Dissidents on a hiding to nothing

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In the coming days the different dissident republican groups will have something to say about their wars.

They will use Easter to present themselves as more right than those republicans who have now chosen peace and politics after many decades of “armed struggle”.

And, in a few days’ time, when the words of the dissidents are spoken they then need to be dissected and challenged.

Their actions may be deadly, but these are phoney and pointless wars – wars without purpose, and wars that are very personal.

In between the dissident and mainstream blocks there is another group of sit-on-the-fence republicans, those who say they do not condone armed actions, but who refuse to condemn them.

They are cowards of the very worst kind.

Armed struggle is about taking life. You either support it or you don’t.

And it is too serious to be part of some contradictory word play or puzzle.

Beyond the tragedy and the pointlessness of the killing of police constable Stephen Carroll, there is another tragedy.

That one of those jailed for that killing was just seventeen when it happened, and only two years old at the time of the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

Who recruited John Paul Wootton into that dissident world, and why?

For what was he told he was fighting, and who told him?

And as Wootton now faces long years of his young life in jail, where is that person who lured him into this world and these pathetic wars?

To whom is that person accountable or answerable?

Over Easter there will be much erased or omitted from the various dissident scripts – whether Real IRA, Continuity IRA, Oglaigh na hEireann, 32-County Sovereignty Movement, Republican Sinn Fein, Republican Network for Unity and those who have others labels or titles in this scattered world.

We will not be told.

– 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.

How serious is the dissident war when, at the turn of this year, the faction Oglaigh na hEireann played cat-and-mouse with visiting soldiers over several days before placing a device inside one of their cars – a bomb that was later discovered.

During the IRA war, those soldiers would have been shot on the spot, they would not have survived.

The pattern of dissident activity remains the odd “successful” attack, but much more often devices fail to detonate, are not detonated, are abandoned or only partially explode.

Is it technical incompetence or something else?

They may speak big over the Easter period, but there will be no winners in any of these dissident wars – only losers.

PSNI officers Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr have lost their lives, but the targeting of police is to distract from the real enemy – Adams-McGuinness and the Sinn Fein peace strategy.

The dissidents would be much more honest with themselves if they told the truth this Easter.

Their wars are about personal grudges, a hatred of the Sinn Fein leadership and killing to try to stay relevant.

MI5 with all its “spookery” and intelligence gadgetry is not best placed to push the armed dissidents off the stage.

It is a piece of work for the republican/nationalist/Catholic community – to demonstrate not just a condemnation of these occasional armed actions but an intolerance of them.

Dissidents are entitled to have a different opinion.

And there should be a place for that second voice in the republican community, and it should be heard.

But it is being drowned out by those who want to play and practice in these pathetic, pointless and personal wars; being drowned out by those who no doubt will try to kill again.

Inside Maghaberry Jail, John Paul Wootton will have many years to consider how much closer Ireland is to being united, and to ask himself, has he done anything to force the ‘Brits’ out?

His is a story of a young man used in a phoney war.



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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. Stephen Blacker on

    This article is all too true, it is such a shame that some people feel the need to murder & destroy to make an argument / grievance heard. It is very easy to manipulate young minds especially when those young people are being told about all the negative issues from our past.

    I remember when Martin McGuinness stood with Peter Robinson and Sir Hugh Orde and called people in these groups “Traitors” which was very powerful stuff but before and since that statement Sinn Fein members continue to praise and honour the actions and deeds of the PIRA, something that must confuse those same people intent on carrying on “The War”. Society must give credit to the republican / nationalist / Catholic community for their rejection of the actions of dissident republican groups but for as long as that community continue to “hero worship” PIRA actions young people like Mr. J. P. Wootton will emerge incessantly, angry, defiant and ready to murder.

    The Peace Process in Northern Ireland still has a long way to go and a lot more than dissidents need to tell the truth during the ceremonies over Easter with the unionist community holding their hands up to admit Northern Ireland was governed disgracefully from its inception.

