Dissent – The Dissidents – and the need for Dialogue

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The story of the latest developments in the dissident republican world came with big headlines.

There was a statement announcing a new coalition of the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a number of “unaffiliated” dissidents, who up to this point had stayed outside the organisational structures.

So, what we have is a knitting together of different strands to make what is being billed as a new ‘IRA’ – and yet another IRA.

There is an obvious concern and fear; that after the words, there is now the possibility of some violent act to announce their arrival; some act of killing to back up those words and to somehow make them relevant.

The statement from this coalition reads big.

It explains the “necessity of armed struggle in pursuit of Irish freedom” and tells how it can be avoided.

Britain’s “armed militias” must be dismantled; so too its “political interference in our country”, and there should be an “internationally observed timescale” within which these things would happen.

I wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the dissidents have neither the military firepower nor the strategic brainpower to force those objectives.

Their statement is a combination of unrealistic demands; easily committed to words and paper, but impossible to make happen in any new war.

The military stalemate was long ago accepted; accepted by the IRA armed by Libya, and accepted by the Army Generals on the British side.

That moment was neither victory nor defeat, but it opened up a path to ceasefires, decommissioning, demilitarisation, prisoner releases, the end of the RUC, new policing, troop withdrawals, the ending of armed campaigns and new political arrangements.

A united Ireland is only achievable if unionists can be persuaded.

It will not be forced by threat, by occasional killings or by dissident coalitions presenting menacing statements or posing behind balaclavas.

Those days are long gone.

Just weeks before this new ‘IRA’ announcement, an intelligence source had spoken to me about what they were hearing in their monitoring and surveillance of that dissident world.

He described it as a “drumbeat”; self-doubt encapsulated in the question: “Is this [armed activity]getting us anywhere?”

“Since [the murder of]Ronan Kerr there’s been a bit more of it,” the source said, meaning more questioning about the worth of those armed actions.

The dissidents, whether in separate units or acting as a coalition, know the answer to their question – know that it is achieving nothing.

It is a war without purpose; something I have previously described on this website as phoney, pointless and pathetic.

It is killing for killing sake, and it cannot be dressed up in a cause or in some war objective, because those leading the dissidents know that objective is not achievable.

They must also know, to quote that intelligence source again, that violence is “the greatest inhibitor to a united Ireland”.

That source also believes there are those among the dissidents who can’t or won’t go away.

“This [conflict/war] is a missing part of their life,” the intelligence source commented –“their status/kudos,” he added.

The make-up and leadership of this new coalition are open secrets – known across the republican community and to the intelligence/security agencies.

So, there are no mysteries attaching to this latest realignment.

The different dissident bits already presented a threat assessed as being severe, and that threat is a capacity to kill, not to sustain or win a war.

A dialogue is now needed to discuss all of the above, a conversation among republicans, and if dissidents won’t come to the conversation, then that conversation needs to go to them – to their doorsteps if necessary.

It has to be face-to-face and toe-to-toe with the leaders of this new coalition and with those others who stand outside it, but who still believe in armed struggle.

This is not just the responsibility of political leaders in Sinn Fein.

It is for everyone of influence in the Catholic/nationalist/republican communities – north and south – and it is for the people.

They cannot stand back and expect this to be sorted out by others.

Dissidents must understand and be told there is no room, no support, no cover for armed actions.

That message needs to be delivered by numbers of people and to their faces.

Yes, there is space for a second opinion and a different opinion that speaks against the Sinn Fein strategy, and there must be room in which all of that is presented and heard.

There is also a task for and a contribution to be made by others.

The Orange Order needs to be told, and needs to understand, how some of its marches and some of the antics of the bands play to a dissident agenda.

They need to walk away from Ardoyne, not in some forced climb down, but in an act of leadership.

That march, that turmoil, that stage for confrontation makes a playground for the dissidents.

It forces the police to present themselves in combative style, and that is used to argue that nothing has changed.

That stretch of road needs to be neutral – no marches, no protests and therefore no need for those big policing operations.

There is also a discussion to be had about MI5, about its presence and role in the peace.

Dissidents need to understand that if there is no violent threat to so-called National Security, then there is no reason/excuse for that Security Service presence.

The past – all its questions and all its issues – need to be seriously addressed, and in a process that is not led by Secretary of State Owen Paterson, but an international team working with all parties to the conflict, including governments.

