The Dissidents are not going to go away – They will grow in number – Alex. Kane predicts

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The scene at the top of Chichester Street in Belfast City Centre beside Victoria Square where a car bomb partially exploded on Monday

The scene at the top of Chichester Street in Belfast City Centre beside Victoria Square where a car bomb partially exploded on Monday.


Imagine you came from a republican background: a background in which members of your family had been involved with the IRA; been interned, been injured, been killed, spent years on-the-run or constantly looking over their shoulder. Imagine supporting the IRA’s campaign—either as an active ‘volunteer,’ or providing safe houses and alibis, or somewhere to store weapons. Imagine you put your own personal/family life and career on hold while you dedicated yourself to restoring freedom to Ireland.

Then imagine—twenty or thirty years later—that you hear the news that the IRA is being stood down and the weapons decommissioned and that Sinn Fein will be co-governing Northern Ireland with the Ulster Unionist Party or DUP. In other words, imagine yourself in a position in which everything you believed in and worked for had been snatched from you. What would you feel: how would you respond?

Well, the leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein made the case that politics was the surest way of delivering the ultimate goal of unity. They argued that the ‘armed struggle’ had gone as far as it could and the next phase (and isn’t there always another phase?) would involve winning an electoral majority for unity, wearing unionism down on issues like flags, parades, symbols, identity etc., and building up a significant presence in the Dail. At some point in the near future, so the argument went, Sinn Fein would be in government on both sides of the border and then a majority vote would deliver unity.

As far back as 1997 (indeed as far back as the 1994 ceasefire) there were republicans who didn’t buy into that argument. They didn’t believe that sitting in Stormont with unionists represented anything resembling victory, let alone ‘a cunning plan.’ They viewed it as a betrayal. They saw it as Adams and McGuinness doing in the mid-1990s what they had rejected in 1969. But they remained a minority within republicanism, such was the grip that Adams/McGuinness had over the political and armed factions. And Adams was also able to argue that the meltdown of the UUP and further divisions within unionism would enable Sinn Fein to leapfrog to the top of the political/electoral pile. Those who dissented from that view—the republican dissidents—seemed to be on the wrong side of the argument and the wrong side of history.

But it didn’t work out like that. Unionism has rallied around the DUP, allowing it to maintain a comfortable lead over Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness has had to serve as deputy First Minister (and don’t underestimate the psychological significance of that word ‘deputy’) to Paisley and now Robinson. Opinion poll after opinion poll indicates that support for a united Ireland is falling rather than rising among small-n nationalism. There is no appetite south of the border for unity anytime soon. Yes, Sinn Fein may be able to nibble at the heels of unionism/loyalism on some issues, but the Union itself looks stronger than ever. Put bluntly, a united Ireland looks no more likely now than it did in August 1994, or July 1997, or April 1998, or March 2007.

All of which explains why those dissenting from the Adams analysis are growing in number and now seem determined to make the case for a return to the tactics of the ‘armed struggle.’ And it poses a very real problem for Sinn Fein, who are not capable of pointing to much in the way of progress and so have to revert to a strategy which is best summed up as a ‘greatest hits tour’ in which martyrs, prison escapes, key events and ‘victories’ have to be celebrated on an almost weekly basis. And if it annoys the hell out of the unionists, then so much the better.

But again, this is never going to be enough for the dissidents. They get angry when they hear Adams say when he was never in the IRA. They get angry when they hear McGuinness say he left in the mid-1970s. They get angry when they hear ‘apologies’ for actions that didn’t work out as planned. They get angry when they hear themselves described as ‘traitors.’ They get angry when they are described as being a ‘hindrance’ to unity. They get angry when they hear people they know to have been IRA members encouraging people to pass information to the PSNI. They get angry when they see McGuinness and Co rubbing shoulders with Britain’s royal and political establishment. They believe that the Provisionals have been rolled over and emasculated by the British state: and, worse than that, they believe that Adams/McGuinness were suckered into a deal that could never deliver anything for republicanism.

The dissidents are not going to go away. They will grow in number. They will become bolder. They reckon that any attempt by the PSNI or ‘Brits’ to crush them will win them support—precisely as it did when the Provisionals broke away in 1969. They reckon that anything resembling Sinn Fein’s dismissing or disowning them will damage Sinn Fein. And they probably know that there are former IRA members not at all happy with the way things have gone since 1998. They may not have huge numbers, or an arsenal worth speaking of, but they also know that they don’t need that at this point.