    • Hi Stephen – I’ll be interested in what Declan Kearney has to say in Belfast this Sunday as a next page turn after his recent article in An Phoblacht on reconciliation. That piece as you know started quite a discussion on this website, and a number of significant figures in the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community have made significant contributions to that debate. The missing voice has been that of political unionism, and maybe in your closing thought you’ve hit the nail on the head about what they fear this next phase of the peace process will ask of them. Keep posting.

      • Jackiemcdonald on

        We are well used to hearing Republican Speeches at this time of year and nothing any micro group may say is going to make any difference to members of the PUL community,it’s only talk for talks sake. These groups will have to wake up and realise they have no reason to exist other than try to justify their criminal activity. The PUL communities have withstood and survived the very best and worst of PIRA,INLA and ORM violence and they certainly will never feel threatened or intimidated by Republican criminals. They may be seen as a threat to individual members of the security forces or to business premises but not in any way a threat to the Peace Process. There are many people on both sides of the divide engaging in conversations and debates about the past and how best to deal with it and it’s near time these micro groups or at least members of them joined in the dialogue. If they believe they have a genuine argument or case to present then they should have the courage to engage with those already doing so.

        • Jackie – I don’t think you can throw a criminal blanket over all of those labelled dissident. Of course, there are those whose involvement in these organisations is about self-interest and self-gain. And there are many similar figures on the loyalist side. I do agree their “wars” will achieve nothing and do not pose a threat to the peace process. Talking is the way to work these things out, but first of all the dissident organisations have to be honest with themselves. They know these continuing armed actions will achieve nothing, they know they are recruiting young people into war plays they don’t understand, and they know that these activities will not force the “Brits” out or change political agreements. That is why I write about phoney, pointless and pathetic wars. The dissidents may try to talk big this Easter, but the speech of most interest and importance will be the one given by Sinn Fein’s national chair Declan Kearney in Belfast. People will want to hear how he builds on his recent article in An Phoblacht.

          • Jackiemcdonald on

            I suppose you’re right when you say about throwing a blanket over all Dissident groups Brian,that was my initial reaction after talking to and listening to a few young loyalists the other night and that would certainly be their assessment/belief. Whatever their motivation tho the end result is usually the same,attacks on individuals or premises and of course the peace process itself. Their threatening speeches wont have any impact on those who have heard it all before and it will be interesting to hear what Declan Kearney has to say and the reaction from his own community.

          • Jackie – we see in a speech by Martin McGuinness earlier this week how the republican leadership is starting to join up its language – the McGuinness speech touching on the themes of new conversations and reconciliation that are at the heart of the Declan Kearney article in An Phoblacht. There was a paragraph in the McGuinness speech that jumped out. He said:
            “Republicans realise that dealing with the past will not be an easy process for us – republicans inflicted much hurt during the conflict, and hurt was inflicted upon republicans – but if we are to build a new future it is necessary [to deal with the past] and it is a road that I am not afraid to go down.”
            There is a challenge here for political unionists – to take Martin McGuinness down this road. That, of course, means they also have to step onto that path, and answer the many questions that will be asked of them. Let’s see how they respond and if they have  the courage to take those steps? I wrote in the Belfast Telegraph today that this is a conversation for everyone – that is if they want it to work. I’ve some Easter homework for you and for Peter Sheridan. I’d like to hear as part of this debate what loyalists and the security/intelligence community can bring to this conversation. Maybe Frankie Gallagher, who has been posting elsewhere on the website on this debate,may have something more to say on the above. It’s time also to hear from our host Eamonn Mallie – on how he sees things developing.

          • Jackiemcdonald on

            That’s not a journey that anyone can set out on unless they are totally committed to completing it,and one that no group,Political Party or Paramilitary Organisation should attempt to travel alone. It’s a minefield and there would almost certainly be casualties along the way,what effect could that have on the Peace Process? There can be no half truths or cover up on such a journey and even then who would believe who,or should I say who wouldn’t believe who,no matter what they said. Either we all accept that it’s a worthwhile process and we are prepared to enter into it in the right spirit or we forget about it. We can’t cherry pick the bits we want to believe,the people we will believe or the group/0rganisations some will never believe. It would be a very dangerous journey and I can’t see all those involved in the conflict putting on their hiking boots and haversacks and turning up at any agreed rendezvous point.