It is time to talk; before it is too late and before someone else is killed, and we all ask: How, why, did that happen?



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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. AN UPDATE: Earlier today the PSNI  gave details of an attack on a police vehicle in west Belfast in the early hours of last Friday morning. The vehicle was struck by a bullet, in what the faction Oglaigh na hEireann has described as a sniper and mortar attack on the patrol. 
    Up to this point, the police have no information to confirm a mortar was fired.
    Oglaigh na hEireann has not joined the dissident coalition that announced itself in a series of statements last week – presenting itself as a new IRA.
    A PSNI source, speaking to me since the publication of the above Blog, said the only surprising thing about that development was its timing – that the statement wasn’t pegged to some attack or incident. He asked therefore was the statement “previewing something”.
    This remains the immediate concern, that an attack may be attempted to give relevance to last week’s words. 

  2. Barney’s
    piece is a timely reminder to us all that we can’t remain complacent and take
    our peace and political processes for granted. 
    The obstinacy of the Orange Order, manifested in their refusal to
    directly engage in meaningful dialogue with their Nationalist neighbours, has
    bestowed an issue, a platform and a means of empowerment to anti-peace process


    As a
    consequence the PSNI are sucked into a no-win scenario, with potential for friction
    and confrontation with the younger generation, yielding negative experiences
    and perceptions for our new policing dispensation.  This is set against a backdrop of the
    reinforcement of sectarian attitudes and mindsets and the introduction of
    another generation to this toxic mix.


    We are all
    losers in this scenario.  Our political and
    policing institutions are undermined and damaged, as is any attempt to project
    a fresh positive image of our society, to an international audience, so
    essential to our economic recovery.


    By contrast,
    the extremes from both traditions take centre stage, energised by the media
    focus while preparing  for other
    inevitable opportunities.  The focus will
    switch from Ardoyne to Derry on Apprentice Day, then into Rasharkin for the
    band parade on the 17th August. 
    The stage and players may change but negative intent will remain.


    underlying issues must be addressed not only by our politicians but also by everyone
    with a stake in our society and our civic, business and religious leaders.  The stakes are too high.  Indifference is not an option.


    Sean Murray

    3rd August 2012

    • Eamonn Mallie on

      In a number of postings on my Face Book pages former Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker John Alderdice challenges Republican Sean Murray about his charge that the Orange Order has not been engaging with nationalists. Do check this out and feel free to join the discussion on eamonnmallie.com.  We want to deepen and widen this whole debate on “difficult conversations.”

  3. I agree with Sean that everyone has their part to play and that it is unfair and highly dangerous to leave it to the PSNI to handle such inflammatory situations.  However I feel that in the interests of fair discussion I should point out that Sean is not correct when he says that the Orange Order has not been prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue with local nationalist residents. There have been serious and ‘official’ engagements. For example, in the discussions that Fr Gary Donegan, Rev Norman Hamilton and I had in North Belfast about the Ardoyne situation, the Orange Order did mandate a senior local figure to engage with the local nationalist residents and he attended all meetings and participated. In answer to the question from local residents about why the Grand Lodge did not engage he made clear that the Orange Order operated on an entirely devolved basis and so always left it to the local lodges. There are other instances where to my certain knowledge worthwhile engagement has taken place and a positive outcome ensued.  Of course it is clear that the simple proposition of meaningful engagement does not of itself guarantee a successful outcome, but it is important to acknowledge when engagement has taken place and not simply restate, as a number of people have done in recent weeks, that the Orange Order refuses to engage.  It is not the case in all circumstances.

    • John – there’s a piece by Newton Emerson in the Sunday Times under the heading: DUP leaders must stop the march to dissident disaster.
      I think there is a new challenge for the Orange Order – the challenge to walk away from Ardoyne, not in some forced climb down, but in a demonstration of leadership.
      I recently described the images of that parading, protesting and policing mess in north Belfast as warts on the face of the peace process.
      I agree entirely with you that when there has been dialogue it should be acknowledged – but any talking now should be about turning that stretch of road into a neutral area; no parades, no protests and therefore no need for those operations that so undermine new policing.

