Picture Exclusive – Table talks – first course in a dialogue with ‘dissidents’ – by Brian Rowan

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(L-R) Former ACC Peter Sheridan, Former IRA jail OC Jim McVeigh, (panel chair) Brian Rowan, RNU member Ciaran Cunningham and playwright Sam Millar. Image courtesy of Stephanie Martin


They say a picture speaks a thousand words.

And in this picture those words were sometimes tense, terse, accusatory and angry.

It is what I expected, in a moment that could be the beginning of something.

That is if people make the effort; if they are really serious about a commitment to talking.

This panel discussion, which I chaired, was hosted in the Waterfront Studio on Saturday after a matinee performance of Sam Millar’s play Brothers In Arms.

In it we witness an explosion of rage and guilt and trauma.

It is a stage performance that is a battle between two brothers – one a long-serving former prisoner who feels sold out and sold short by the peace, the other a young Sinn Fein MLA who spent just ten months in jail.

His short prison term is dismissed as “a tea break” – a caustic put down in a script that is not just about a torn family, but a fractured community and movement.

If it were a news assessment on the state of republicanism, I would say it was lopsided – leaning too much towards what we now call the dissident arguments.

But it is not news.

It is theatre – one man’s interpretation and opinion.

And, on Saturday, I told Millar that if his play achieves nothing else, the fact that it has begun a much-needed conversation and a dialogue among republicans, is a significant achievement in itself.

The playwright is a former prisoner and blanketman, and he was part of Saturday’s panel discussion.

Sitting beside him was Ciaran Cunningham of Republican Network for Unity (RNU).

In the way we now describe people, he would be a dissident – a label that neither he nor Millar would use, nor do they like it.

Cunningham served a jail term for intelligence-gathering and, more recently, was arrested at Alliance Party Headquarters during a protest about jail conditions at Maghaberry.

Justice Minister David Ford is the Alliance leader, and the protest was designed to get his attention.

In a recent interview with me, Cunningham said the righteousness of Irish politics cannot always be judged at the ballot box.

And he dismissed as naïve the charge that dissident armed actions amount to killing for the sake of killing.

Murderers kill for the sake of killing, not political activists, he told me.

On Saturday at the Waterfront he talked about revolutionary politics, about six lectures that all members of RNU are taught and about being “demonised” inside the republican community.

Brothers in Arms cast


But there was no real answer when I asked what he thought armed dissidents could achieve, that was not achieved by an IRA supplied by Libya.

Indeed there was confusion in the audience about what he wanted, with one woman suggesting he could maybe write a play to explain and express himself more clearly.

Saturday’s event was not a cosy chat.

Cunningham refused to shake hands with Peter Sheridan, the former assistant chief constable and now chief executive of the peace-building organisation Co-operation Ireland.

The one-time senior officer was part of historic talks in Downing Street in 2004 when alongside Sir Hugh Orde he met Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

And commenting after Saturday’s panel discussion, Sheridan said: “My issue is not with the views of people that are different than mine, even when they appear extreme.

“My disagreement with them [dissidents]is the killing of other people to try to achieve their aims.”

On Saturday, Sheridan sat beside Jim McVeigh – a man whose republican journey spans the war and peace.

His jail experience was not “a tea break”, but two long stretches from 1983 to 1991 and then later in 1991 to July 2000; two terms that swallowed his young adult life.

His story and journey are not reflected in the play.

McVeigh – the last IRA OC in the ‘H’ Blocks – is now Sinn Fein leader on Belfast City Council, and works with the ex-prisoners project Coiste na nlarchimi.

He described the dissidents as “micro groups” without a strategy and pointed to criminality in that world.

Cunningham responded saying he would not take moralistic lectures on crime.

And from the audience there were questions asking for the evidence that progress was being made on Sinn Fein’s United Ireland project; and a question too about the party becoming another Fianna Fail or SDLP.

The play’s director Martin Lynch told this website: “The Brothers In Arms symposium is without doubt the best symposium Green Shoot Productions has held in relation to one of our theatre productions.

“The lively but honest contributions from our panellists engendered huge discussion and debate among the audience,” he continued.

And he said interest in the discussion was evidenced in the fact “that the vast majority of the matinee audience, who had earlier given the play a standing ovation, stayed behind for the debate”.