          • Jackie/Peter – I was at MIlltown Cemetery yesterday to hear Declan Kearney’s speech. And in today’s Belfast Telegraph, I write: “While this republican occasion was about remembering their dead, there was no romancing the war.”
            I also wrote that with every marching step they take, mainstream republicans “walk further away from their “war” and further into the developing peace.”In Declan Kearney’s words you heard confirmation that the armed campaign is finished, and he had a message for dissidents: “Make no mistake, there is no other IRA, here in Belfast or anywhere else and there is no armed struggle to be finished.”But the big theme in this speech was reconciliation and trying to heal the hurts of the conflict.Kearney said:”Unionists have been hurt by the war, and so too have republicans. WB Yeats wrote that too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. Republicans have endured many sacrifices indeed, but our hearts have never turned to stone. The war changed our lives, but not our humanity. We share this place with the unionist and Protestant people and we also share a collective humanity with them.”He again spoke of the need for an “authentic” reconciliation process, and added: “But authentic reconciliation is not a one-way street. Republicans and unionists are partners in government. We should also become partners in reconciliation.”My sense of this is that republicans are trying to move the process to its next phase – that of addressing the past.And writing elsewhere on this website, I think Rev Harold Good captures both the potential and the challenge in this. He described it as “one of, if not the most important conversations we could have within this post conflict period of our peace process”. And he also wrote:”To accept our own responsibility is to challenge the other about theirs.”There’s something to think about.  

          • Frankie_Gallagher on

            Brian, there is no doubt that we as a society are moving into a period of healing. Its the natural progression of political stability and social cohesion proven in every conflict around the world, so its not rocket science. It also is not another ‘Republican plot’ to move us one more inch closer to a united Ireland. Irish republican’s know they must deal with this issue, you can see them preparing the ground through Declan kearny’s statements and actions, right down to the timing of those actions and where they are muted. They know that if it isn’t dealt with they will be left to deal with its mess. They are not prepared to do that.

            But as I was reading your comments I reflected on Peter Drucker statement that  ‘Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility,’ and then I thought of George Bernard Shaw’s quote, Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. Is our political leaders dreading entering into a process of healing, scared of another Republican plot? I don’t know but one thing I do know is that this conversation is going to continue with Unionists at different levels and if its without political Unionism it will severely limit the positive impact of dealing with the past and leave our communities doomed to repeat the mistakes of that past. Meanwhile the Republican community will have taken another step, as you rightly stated in your response, “with every marching step they take, mainstream Republicans walk further away from their ‘war’ and further into the developing peace.” We as Unionists will claim they are getting everything what benefit are we getting, left behind again? but who’s responsibility is it to move us on into that developing peace?

            Rank does not confer privilege or give power, it is our political leaders responsibility to deal with this conversation not the individual citizen. If they don’t we will be left behind again. So I sincerely hope that political Unionism moves to make this process of healing begin to happen sooner rather than later and they don’t leave it up to the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). I would like our community to march further away from our ‘war’ and further into the developing peace. 

            Is that not what we all deserve? 

            Is that not what we all want? 

            Why can we not have it? 

            Who is responsible for making it happen?

            Loyalist paramilitaries?

            ??? ??? ???

            Lest we forget.