    • John appears to completely miss the point I was making with regard to the Orange Order not ‘directly’ engaging with local residents groups.  He refers to the recent talks around the Ardoyne parades.  They involved CARA (the local residents group), who organise and file for the related protest.  The North & West Belfast Parades & Cultural Forum (a group of Loyalists and individual Loyal Order members) who also engaged in these talks do not organise or file for these parades.  The Orange Order have that responsibility.  Despite repeated requests from residents groups in Ardoyne, the Springfield Road and Rasharkin, three of the key outstanding contentious parades the Loyal Orders still refuse to ‘directly’ engage with them.
      John states correctly that it is important to acknowledge engagement by the Orange Order, which i have highlighted in the media, when it did happen ‘directly’ in the face to face discussions between the Orange Order and local residents in Crumlin on the 11th of July this year.  The outcome was both positive and encouraging, hence my comments on the benefits and imperative of direct engagement.
      But John it is also important to acknowledge where direct engagement has not happened because of the obstinacy off the Orange Order.

      • Sean and John – What is clear is the need for a number of discussions to take place: 
        1/ Within the republican/nationalist community – a direct engagement with those labelled ‘dissident’. If necessary that dialogue needs to happen on their doorsteps. They should not be allowed to avoid the conversation. This is a community responsibility as much as it is a political responsibility. The message that rejects armed actions needs to be delivered in numbers and sooner rather than later. It is not good enough to say we have asked for talks. It is time to have them. Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the voters they represent, the Catholic Church, the Irish Government and political parties in the south and the people – north and south – need to surround the ‘dissidents’ in a dialogue and leave them no space to escape and no reason to believe their actions represent anyone other than themselves.2/ The Orange Order needs to walk away from contentious parades, and needs to be persuaded to do so by the unionist political leadership. Arguments about traditional routes and the right to walk are nonsense. In an earlier comment below I pointed to Newton Emerson’s piece in the latest edition of the Sunday Times under the headline: DUP leaders must stop march to dissident disaster. These marches create a playground for the dissidents.3/ The reconciliation conversation needs to start delivering. It cannot and should not become a never-ending discussion. Are we prepared to bring in international facilitators to talk to all sides and shape a process that attempts to address the questions of the past? If not our divided communities will still be talking about this in 40years time.It is time to do something on all of the above. 

  4. Is John Alderdice now showing his true colours as official spin doctor for the Orange Order?

  5. Lots of useful insight Brian, I could not agree more on the need for a new phase in the conversation that must now take place within the wider republican and nationalist communities. Those for whom the military option has become a ‘way of life’ must be persuaded that they are killing off the possibility of a civic republican platform for dissenting opinion. A series of citizens juries in parts of Derry and Belfast might provide one approach alongside the conversations that will have to take place over kitchen tables. 

  6. Ahimsa begins to touch upon some of the difficulties that our conversations face, by referring to how the ‘military option’ has become a ‘way of life’.  What Ahimsa says is absolutely true, but I think that it goes even further, because it transcends the generations.  On both sides, the way of construing history and acting upon it – Orange/Loyalist and physical-force Republican – is part of the very identity of the communities involved and finding a way to move away or beyond this actually involves real struggles with historic identities and how to change them or enable them to develop beyond their current way-of-being-in-the-world.  The good news is that historic identities can and do change and develop, and finding ways to talk about and explore them is certainly part of this, as are changes in the external dynamics and circumstances.

  7. BrianJohnSpencr on

    Fantastic analysis and agree entirely with assertion that the Orange Order should walk away from Ardoyne. This years 12th chaos was entirely foreseeable but also entirely preventable: so long as two polarised traditions come together under such overt and antagonistic motives, the violence will surely continue. 

    A critical way to take the sting out of our different communities is to drop what is seen as arcane traditions that simply appear to others as instruments of provocation.