But what next?

Saturday was only a beginning to a dialogue, and it is now up to others to make sure it continues.

There is a huge agenda to discuss – and not just the continuing armed actions.

There is the alleged criminality of some of those at play in that dissident world, and the role of agents.

Republicans also need to change how they talk at each other, the offensive language used by both – dissident and mainstream – to dismiss and demonise the other.

Then there is the issue of ex-prisoners and their needs, and how republicans of all labels and descriptions can help each other.

And there is also the task of making policing better, which includes the challenge of removing the need or excuse for continuing intelligence operations by MI5.

In the Brothers In Arms programme I wrote: “There is nothing wrong with dissent if it is a difference of opinion.

“But there is nothing right about a resort to violence.”

If the talking continues, if it can be expanded to include others, then it may get to a point where people can be persuaded that words speak much louder than bullets.

There were many who dismissed and demonised John Hume when he began his talks with Gerry Adams, but look at what they achieved.

And now the challenge is for republicans to speak to each other – to make that dialogue happen, to come into the same room.

If they are serious, then they need to prove it.

So, let the real talking begin.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie


  1. .This for me, as a non armed republican, this is the natural course of dabate.Michale Hall through the Facet booklets has been hosting a number of print debates, between republicans in transition. I congratulate the panel for not shying away from the examination of present day Republican tactics. We all need to use this space, to afford republicanisms as an ideological position to be respected in all forms.

  2. Peter Sheridan on

    This was a useful start to some of the unresolved issues in republicianism.  While there clearly was a tension and a differing of views the dialogue waas open and for the most part people treated each other with respect – that gives us a platform for future possibilities.  For me the question is what next?  Who takes this forward? How do we ensure that this is not allowed to wither on the vine?

    • Peter – I know there is radio interest in a follow-up to the debate tomorrow. But I suppose the real challenge now is how you take the discussion off-stage into a private dialogue. Who has the credibility to step in and facilitate talks? And how many in that fractured world we now call “dissident republicanism” would be prepared to come to the table? I agree entirely with you that Saturday’s event was a useful start. The bigger challenge now is for others to create a momentum and an agenda that puts all the unfinished republican business on the table, and then let’s see who has the courage to step into the room.

    • Peter,i think people need to be carefull on this, especially yourself. this conversation requires no distractions, it has already been attacked due your presents on the platform.on a personal level i think this was a bad move.
      Republicans from SF and other Republican groups have shared the debating platform on a range of issues over this past year. some time its the  messenger and not the message that causes rejection.

  3. Harold Good (Rev) on

    Very impressed and encouraged by what I hear of this event.
    ‘Well done’ to all those who agreed to share that table and what I would hope was the beginning of an ongoing and honest conversation – wherever it takes us.   Hopefully to a place of mutual understanding, respect and agreement on the best way forward for all the people on the island of Ireland.  With an ultimate solution which is neither secured nor sustained through further violence from any quarter.   For my own personal thoughts on the necessity and value of ‘dialogue’ read my article in the September 2010 edition of ‘Fortnight’ magazine. And I am by no means alone in what I have written.  There is a large and thoughtful section of our community who would encourage you. For a meaningful and lasting peace we must do all we can to include rather than exclude each other. Don’t let our bloody history repeat itself.  Please keep talking !

  4. Brian
    just want to thank you for last Saturday. It was tense to say the least, but fair play to all those involved (excluding me) for having the courage to sit at the table. Once again, a big thank you for getting this off the ground. 

  5. To echo some of the comments that have been made re the recent talk – I too was encouraged by what I heard.
    ‘The Current State of Republicanism and the implications
    for society at large’ at the Waterfront was indeed useful but only scratched the surface. My colleague and CEO were among those making honest assessments and observations linked to this
    pertinent discussion. Barney Rowan chaired the panel interactions and
    exchanges which were all honest from the various perspectives represented. I
    felt that Ciaran Cunningham from the Republican Network for Unity made
    some insightful and challenging remarks. The audience gathered in the
    Studio also played their part for what was a beneficial gathering. I
    very much look forward to future engagements – these conversations are very important and require openness and honesty from all participants willing to engage.