The long war gets longer – the campaign of violent dissident republicans

Recent violent activity from dissident republicans poses real threats to Northern Ireland – which is often held-up as an exemplary case study of building sustainable peace – yet why does it persist given that it is unlikely to establish a thirty-two county republic?

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By Paul Nolan

On 27th April 2012 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) held its annual conference in Dublin. It was the first time Ireland had hosted the organisation, an intergovernmental regional security structure comprising 56 states, including all EU countries, Russia, the US and Canada.

To mark the occasion, the Irish government chose to theme the conference on the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. The title given to the event was ‘Shared Future: Building and Sustaining Peace, the Northern Ireland case study.’ Many of those who had been involved in the 1998 all-party negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement were present in order to discuss with visiting delegates how the Northern Ireland settlement could offer lessons for other divided societies. Amongst the speakers was former US Senator, George Mitchell, who chaired the Northern Ireland peace talks, and who drew on this experience when, in 2009, he was appointed United States Special Envoy for Middle East Peace by President Obama. Also present was his deputy chair during the Northern Ireland talks, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martti Ahtisaari. Welcoming the delegates, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore said: “As Chairperson-in-Office of the OSCE, I am committed to doing what I can to advance efforts to resolve ongoing conflicts in the OSCE area. By presenting the experience of achieving a peaceful political settlement in Northern Ireland, I hope we can illustrate that shared futures can be forged from seemingly intractable situations.”

That same day a curious ritual was being enacted in Northern Ireland’s second city, the place known to Catholics as Derry and to Protestants as Londonderry. In one of the city’s most socially disadvantaged housing estates, Creggan, a mother was taking her 18-year old son to an appointment with paramilitaries. He was to be shot in both legs as a punishment for drug-dealing, and the mother, in agreeing to the appointment, had accepted the rough justice laid down in the area by the Catholic paramilitary group, Republican Action Against Drugs. Speaking to the local paper she was quoted as saying: “It could have been worse. I honestly feared that he was going to be found dead having overdosed in a flat somewhere…I also believe that it was better he is shot in the legs now, than shot in the head further down the line” (Derry Journal, 30/4/2012).

In February the same paramilitary organisation had killed another young man from the city because of his alleged involvement in the drug trade, and in the previous twelve months had been responsible for dozens of other ‘knee-cappings’, and expulsions from the city. This form of paramilitary policing is not confined to Derry/Londonderry, nor is it confined to Catholic areas: fourteen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the paramilitary groups that were supposed to melt away in the new dispensation are still active on the streets in both Protestant and Catholic areas. The police statistics for 2011 show that less than four per cent of these ‘punishment beatings’, as they are known, result in a prosecution – a combination of fear and a tacit acceptance of communal retribution has halted Northern Ireland’s progress towards the criminal justice norms that are assumed in other liberal democracies.

This is only a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The success of the 1998 peace accord is still less than complete. The triumph of politics that led to the Agreement, the triumph that was presented to the OSCE delegates, was a triumph achieved on the high wire by political elites. Below that level, the two antagonistic communities, the Protestants and the Catholics, have had to struggle to emerge from a thirty year conflict and find ways to build a shared society in the schools, the workplaces and the neighbourhoods where people live out their daily lives.

And the inconvenient fact is that in post-conflict Northern Ireland there are still those for whom the conflict is not over. The activities of violent dissident republicans provoke not only a moral outrage, but also an exasperation that there are still people out there who, in the American phrase, need to get with the programme. The fact that those who continue to prosecute their war have no possibility of achieving their declared objectives ought, in the eyes of most people, be enough to make them give up. Why then do they persist?

Before answering that, it might be useful to consider the possibility that it would be more surprising if there wasn’t a continuation of paramilitary campaigns. Wars do not ever end tidily. The recent publication of Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent (2012) about Europe after the Second World War is a useful reminder that the war did not end for everyone in 1945: for years afterwards Polish, Ukrainian, Baltic and Greek partisans continued their own wars in the mountains and forests on the edge of Europe, while within the Soviet–occupied territories Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian fighters persisted with their guerrilla campaigns. In fact the last Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance fighter, Pranas Koncious, was killed in action by Soviet forces on July 6, 1965, and was eventually given posthumous recognition on 2000 when he was awarded the Cross of Vytis by the Lithuanian government.

More famous perhaps were the Japanese soldiers in the jungles of the Philippines. The last to surrender, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, gave himself up in the spring of 1974, still wary that he might be falling into a trap set by the Americans. He and his comrades had not simply been hiding from allied forces, they had continued to prosecute a military campaign, killing some 30 Filipino inhabitants of the island. In his autobiography No Surrender (1974) Onoda provides a very revealing account of how it was possible to perform an oppositional reading of all available evidence in order to reaffirm an existing worldview. Thus, after 1945 when his unit spied local people in civilian clothes going about their everyday business, they chose to interpret this as a trick, and one that entitled them to attack the impostors. Then, when the police or army rushed in after these attacks to find Onoda’s unit, it served to confirm that their original supposition had been correct: this was indeed a ruthless and cunning enemy.