They have fear in their favour. They have the ability to surprise in their favour. They have the opportunities to cause massive disruption in their favour. They have an already over-stretched, under-resourced PSNI in their favour. They have a fractious unionism/loyalism in their favour. They have a poorly performing government in their favour. They have a huge public disconnect from the Assembly in their favour. They have a general sense of despondency in their favour. They have Sinn Fein’s difficulty in pointing to an end date for unity in their favour.

So it would be very stupid to write them off or pretend that they are incapable of serious traction. They have been rustling in the undergrowth for almost twenty years; and in that time they will have been preparing, recruiting, listening and planning. At this point it seems unlikely that they could mount, let alone sustain a major terrorist campaign; but at this point a decade ago—or even five years ago—did anyone think we’d be facing car bombs in Belfast, or spot check security patrols, or car boots being searched at CastleCourt again?

Dissident republicanism needs to be dealt with. (And before someone starts a predictable outburst of whataboutery, yes, I do know that there are problems with loyalist paramilitarism too—the subject of another essay). And it needs to be dealt with by everyone. But, as Michael Copeland MLA noted in the Assembly a few days ago, our response has to be something more than the usual platitudes. I mean, let’s be honest, what is the point of politicians telling us that they won’t allow us to be ‘dragged back to the past,’ when their own body language and rhetoric suggests that they have never actually left that past?

Also, the usual tactics of intelligence, infiltration, disruption, arrest and imprisonment won’t necessarily work either. It takes a long time to wage that sort of strategy: and even longer when you realise that the intelligence services (many of whose own people are relatively new to the game) don’t yet have tabs on many of the latest generation of armed republicans. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that those sorts of tactics can just as easily result in an increase of terrorist numbers.

There are two key elements required at this stage. The first is that Sinn Fein—and particularly the IRA element of it—has to make it very clear that they do disown this new generation. They have to say, loudly and unambiguously, that republican violence did not deliver Irish unity and never will be able to deliver Irish unity. They have to say that they themselves backed the wrong strategy. They have to say that violence is an insurmountable barrier to Irish unity. They have to say that unity, if it is to come, will require patience, reconciliation and the genuine desire of more than just a bare majority of votes. It will not come from the barrel of a gun or the thud of a car bomb outside the Victoria shopping centre.

The other element is very clear evidence that the government of Northern Ireland is working for the benefit of everyone. That’s going to mean the DUP and Sinn Fein putting aside the mutual vetoes, petitions-of-concern, hostile language, finger-pointing, score-settling, looking-after-your-own approach to government and replacing it with genuine consensus and cooperation.

It’s going to mean all of the Executive parties agreeing on a proper, costed, joined-up Programme for Government, which has a clear agenda and vision for the future. It’s going to require them to be able to prove to the world that they can work together, by choice and for the good of all. The best way, the very best way of knocking back the dissident elements on both sides of the fence is the evidence that there is stable government and good government here: government that is relevant, government that makes a real and positive difference to the lives of everybody, irrespective of where they come from. A government, in other words, which has made the transition from conflict stalemate to conflict solution.

It all sounds far too simple, doesn’t it? Far too idealistic. Far too unlikely to work. But maybe, just maybe, if we focused on the simple, the idealistic and the unlikely we could end up surprising ourselves!

(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)

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About Author

Alex Kane is a columnist for both the News Letter and the Irish News and a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph. He is also a frequent guest across a range of BBC, UTV and RTE programmes--specialising in political commentary.


  1. Thomas Russell on

    You suggest two solutions.

    The first is SF “have to say that they themselves backed the wrong strategy”. They have to say they were wrong. That means saying Bobby Sands was, after all, a criminal. That means disavowing the republican tradition & surrendering it to the Dissidents who lay claim to it.

    How on earth would that undermine the Dissidents? It would only strengthen them & their claims to be the true keepers of the flame.

    Surely the way to undermine & marginalize them is instead to take ownership of the republican tradition away from them, including physical force, and to place the physical force aspect firmly in the past: a product of, and belonging to, a different era when the world was a different place – as Southern constitutional republicans previously did regarding 1916.

    It is possible to be a constitutional republican or nationalist, like Sean MacBride,or Tim Pat Coogan, and say that violence was, in the past, an understandable response to oppression, Tone, Pearse, Collins etc were not terrorists, they reacted to the circumstances of their time, but the past is a different country, there is no possible justification for violence now, it is both morally wrong & counterproductive.