          • Jackiemcdonald on

            There’s a lot in what Frankie and Harold Good says Barney,up to and at a certain level within our Communities there is a recognition that we need to move forward and share the future in Northern Ireland,remembering the past but not letting it dictate our future. What frustrates me is when I hear young people who have none of our experience or memories of the conflict talk about protest marches to Stormont to get Sinn Fein out of Government or simply to return to war,there is a serious problem that needs addressing. I’m not condemning all young people,I try to understand them and the reasons why they feel the way they do,I talk and listen to as many as I can but there is still a big problem ahead of us if we don’t make a serious attempt to interact with and reason with them. Many are old enough to vote yet don’t realise the need to and that Sinn Fein are Democratically elected because many young Republicans have exercised their right to do so,there is a massive job of work to be done in this area within the PUL community. I see what INTERNET WORRIORS write on Social Websites,but bombs don’t explode on Facebook,nobody gets shot or murdered or goes to prison,there is no reality or consequence on the Web. Frankies right about Rank,it’s a serious responsibility and has no comfort zones,certainly not at this stage in the Peace Process,anyone with authority or influence should be using it for the good of all in the loyalist community. There is no place for the Populist at times like these,positive thinking and accepting/understanding the fears and apprehensions of those in our Cummunities,especially the young, is required from those who have earned respect in recent years. Talking is very important,getting people to understand what is being said and encouraging them to join in the conversation is the challenge to those who already appreciate it.

          • Peter Sheridan on

            I think Barney your piece points up the challenges and the dilemmas that lie ahead in developing the discussion that comes from both Declan Kearneys opinion piece and Martin McGuinesses speech earlier this week.  Easter speeches may give us further clues to current thinking.  I said at the very beginning of this debate that people either tend to take the position of either welcoming the comments or that they distrust the motives behind the comments and therefore rubbish them. Maya Angelou, poet, educator, historian, best selling author, playwright and civil rights activist said that ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’ From my perspective I think the thoughts and observations from both Martin and Declan are perhaps the beginnings of a conversation on how all of us in these islands begin to remove that agony.  We know that the legacy of our past acts to slow us down in getting to a much better future quicker.  I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to play our part in the current  conversation.  If as some believe that this is a ruse by Sinn Fein then in genuine dialogue it will be outed – for my part I believe that engagement in the debate is much more likely to help all of us get beyond that past. 

  2. There is a palpable yearning now coming through in republican and loyalist communities in Northern Ireland for cross community interfacing and dialoguing. 

    Men and women who historically faced each other in the heat of battle are currently getting to know each other. What distinguishes this dénouement is the fact that the participants in this conversation have not the golf course or Ravenhill in common. Those pushing for bridge building between the two communities are residents living in many broken and rundown environs. These neighbourhoods  are a legacy of the worst excesses of the Troubles. It should be said, in some cases, these withering streets are a result of self  inflicted damage and destruction. 

    That said, if these fractured communities are to be rescued from further despair educationally, socially and economically the ‘nowness’ of the goodwill obtaining on a cross-community basis ought to be urgently  espoused and given shape and direction. 

    A template to end IRA/Loyalist violence was forged on the anvil of hope by our collective genius in this islands. We are only so far down the highway to a complete peace. The big  healing has yet to take place. The push to realise this is coming from the ground. It is homegrown. The manifestation of this is perfectly visible in the many serious contributions here on eamonnmallie.com 

    Dozens of grassroots people have engaged in a debate about reconciliation and dealing with the past arising from an article on this subject by Declan Kearney in An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin’s political organ.

    People identified with all manifestations of historic violence have joined the debate on this website along with commentators like Brian Rowan and Alex.Kane.  Academics, thinkers and clergy like Harold Good and Presbyterian minister Lesley Carroll , many of whom played a courageous part in bringing about the silencing of the guns,  are again engaged in this broadly based dialogue. 

    What is worrying is the fact that mainstream nationalism and unionism are remaining aloof. Why is this ?  A start would be the presence of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness walking the streets of such districts together. 

    What is it about members of Northern Ireland’s Executive who continue to remain visibly detached from these working class areas? These ministers are habitually seen on the red carpet but the real battleground is worlds away from the red carpet. 

    Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness should dedicate a number of weeks to walking about in these  broken communities sowing seeds of hope. They should not underestimate the yearning for acknowledgement and recognition within these impoverished communities. A little hope will go a long way. In other words join up the dots. Many people involved in historical violence in both communities are showing cross community leadership. They are contributing bravely to addressing the past. They need help. This opportunity should not be missed. 