  8. John, Lord Alderdice on

    Apologies for the delay in my response – I was away from base for a few days. What the delay has shown however is that there is not yet an engagement of Orangemen in this conversation. I am not a representative of that section of our community, and neither I not my family have ever had any involvement in it, so my views are those of a participant from a different perspective.
    I agree with Sean that we can easily be talking past each other and miss each other’s points. Indeed my intervention was to point out that he was missing something. Sean, I can appreciate your appeal for the Orange Order to ‘engage directly’, but my point is that your description of the situation was partial and not entirely correct. I don’t say that you intended to mislead anyone, but rather that it leads you to misinterpret and this leads to more misunderstandings, rather than less – not an outcome that either of us wants. The situations in rural and semi-rural areas like Rasharkin and Crumlin, which I know well, are very different from in North Belfast which is vastly more complex, as you are aware. The official representative of the Orange did meet with CARA, but CARA do not represent the problem. The Orange (and N&WF) did not meet with GARC (though I and my colleagues did) and it is they who organize and file for the protest which actually led to the violence. But GARC made clear to me that they had no interest in reaching a compromise. They had a different agenda. In other words, the nationalist/republican residents are not of one view. On the Orange/Loyalist side there are also divided views, not only between different groups, but also because, in my perception, the Loyalist bands (and others outside the parading Orders) are becoming, and are for the future, a much more significant issue than the Orange Order itself. The N&W Forum is the vehicle that they all use to engage in and with the much more complex issues in North & West, and it has been able to negotiate and to deliver. My point was not to commend or criticize any section, but to point out that if you want to encourage the Orange Order into conversations and negotiations, it seems to me that it is probably not helpful to criticize them for non-engagement, when from their point of view they have engaged – albeit not in the way that you might choose. They have a different culture and their community operates in a different way than yours.

    On Barney’s point of withdrawal and making the contested space a ‘neutral’ area, I understand the feelings this represents, and could share them, however the perception that this evokes amongst Loyalists/Loyal Orders is that it is a neutrality that cannot accept that aspect of Protestant culture. That is why I referred previously to the need for cultural identities to evolve. It is of course easy for each side to tell the other side how their cultural identity should evolve, but surely what is needed is rather to create a process through which that evolution can take place (eg difficult conversations) rather than to prescribe outcomes at the beginning. The republican movement did not start by accepting power-sharing within the UK and an Irish dimension, but that is where the difficult conversations led – and who knows where will be the destination of further difficult conversations.

    The challenge in all of this of course is not what people like you, me or even Eamonn thinks or is prepared to accept, but how those that are not engaged in this conversation can be engaged.

    • John, I have no issue with most of the content of your latest contribution. Your analysis of GARC is similar to my own, although I dont believe that you can hold them solely responsible for the violence in Ardoyne.
      The situation in Rasharkin is now also complex, due to the failure of the parading bodies to engage with residents and the inaction of the Parades Commission over the years. A scenario which in my opinion was one of the less challenging parading disputes to resolve has now become more intractable. This has directly led to the emergence of the rural equivalant of GARC, namely the Rasharkin Residents Collective. These groups are not interested in reaching resolutions with the parading groups. They, and in my viewpoint, the N+W parades Forum, seek victories around parading issues, which in the final analysis only sow the seeds for furture contention and conflict.
      You refer to the need for cultural identities to evolve. But how long will this process of evolution take?
      On the 30th November 1970, a joint working party, established by the old Stormont regime chaired by the then Minister of Home Affairs, John Taylor and including Ken Bloomfield (Cabinet Secretaria)t, Major General TH Acton(British Army), ACC H. Baillie (RUC) were tasked with “considering and making recommendations about the policy to be adopted towards processions, marches and demonstrations”.
      In their report under the heading ‘A new policy for Processions’ two subsections are worthy of comment:
      48 (i) “We should so act as to secure a substational reduction in the number of processions hither-to taking place”
      (v) “coat-trailing” exercises of any kind should no longer be tolerated.So that there will be no misunderstanding, we would like to give some specific, but by no means exhaustive, examples of what we mean by this;-
      (A) In present circumstances, Orange poarades should not be allowed to process along the Grosvenor, Springfield and Crumlin Roads.
      42 years later we are still dealing with the fall-out from contentious parades along the Springfield and Crumlin Roads. Meanwhile, GARC and the Rasharkin Collective continue to derive strength from this contention, with their agenda clearly focused on undermining our new political, parading and policing dispensations.
      If the Loyal Orders and bands filing for the few remaining contentious parades can’t or wont respond to the imperative of negotiating sustainable resolutions, then the Parades Commission, should in my view set the criterion for resolving outstanding disputes via their determinations.

  9. Eamonn Mallie on

    John, serious opinion is now feeding into this whole debate. Do you know how appropriat ely this subject is being treated in OFMDFM?