    By the same token, it would be bizarre to suggest that the DUP undermine Jamie Bryson by renouncing Carson as a terrorist who threatened violence to undermine democracy. He arguably was that, but if the DUP renounced him as such they would be playing into the hands of the Dissident Unionists who would be only too glad to be seen as his true heirs/keepers of the flame.

    Your 2nd solution, genuine co-operation in the Executive, is much better. But how can that work while unionists try to ride two horses?

    Married to SF, but still deploring them as terrorists. In partnership with SF, but distributing the inflammatory flag leaflet & siding with Dissident Unionism re: the Parades Commission. At least SF are consistent: they condemn & give no succour or cover to Dissident Republicans, and call for the rule of law to be respected. By contrast, the DUP has been Janus-faced in the last 12 months, alternating progressive speeches in Iveagh House & GAA functions with appeals to TUV, flagger, Orange backwoodsmen.

    • Surely the way to undermine & marginalize them is instead to take
      ownership of the republican tradition away from them, including physical
      force, and to place the physical force aspect firmly in the past: a
      product of, and belonging to, a different era when the world was a
      different place – as Southern constitutional republicans previously did
      regarding 1916.

      That didn’t work on the Provisionals 30 years ago, why would it work today?

      • It did work on the Provisionals. It rendered their pre-ceasefire support a mere fraction of the SDLP’s then support in the North, and prevented them getting any traction at all in the South. It successfully compartmentalized violence as belonging to the past & forced SF to stop it in order to proceed & grow.

        If you mean it didn’t work on the Provos in ’69 or ’72, that’s not comparable. That moment in the past really is another country: Burntollet, the Orange State, the Army doing joint street patrols with the legal (!) UDA, paratroopers committing massacres, UWC Strike, serious unionist opposition to power-sharing with nationalists or any Irish dimension.

        • I have so much to say about the subject but it is a case of where do i begin .., I am in Denmark , Living Now.. about to bring a child into the world . My Danish partner Loves Ireland . We both Lived in Belfast for 8 years.. She didn’t want to bring a child up there. I am a humanitarian at the end of the day .. Ive seen to much suffering.I want to see no more..
          The republican “movement” . which to my mind is a very broad family , needs that open debate , I agree with you Seamus ..certain voices are not being heard .. SF made sure to stifled Debate around lots of important issues..and in a way they run the political party like the.. irish republian Army was run..People were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution…Every body is entitled to a point of view ..bring it on and fair play to all off you for speaking your mind … respect ..JOBY FOX.

    • Your viewpoint is extremely blinkered Thomas. Sinn Fein are inextricably linked with Dissidents, from backing campaigns for their release and standing bail for those up on charges. They simply speak with forked tongues, and for those of us who don’t accept tired republican rhetoric, they simply are not doing enough to prove their commitment to peace.

      Very well thought out and relevant piece of work Alex.

      • Thomas Russell on

        This is the TUV & Dissident Unionist position that SF & Dissident Republicans are, in fact, one and the same, & SF only pretend they’re not. “Sinn Fein are inextricably linked with Dissidents”. “The simply speak with forked tongues”. It is incorrect.

        SF actually back campaigns for Dissident release not to strengthen Dissidents, but to curtail their support. When a British Sec. of State suspends due legal process for Dissidents it merely strengthens their argument that SF have achieved nothing, nothing has changed. I haven’t heard SF campaign for the release of a single Dissident convicted with due legal process. Have you?

        SF “simply are not doing enough to prove their commitment to peace”. What would you have them do? Follow Alex’s instruction to admit that republican violence was never justified & Bobby Sands was indeed just a criminal? Follow pre-deal Paisley’s instruction to wear sackcloth & ashes & beg forgiveness?

        They now condemn Dissidents as “traitors” & call for the rule of law to be implemented without qualification. That’s a hell of a lot stronger than the condemnation of Dissident Unionists I hear from the DUP.

        In fact, it’s the DUP who speak out of both sides of their mouth: alternating progressive speeches with giving cover to Dissident Unionism at unlawful parades & protests e.g. Ruth Patterson.

    • Conchúr Pól MácCárthaigh on

      And Bobby Sands wasn’t reacting to the circumstances off his time? This argument about it was ok at that time not ok at this time but ok at that other time doesn’t make sense especially in a part of the world where people regularly quote a book that was written thousands of years ago.

      • Thomas Russell on

        Conchúr Pól, you say “This argument about it was ok at that time not ok at this time but ok at that other time doesn’t make sense”. But surely that’s how all societies function!

        Societies reach consensus that before they became a legitimate democracy violence was acceptable, but not after.

