By Seán Carragher*
The emergence of a “new IRA” formed by members of dissident groups have claimed they will increase their attacks against British interests in Northern Ireland; but do these violent statements hold any real threat to the peace process?
The so-called ‘Real IRA’, Derry vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs and the miriad of smaller organisations operating under the banner ‘Óglaigh na hÉireann’ have received extensive media coverage.
Commenting on the statement, Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly said this new group could not achieve a united Ireland. Kelly is a former senior IRA volunteer, who engaged in a 60-day hunger strike while imprisoned in England; he later escaped alongside 37 other IRA members in mass breakout from the “the most secure prison in Western Europe” – Long Kesh – during which he shot a prison officer in the head (the officer survived) and was later captured as part of an IRA active service unit striking against British miltiary bases in mainland Europe.
Responding to the announcement, Kelly said: “They have no strategy and their aims are as clear as mud. That is not to say that they cannot be dangerous. They have in the past killed people, the majority of whom have been from the nationalist community. However, these actions can take us nowhere. Meanwhile, they are happy to risk the lives and liberty of young, impressionable people to achieve nothing. 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.”
The point about “no community support” is important. These groups claim they have “hundreds” of active members. The reality is that they probably have around 100 members, with several hundred supporters based in the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM) and Republican Network for Unity (RNU) political groupings.
At the height of the armed struggle, Sinn Féin had electoral support and managed to win seats in the Westminster Parliament on an abstentionist policy. It also had dozens of councillors across the island. This was despite their spokespeople being banned from the airwaves and facing a concerted onslaught from British forces working hand-in-glove with loyalist death squads which left dozens of Sinn Féin activists dead.
The various dissident political groupings have also put themselves before the electorate on various occasions. The group calling itself ‘Republican Sinn Féin’ broke away from Sinn Féin in 1986. This group, along with other versions, have failed miserably. In local elections in 2009 only one of their candidates managed to get elected to any of the 2,000+ council seats across the island. Some came in with votes in single digits.
Brian Rowan, long-time security correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph and the author of four books on the conflict including How the Peace was Won summed up the capabilities of the dissident groupings ahead of the annual Easter commemorations across Ireland earlier this year: “Their actions may be deadly, but these are phoney and pointless wars – wars without purpose, and wars that are very personal.”
Rowan also pointed out a number of home truths, which these groupings will not admit publicly. They will not admit “that they cannot sustain a campaign; That they have not the weapons or wherewithal to do so; That they have not the necessary expertise, finance or support; That these are wars they know cannot be won; That they have no strategy; That they are taking lives and wasting lives in actions that look like killing for killings sake. Nor will they identify their real enemy, not the ‘Brits’ but other republicans – the vast bulk of republicans – who having fought a war and recognised a military stalemate have travelled another path.”
In 1962 the pre-split IRA called off Operation Harvest (more commonly known as the Border Campaign) when it became apparent that there was no public support for such military tactics.
These new dissident grouping should also recognise that there is no appetite for their campaign which is resulting in pointless deaths and very young people (such as John Paul Wooton, jailed for killing PSNI Contable Stepehn Carroll) spending much of their lives in prison cells.
The Provisional IRA recognised that their armed struggle was a tactic, a last resort, and always stated that once the conditions were created through which a united Ireland could be brought about peacefully, they would end their armed campaign.
In 1998 that happened with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement put in place a framework for a united Ireland; it has created cross-border bodies; it has recognised the right of people in the North to Irish citizenship; the sectarian and disgraced RUC has been replaced by the PSNI; the British military have withdrawn from the streets of Ireland; a power-sharing government is in place; the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly has been created and the Irish-language has gained official status.
The British government has stated that it has “no selfish or strategic interest” in the north of Ireland, and that once the majority wish it (in seperate elections, north and south), the north will be reunited with the rest of Ireland. More importantly it was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, north and south.
The result of the GFA has been the gradual erosion of the border. Even hardline unionists recognise this and some have even accused the British government of complicity in the goal of a united Ireland. Writing in his book Unionism Decayed the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) representative for East Belfast, David Vance, stated:
“The deal was a very simple one: in exchange for the IRA graciously ceasing to bomb the British mainland, the UK government would work hand in glove with the Irish government to deliver gradualised Irish unity. Shamefully, the British government had permitted itself to become a covert persuader for Irish unity. In many ways this is the tale of a state turning against its own people….. Any sudden constitutional change would most likely result in some form of unionist uprising…. So a more cunning plan was required, one which introduced g-r-a-d-u-a-l-i-s-m as the central engine of political change. This was the undeniable genius behind political developments going forward from this time.”
More disturbing however, is that the ‘Real IRA’ have previously admitted that their attacks were aimed at forcing British troops back onto the streets of Ireland in order to ‘smash normilisation’. One has to ask what type of republicans would actually want British troops on their streets?
Bobby Storey, the man named as head of the IRA’s Intelligence Department under parliamentary privilege in 2005 and a very senior republican who spent 20 years in prison, asked “Who is pulling the strings? Who is behind these groups? Who benefits the most from their actions?” The questions highlight the suspicion among many nationalists in the North that these groups are actually run by securocrats, aimed at undermining the peace process.
People have every right to oppose the Good Friday Agreement, politically. And democracy should ensure that such voices are not silenced. The current crop of armed dissident groups need to realise that the time for armed struggle has well and truly passed. The people of Ireland, North and South, do not want a return to war and death. Their actions will only achieve more suffering, death’s, and the imprisonment of young men and women. As Brian Rowan wrote, they are “on a hiding to nowhere”.
*The author used a pseudonym in order to protect their identity