Dissident republicans are also practised in making the facts fit within a set understanding of the world. Thus, the police raids that follow one of their operations, or the interrogations in police headquarters are the self-reinforcing proof that the war has not ended. It is important that the shape of that war remains within set patterns in order for it to remain recognisably the same struggle. When, in 2011, thirty years after the death of Bobby Sands, dissident prisoners began a ‘dirty protest’ in Maghaberry Prison to draw attention to their concern about strip-searching, the action also served to reinforce the idea underpinning their campaign, that the ‘long war’ announced by the Provisional IRA in 1974, was still ongoing and that the axis of the conflict, between the British state and an insurgent nationalist army, remained unchanged. In this scenario, they are not dissenting, or resiling, from the core republican narrative; rather it is Sinn Fein that has deserted the cause, and, by accepting the six county state, it is Sinn Fein who have become the dissenters. Certainly, seen against the flexiblity of Sinn Fein’s changing ideological stance, the dissidents can lay claim to a certain fixity of purpose, and to an unbroken lineage that connects them back to the earliest forms of violent republicanism.

Those who are active in the dissident organisations are fully aware that the tide of feeling is against them. Perverse as it may seem, that hostility only serves to reinforce their self-belief. When asked in a Channel 4 interview if the military campaign did not require a degree of support at the ballot box, the Republican Sinn Fein spokesperson Cait Trainor replied “Certainly not. We have a mandate stretching right back to 1798. We really don’t need the public to rubber stamp the republican movement.” (Channel 4 News, 24/9/2010). The reference to 1798 is a harking back to the first rebellion of the Irish against British rule, that led by the United Irishmen, and the core belief of Irish republicanism since that time is that history has bequeathed a duty to complete ‘the unfinished revolution’. That is the foundational belief, and is accompanied by another equally fundamental article of faith: that the republican vanguard does not require any mass support in order to act.

Republicanism has always believed that a small minority can and should act on behalf of a majority that has not yet achieved full political consciousness. The opprobrium heaped upon the dissidents can thus seem to confirm that they are acting in the same way as the Easter 1916 rebels who were booed in the streets of Dublin, or indeed in the same way as the Provisional IRA of the 1970s and 1980s who were attacked in exactly the same language as is used to describe the dissidents today. In such unpropitious circumstances, their task is simply to keep the republican flame alive.

In order to fulfil that mission the dissidents have only to succeed in a limited series of objectives. The all-island republic may lie beyond the horizon of their ambition, but a number of more short-term objectives have evolved. These are:

  • To disrupt the liberal consensus and show by regular acts of violence that the Good Friday settlement has not produced the peace that was promised.
  • To drive Catholics out of the PSNI and convert it back to a Protestant dominated force.
  • To gain legitimacy as a community police force in nationalist areas by acting against drug dealers, thieves and those involved in anti-social behaviour.
  • To agitate in contended situations, particularly during the marching season, in order to maximise adversity between nationalists and state forces, in order to maximise adversity between nationalist and state forces, and to provide leadership for militant youth.
  • To prompt over-reaction by the security forces – ideally to force a return of the British army onto the streets.
  • To build capacity to the point where a bombing campaign can be launched in England.

Working to this prospectus the dissidents have been able to maintain a presence for longer than anyone expected. It’s now 14 years since the Good Friday Agreement and their campaign continues, with very real human costs. They are unlikely however to present any real threat to the stability of the political institutions. In the language of conflict resolution theory, the dissidents can be seen as a ‘spoiler’ group ( Stedman;1991), but the results of spoiler activity can be hard to predict, and can on occasion run counter to the intentions of those trying to destabilise a peace process. Northern Ireland is a case in point, where the activities of violent groups have served to consolidate the centre, rather than to fragment it. The shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity shown by Sinn Fein, the PSNI and the DUP in the wake of the killings of the two soldiers at Massereene, or the whole island display of unity following the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr, can be seen as high points of the peace process, rather than representing any dip in its fortunes. The test of public opinion that came in the May 2011 elections showed no evidence of real support – not a single dissident won an Assembly seat, and their combined vote was less than one per cent.

There will however continue to be a problem for Sinn Fein in the republican constituencies where the ‘micro groups’, as Sinn Fein calls them, are able to bite and nip at their heels, and where some individual leaders develop a neighbourhood swagger, safe in the knowledge that mainstream republicans can no longer exact traditional republican vengeance on them. In those communities the position of the dissidents seems more like that allowed to loyalist paramilitaries in the Protestant heartlands. A certain allowance is granted to them as enforcers of neighbourhood discipline, but this does not transfer into electoral politics. The fissiparous nature of their organisations – yet another ‘new’ IRA was announced on the 26th July 2012 – and their inability to create one united political front make them appear unlikely candidates to create the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter deemed necessary for the realisation of a 32 county Irish republic.

But, if they are not going to win, it is equally sure that they will continue. Their activities bring into view the gap that now exists between the bulk of the Northern Ireland population, and those deprived nationalist communities who have not experienced any economic uplift, and who are prepared to accept paramilitary justice as a way of dealing with problems that seem to have no other solution. The republic is not in view. But neither is the end of paramilitarism.

Paul Nolan is the Research Director of the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report.

This article was originally published by Open Democracy as is available by clicking here.



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