by the sister of the first of the ten IRA hunger strikers to die in 1981, Bobby Sands, that her brother ‘did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers’, the key all-Ireland features of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement was dismissed as entirely inadequate by the RIRA’s political associates, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM) (initially the 32 County Sovereignty Committee) comprising mostly members expelled from Sinn Fein for opposing the compromises being initiated by the party leadership. The 32CSM denounced the deal:

[It is morally wrong because it] ‘abandons the basic principle of Irish Republicans, the indefeasible right of the Irish people to sovereignty across the national territory and legitimises British rule and the loyalist veto. It is pragmatically wrong because it will delay rather than hasten Irish re-unification’ (Sovereign Nation, 1.1, August 1998: 1). A

According to the 32CSM, the Good Friday Agreement was erroneously portrayed by a range of forces, ranging from the British and Irish governments to Sinn Fein, as the only possible deal, one which could not realistically be opposed. The 32CSM briefly pursued its case for Irish self-determination via the United Nations, a route which predictably proved fruitless. Sinn Fein highlighted the overwhelming support for the Agreement amongst nationalists and contended that no alternative option was available, to the chagrin of the 32CSM, which responded:

The most persistent charge levelled against Republicans is ‘where is your alternative’? [to the Good Friday Agreement]. Its monotonous use has transformed it into a comfort blanket for supporters and doubters of the agreement alike...It is an age-old political ploy designed to justify failure by highlighting the supposed lack of credible alternatives. British withdrawal and the ending of partition can only be realised by a political strategy, which is firmly rooted in a support base, which holds these two aims as its primary objectives” (Sovereign Nation, Jan/Feb 2000: 4).

In urging a fundamentalist political strategy, ‘dissident’ republicans relied upon historical ‘lessons’ to justify continuing armed actions, asserting that ‘in every generation the Irish people have rejected and challenged Britain’s claim to interfere to Ireland’s affairs’ (RIRA statement, Sovereign Nation Jan/Feb 2000: 1). The attempted positioning of the RIRA as the vanguard of this continuing struggle was nonetheless problematic. Its leader in Belfast, Joe O’Connor, was killed by the PIRA in 2000 and the organisation struggled to obtain support in the wake of the Omagh atrocity, amid rapid electoral advancement for Sinn Fein, boosted by a strong youth vote. Nonetheless, the RIRA resisted efforts by the Irish government, led by the special advisor to the Taoiseach, Martin Mansergh, to call a permanent ceasefire. Concurrently, the RIRA revived sufficiently to launch a small-scale campaign in London, which included a bombing at the BBC and an attack upon MI6 Headquarters. By August 2001, there were reports of overcrowding on the paramilitary wings of Portlaoise Jail in the Irish Republic, which housed 44 RIRA and 3 CIRA prisoners (Sunday Business Post, 5 August 2001) plus 10 from the Irish National Liberation Army, which, whilst opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, decommissioned its weapons and made permanent its ceasefire in 2010. RIRA’s local support in Northern Ireland, whilst very limited, was indicated by, for example, the setting up of patrols in Strabane in 2002 (Derry Journal 25 October 2002). During that year, the RIRA killed a worker at a British Territorial Army base in Londonderry.

By the mid-2000s, RIRA prisoners were serving sentences averaging 10 years. At an average age of 34, those prisoners did not fit easily with assumptions concerning the recruitment of vulnerable teenagers (almost half were married) or with perceptions that they were ex-PIRA ‘veterans’. The RIRA attempted to intensify its activities as the PIRA wound itself up in 2005. Dissident republicans were responsible for 57 shooting and 48 assault casualties in the first four years after the PIRA departure from the stage (Independent Monitoring Commission, 2010: 22). In 2009, the RIRA shot dead two British soldiers outside the Massereene Army base and the CIRA killed a police officer in Craigavon. The period March to August 2009 saw an 85 per cent increase in casualties caused by dissident republican shootings and assaults, up from 34 to 63 compared to the previous six months (Ibid: 30). Antrim, Belfast, Derry, Craigavon, Lisburn, Larne, Strabane and Limavady were the areas where the vast majority of attacks took place.

The RIRA’s 2010 New Year statement was vitriolic concerning the condemnation of its ‘gallant volunteers’ as ‘traitors to Ireland’, declaring that ‘a former comrade [Martin McGuinness] has come full circle’. Arguing that ‘the tactical use of armed struggle can and does bring results’, the RIRA threatened more of the same, insisting that ‘any young person foolish enough to join the colonial police in the belief that the leadership of the Provisional movement will protect them, or give them cover, is sadly mistaken...they [the PSNI] are the first line of defence for the British government’.

Concurrently, the 32CSM’s 2010 New Year statement insisted it would ‘give leadership to our communities ... in a disciplined approach the 32CSM will liaise directly with local communities to explore ways of reclaiming their sovereignty and, under these auspices, help them pursue their political and social objectives’. This appeared to be a thinly-veiled indication that ‘policing’ of local communities would be increased by the organisation. The previous two years saw an increase in the number of ‘punishment attacks’ carried out dissidents upon suspected local criminals, in an attempt to exert community authority and supplant the police service as custodians of communal ‘protection’.

Politically, the 32CSM is less committed to the traditionalist ‘purism’ of Republican Sinn Fein (RSF) (below), being more concerned with supporting a revived armed campaign, than with the issue of abstention from the Irish Parliament in Dublin, an issue which it regards as arcane and irrelevant to its ‘struggle’. Many 32CSM members had stayed with Sinn Fein and PIRA after 1986, when those organisations had accepted the Irish Parliament, presiding over 26 of the 32 counties on the island of Ireland. It was compromise over the status of Northern Ireland, not the Irish Republic, and the abandonment of armed struggle, which prompted their departure from Sinn Fein and the focus of the organisation is very much upon the ‘occupied North’, where the need for some tactical flexibility is recognised. The 32CSM’s 2009 Easter statement insisted:

We need to set our case against British occupation in a way that is relevant to our people’s needs today. Our aims cannot solely be the product of the past nor can they be a slave to that past. British reasons for remaining in Ireland will change according to modern British interests. Republican strategies opposing these interests must adapt accordingly.




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