        In most Western societies that was decades or centuries ago, and here it’s just more recent.

        Hence the Southern establishment says Pearse & Michael Collins were patriotic freedom fighters whereas Bobby Sands was a a terrorist. Unionists say it was OK for Carson to threaten violence against the rule of law, but not Bobby Sands. SF say Bobby Sands was a patriotic freedom fighter but Dissident Republicans are traitors. It all depends on when you date the Year Zero whereby we all have to accept the rule of law.

        The whole point of the 1998 & St Andrews Agreements was drawing a line under the previous period of conflict & disputed legitimacy, & committing to pursuing political aims solely under the legitimate rule of law.

        SF have done that, whereas the DUP have only half-heartedly committed to the new era: still condemning SF as terrorists, refusing even the basic civility of shaking hands, resisting symbols of Irish identity (despite the Agreements saying one can be Irish OR British or both), and giving cover to unlawful protests & rejectionist pre-Agreement Dissident Unionism.

  2. What’s missing from this article is the simple fact that the majority of “dissident” republicans do not support a return to violence. There’s a media narrative that claims that anyone who doesn’t support ‘the process’ and that farce at Stormont is automatically siding with the bombers, but that just isn’t true. You have veteran activists like Tommy McKearney and Bernadette McAliskey speaking out and there are the newer formations like Éirígí and the 1916 Societies. They may have problems with organising themselves and laying out their own strategies, but the issue of which direction people in republican communities are going isn’t as black and white as it’s made to appear.

    • Éirigi and the Societies are liars, when they come off with the guff that the don’t support armed struggle but ‘understand’ why it happens. The same people hector Adams for not admitting he was once in the IRA yet adopt a cowardly position of their own.

  3. The PIRA campaign was capable and sustainable because a size-able section of society here initially supported armed struggle. The causes of the Troubles are varied, many events lost in time but the reality is that PIRA using the tactics of a modern Guerrilla Army where supported by a large portion of society.

    While you may not agree with the tactics used and you may debate the causes that led to violence erupting here in 1969 the undeniable historical fact is that armed struggle was supported by many (not just the Volunteers).

    Today, ‘dissidents’ and in this thesis Republican Dissidents do not carry such a plateau of community support for a sustained armed struggle. Indeed there are many hard working socialist principled people throughout the Nationalist & Republican community, against the Mandatory Administration, who abhor violence. They know armed struggle cannot achieve ‘the Republic’ or advance socialism. They know the greatest barrier to changing the political regime’s on this Island can never be achieved through antiquated violence or rhetoric.

    So, what is the recent bouts of violence really about?

    I’d opine that we’re witnessing a battle of hearts and minds for “Republican Purism” that outdated notion that denies the reality to the origin of the diverse peoples of this Island, denies the origin of plural Republicanism and wallows in a victim-hood born significantly by a fair bit of propaganda & some myth created over centuries.

    We’re witnessing criminal elements attempting to use ‘bye-gone days of yore’ methods as cover for egotistical self positioning & promotion in gang empires.

    We’re witnessing those that when PIRA disbanded in 2008 couldn’t just go away or adapt to politics in Sinn Fein or embrace positive community activity.

    We’re witnessing those addicted to a conflict mindset or simply hate “them-uns”.

    How do we, society, empower and address this?

    We stand together, united, to realities this day and state: non-violence, that great quality of the heart, is the only force or weapon we recognize.

    We stand together & protest stating: We are not savages, if your cause is authentic you will employ the highest of ethics and stop making others suffer.

    We stand together & demand ALL elected representatives lead and speak as a Government should thus broadening the discourse, intensifying the debate, meeting and asking all people: are we doing enough? is there anything else we can do to help?

    We stand together & encourage support for the Gardai or PSNI.

    Finally, we insist that each and every single individual, looks at themselves and asks: Do I believe or have I a mindset that religion, political opinion, language, nationality or national / ethnic origin justifies my contempt or a notion of superiority that prejudices against fellow citizens or groups of people? Am I sectarian?……

  4. thank you for this excellent piece Alex. I think it is important to recognise the reality of the sense of betrayal that must be felt, and I say that as someone who did not at all support the IRA’s campaign.

  5. I think Alex is fifty percent right. The ‘dissidents’ will grow in number, but that doesn’t mean they have to be of the armed struggle variety. Any dissent that I encounter in west Belfast to the Adams narrative is from dissenting republicans who genuinely want to offer a political alternative to what Sinn Fein have to offer. Dissident does not automatically equal a subscriber to physical force republicanism.