  3. Stephen Blacker on

    Barney – My first post commented on the praising of the PIRA actions and deeds by Sinn Fein members and this I stand by but I also must admit that the longer Sinn Fein have been locked into non violent politics the more impressive they have become. The way Martin McGuinness conducts himself when he pushes for business investment for us in America or opens £90m projects in belfast or makes thought provoking speeches like the one you highlighted above leaves people, especially young people, having to pinch themselves to remind them that Martin was involved at the highest level of the PIRA – remarkable to say the least.
    The republican leadership seem to be moving at a faster pace than unionists and the security / intelligence community in trying to move our Peace Process further down the towards the finishing line. It will be very difficult to cast this Process in stone because there are so many people who have not even started that journey and when a seasoned campaigner like Jackie McDonald finds himself stereotyping all dissidents because of a chat he had with some young loyalists it shows that others will find the Peace Process almost impossible. Of course Jackie understood your reply Barney but loads of others will take a lot longer or never understand.
    The Declan Kearney article in An Phoblacht has really helped to move the conversation on and the longer  Protestant / unionist / loyalist / republican / nationalist / Catholic & security / intelligence communities talk and interact the more isolated and irrelevant all dissidents will become.

    • Stephen Blacker on

      Sorry – dont know what happened here?? This comment should have been a reply to Barney Rowan just before Peter Sheridan’s post 2 days ago!

  4. This is an important debate. The speeches made over these last few days have made it clear that Sinn Fein takes no ownership of the dissident groups and sees no advantage in the tactics they employ. It is worth remembering, I think, and noting that Republicanism is not nor never has been a monolith and there have always been separatist groups. But this time they are tolerated by so few and seen to offer so little that the likelihood of their gaining widespread support is limited. At the same time as making feelings clear about dissidents there has been a theme recurring across the speeches which has to do with engagement and moving things on and this as a responsible part of the Republican agenda. It is worth checking out Martin McGuinness’s speech made at Donegal in which he says that Republicans have responsibilities as they pursue the future they seek for Ireland and this includes:
    engaging in positive and active dialogue with unionists and demonstrating to them, not just by our words but by our deeds, that equality means equality for all – not just for nationalists and republicans but for all those who share this island.

    Declan Kearney’s speech was the one we were all waiting for. I was waiting too and on getting the first elements of that speech I quickly reflected the following:

    At a human level we all know how hard it is to break a pattern of relationship, even patterns that are the worst kind with desperate consequences for those involved. To learn to side-step the old emotions and to check intuitive reactions is a challenge indeed. So it is refreshing to hear that there is a way for history not to repeat itself:We can stop history repeating itself by leading on the priority for an inclusive reconciliation process, in which all sections of our society listen and engage unconditionally with each another, and on the basis of equality and mutual respect.So spoke Declan Kearney today in Milltown Cemetery as Republicans gathered to remember 1916. History need not repeat itself but there are some movements in relationship that are needed if history is to be set on a different course.The first movement is listening. How often do we fail at this first movement because we intuitively react to what we are hearing and are hit by the old emotions feeling that our old enemy is justifying themselves? So to help the listening the speaking has to take account of how to communicate with the other. From the beginning this is a two-way process, locking suspicious people together as they begin a new struggle. So the first movement of listening also requires a careful movement of speaking if we are to get beyond the first stage.The second movement is engagement. Kearney expresses this movement as ‘engage unconditionally’. What precisely does that mean? Almost as soon as the word unconditional comes out of a Republican mouth a Unionist moral backbone has straightened and is worried that this means accepting that some things which should not have been done were tolerable if not acceptable in the context as set out by Republicans in their particular analysis of the conflict. So to be unconditional to the Unionist mind actually becomes a condition and the condition is to accept a Republican analysis. If that is what Kearney means then already the project has failed. I would suggest that there is another way to interpret this.For those who were engaged in the struggle the particular analysis which was brought to the table and which engaged hearts and minds in a Republican outlook was dependent on there being some justification for the struggle. It was not enough that there was a romantic desire for an Ireland free, although that functions for some. The analysis had to contain elements of belief which urged an Ireland which would be better off economically and socially if it were united, not divided. So it was essential to prove that there was discrimination against the Catholic people in order to paint a picture of a better reality in which Catholics could enjoy the same economic and social benefits as Protestants. Having proven that, the struggle was justified. That internal analysis shored up Republicans as they engaged in violence against their neighbours who have never fully understood how Republicans understood themselves. Unionists have not often been able to accept that the analysis out of which the struggle was born was one that justified the struggle and it was a firm justification in Republican minds. There was no dithering but clear choice by people who had jobs and prospects to join the struggle. It was about freeing your own people and giving them a position through the structures of society which enabled them to access power and then legislate justly. It was an analysis which incorporated a vision for people able to achieve their full potential and be recognised by society. So the ideology was a fair one in the Republican mind and this is what Unionists have not yet fully understood, it seems to me.So when Kearney asks for people to ‘engage unconditionally’ he is asking for an openness in the approach to dialogue – an openness that accepts there is an analysis which makes it possible to justify the struggle. That doesn’t mean that anyone has to fully embrace the analysis or even partly embrace it. It doesn’t mean that people have to no longer be critical of the analysis but it does mean that when Republicans begin to talk about what they did and why they did it the first response of Unionists is not condemnation but listening and unpacking what is being said in an attempt to get it all out on the table so that it can be viewed from every angle. The listening and engaging may be tight-lipped but the willingness to view the story from every angle is where the critical engagement takes place and that’s why it all needs to be told. Equality and mutual respect are of the same order. Equality is about giving the story equal space to be heard and mutual respect is about a human quality which acknowledges everyones right to choose to be and do what they are and have done. Mutual respect is not, though, it has to be said, about mutually respecting everything that each other did.Kearney is calling for a new quality of relationship which opens up new space to listen, to speak and then hear. It is on this that he pins the hope that history will not repeat itself. It is this new space that will be a place of transformation where a different and unique kind of history can begin to be written.It is worth asking what is in this for Unionism. Unionists have important things to say which they feel have never been heard. Those things are related to the injustices of the violence against them and the effects on their community identity and infrastructure. They have to do with covert, disciplined, what are seen as excessive campaigns of purging from border areas and they have to do with not being permitted to speak these out as new institutions were put in place. The Kearney call has to equally apply to Unionists – they have to be listened to in a way which allows them to put it all out on the table without judgement and dismissal being the first response. So how Unionist’s speak in the first movement of the new relating is every bit as important as how Republicans speak and how Republicans listen is every bit as important as how Unionists listen. There is an opportunity for Unionists here and it is one not to missed. What it offers is the possibility of truly opening up the complex dynamics of success and failure, domination and submission. What this offers is a way to continue to be Unionist rather than to be squeezed off the stage altogether and merged with a history long-past which is re-enacted sometimes on a daily basis but nothing more than a re-enactment of that which is past. So this invitation offers Unionism a n unusual opportunity for dynamism within the context of today’s politics.The task ahead is mammoth, I have no doubt about that. But it is a task that has to be faced if we are to side–step into a new history. So far the past is ever before us and it’s time it was behind us. Here is an offer of an opportunity that should not be refused.

  5. Patrick Fahy on

     The onus is on everyone to contribute to the shape of the new Ireland which is unfolding before our eyes. We can make it a country where sectarian division is no longer relevant and where genuine community relationships can flourish. Those, on whatever side of the poltical divide,who choose not to play their part, will be in no position to complain if they do not make their voices heard. Sinn  Fein is providing political leadership on the nationalist/ republican side, despite opposition to their position from a small section of that community.Those republicans who disagree with the Sinn Fein should be prepared to engage in constructive debate; that has not happened. People from the Protestant/Unionist community should also have a means of letting us know their views on what future political structures should look like. With a few honourable exceptions drawn largely from the representatives of  what were loyalist activists and from Protestant church figures, there has been no contribution to the debate from the voices of political unionism. Do they not have any views, or are they too interested in preserving their own political skins?