  6. Alex you are spot on. Question: what has PS/F – Martin & Gerry done to prolong their war during 35 years, those who deny history are doomed to repeat it…. What many young ones have learned is to get what you want is learned behaviour. Jobs egos power and control just follow the Masters…In my opinion respect is earned not given, that is the problem…. NI is dysfunctional Toxic and in a sad place.

  7. One aspect I disagree with is the need for Sinn Fein to condemn the ‘dissidents’ more. Sinn Fein have condemned the violent dissident groups a lot over the last few years, most notably Martin McGuinness calling the RIRA ‘traitors’ after the Massarenne shooting. I think a more significant problem is the ambiguity emanating from groups like éirigi and Republican network for Unity on dissident violence. If they were to publicly condemn and disagree with violent tactics more often it may hold more weight with young people who are considering joining the RIRA. People would see that there is an alternative republican party if they are unhappy with Sinn Fein.

  8. I grew up in Derry, and for all the usual rhetoric i hear spouted here, the words “civil rights” has been ignored. As far as i remember, the battle cry`s were, they have the jobs, they have the houses, they are in control of everything. So, after the provisionals delivered social equality, only then, did i hear the battle cry of unity. Have an all Ireland vote on unity for our island, and the dissidents might just get the shock of their life, and realising that nobody really gives a fk any more, the worlds as we know them have changed.

  9. A good article by Alex.
    It will mean all parties evolving to meet the needs of the future if reconciliation and ultimately peace is achieved.
    The growth of republican dissidents represents a political perspective that can’t be ignored as they are pressing for the republican mantle at a critical juncture coming up to 1916, the centenary celebration if the rising.
    If the now constitutional parties are not brave enough and bold enough and not creative enough, or even self-scarificing enough, then the current process may well falter into more anarchy and bloodshed. They really have to do more than think out of the box – THEY HAVE TO ACT OUT OF THE BOX TOO.
    Every democracy needs a number of clear components and these include a clear rule of law, clear rules of active citizenship and political parties prepared to accept compromises.
    There are two extreme issues facing the political framework at the moment with reference to ‘extremist’ activism – the first is the republican disidents and the second is the loyalist dissidents. Each in their own way are disrupting a democratically agreed process. They can in their own rationale argue that their logic is superiior to that of the great majority. This may well be labelled ‘idealism’, but they may also be perfectly correct! (I’m just being the devil’s advocate here). So what mechanisms have we in place to address this growing issue?

    Violence and street protests are their credo – I would love to sit down and interview the organisers from the extremes to firstly understand clearly what their message really is and secondly, to transmit that message to the greater body of people. However, in the absence of press releases and reports from their non-existent PR department, little is clear and forthcoming. So as someone who works in the media I am frustrated as well as the greater mass of people as to what is going on.

    What are the real ideological bases for these protests on both sides? Many make assumptions as to what is going on. But what is the real reality. Are we looking at both extreme fringes becoming more violent and the whole fabric once again melting down? It could happen.
    I just takes a serious shooting (they are all serious!) or a bombing to start the process of terminal polarisation and all the good that has been done since 1994 will be undone.

    I am of the opinion that every group including republican dissidents and loyal dissenters should have the right to express their thoughts and feeling peacefully and openly, within the context of a lawful society. But they are self-supporting entities – a sort of politcial commensalism.

    There is no solution to what they are. But there is a solution to what the constitutional parties are and can do. The present political culture of scapegoating adds to a plethora of accusation and counter-accusation, and really clouds the essence of what is going on.

    Clear minds are needed. Clean slates are requred.

    Politcs requires decisions to be made and policies to be affected. This process will continue.

    Whether we live in the stone age or the 21st century depends on how we all pragmatically manage this process.

    Until these fringe groups explain themselves more fully and credibly then I and many more will find it difficult to even give them due regard and consideration which as I said all parties and ideologies deserve.

    The future may look black, but even in the darkest corners to the universe which are constantly evolving, light can travel. It is the nature of our species to try and maintain an orderly progression forward, but also a characteristic that it will turn on itself as it faces diverse options of the way ahead. History is a path of critical junctures.

    And we are at one at the moment. We therefore need to be very careful in what we as a society do, and equally careful about what we do not do. Then we may start to arrive at a solution more acceptible to everyone, including all dissidents.

    Therefore I am saying that all dissent groups need to be meaningfully engaged with. At least the process of engagement needs to be seen to be fair and proper, This is what HAss is about, but my fear is that he will fall short of he time limits his talks process. It neds to run until the job is done.

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