No, I’m the real Irish republican

Jason Walsh spoke to some of those who claim to be the legitimate heirs of 1916 and found their legitimism geeky and unconvincing.

Jason Walsh

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Since being established nearly six years ago, the Independent Monitoring Commission has been regularly reporting to the British and Irish governments on republican activity in Northern Ireland. Its latest report struck an ominous tone: ‘The overall level of dissident [republican] activity was markedly higher than we have seen since we first met in late 2003.’ Unsurprisingly, this recent surge in republican activity has led many in Northern Ireland to wonder just who the ‘dissidents’ are, who they represent, and what they want.

Irish affairs have dropped off the British press’s radar since the Real IRA’s headline-grabbing killing of two British soldiers and the subsequent assassination of a police officer by the Continuity IRA in March this year. But that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening. So-called ‘dissident’ republicans have planted several bombs, including a number of huge, 600-pound devices, and most recently a car bomb that injured the partner of a police officer.

Continuing action by republican dissidents has resulted in widespread criticism from all quarters. Condemnations have been issued by Unionists and the British and Irish governments, of course, but also from within the republican movement. Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, said the various IRAs still intent on fighting the war with Britain were ‘traitors to the island of Ireland’. Yet for all the fearmongering headlines and public condemnations, republican microgroups remain small, ill-supported outfits with little influence. So why do they generate such widespread concern?

The representatives of republican microgroups reject the label ‘dissident’. I recently spoke to Republican Sinn Féin representative Geraldine Taylor, who was adamant that it was Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA who were the dissidents (1). ‘We in Republican Sinn Féin are the republican movement’, she told me.

Taylor’s claim is not as outlandish as it might sound. True, the vast majority of republicans support the Sinn Féin led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, but there are other measures by which such matters are judged. Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) was founded in 1986 by a group of republican traditionalists who walked out of the party ard fheis (conference) on a point of principle. Led by former Sinn Féin president and one-time IRA chief-of-staff Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and IRA army council member Dáithí Ó Conaill, the dissenters’ objection was simple: Sinn Féin had decided to take its seats in the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, a move they saw as the beginning of a slide into reformism and accommodation with Britain.

Traditionally, republicans have rejected as illegitimate not only the Northern Irish state but also the Southern one, which they see as a betrayal of the Irish Republic founded in 1919. According to ‘republican legitimists’, the Second Dáil, the parliament founded in the immediate post-revolutionary period, passed its authority not to what was to become the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland), but to the Army Council of the IRA. It is from this fact that the IRA’s traditional claim to be the legitimate government of Ireland springs. The dissidents in 1986 claimed that Sinn Féin had broken its own rules and that the decision to recognise the current Dáil could only be taken by first amending the party constitution. Having lost the battle, the dissidents founded – or refounded, as they see it – Republican Sinn Féin.

Republican legitimism is a pretty geeky issue, only of interest to policy wonks, history nerds and, of course, republicans. Depending on how one looks at things the ‘legitimate’ mantle of republicanism could fall, not to the RSF, but to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, the rump of the Workers’ Party or Sinn Féin – in fact, virtually every party in Ireland other than the Unionists and Greens is descended in some way from the IRA. For those who care about such things, RSF’s claim is probably the most convincing.

In addition to the Continuity IRA, linked to Republican Sinn Féin, there are two other IRAs intent on reigniting the war with Britain: the Real IRA, infamous for the 1998 Omagh bomb, which was formed by disgruntled members of the Provisional IRA in 1997, and Óglaigh na hÉireann (the Irish name for all putative IRAs and Ireland’s defence forces), founded in 2006 by ex-members of the Continuity IRA. No doubt all these groups share a desire to be seen as the ‘actual’ IRA. What they also share, however, is the romantic delusion that being the ‘real republicans’ is enough to justify a renewed military campaign.

Legitimism is not enough to sustain a serious political campaign, let alone the military one that the republican microgroups appear intent on running. The turmoil in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and 1970s meant that the IRA enjoyed genuine popular support – a fact that tends to be ignored in recent historical discussion of the era. Facing not only discrimination but loyalist pogroms and open assaults from the state in the form of the RUC and the paramilitary police force known as the ‘B Specials’, the Catholic community turned to the IRA for defence. This ‘defenderism’ gradually mutated into open support of revolution, thanks in part to the British state’s heavy-handedness and its unending ability to misjudge Irish affairs.

Today, support for revolution, violent or otherwise, has almost entirely dissipated. Sinn Féin overtook the reformist SDLP at the polls not by promising a new Republic, but by better articulating the demands of the republican community within the British polity: equality, representation and a dash of cultural recognition. In essence, it beat the SDLP at its own game. Since then the IRA has been at best irrelevant, at worst a nuisance, to a Sinn Féin leadership that has comfortably settled down into government. The IRA’s ceasefire, which held since 1997, and its decommissioning of arms in 2005 were simply the endpoints of the logical process that began in earnest with recognising the Dáil in 1986.

The problem with legitimism is that it is itself, arguably, illegitimate. In a democratic republic, something all Irish parties other than Unionists either claim Ireland already is or aspires to be, popular support is a must. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a hard left republican group which made no claims to the ancient heritage of republicanism despite being founded in a split from the similarly Moscow-oriented Official IRA of the 1970s, recently demonstrated this fact – by giving up. The INLA has been on ceasefire since 1998 when it stated: ‘It is now time to silence the guns and allow the working classes the time and the opportunity to advance their demands and their needs.’ This despite the group viewing the Irish peace process as unworkable and sectarian.

Martin McMonagle, a senior member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the INLA’s political allies, told me recently that the group wanted to engage in wider political action: ‘It’s about the primacy of politics, [we want] to challenge the status-quo and [the INLA standing down will] allow us to build alliances.’ What the INLA seems to recognise, which the various mini-IRAs don’t, is that there is no possibility of attracting popular support in Ireland, North or South, to a renewed campaign of violence – and support is essential for any group that styles itself as the representative of the people. Without it they risk ending up as isolated fringe groups who perform unpopular, and often vicious, stunts – like the German hippy terrorists Baader-Meinhof (2).

Writing in the aftermath of the Masserene barracks attack earlier this year, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill made just this claim, saying: ‘The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA are zombie movements. Their violence is better seen, not as the latest manifestation of physical-force Irish republicanism, but as an Irish variant of contemporary nihilism, of the rising trend […] for executing violent acts in order to express anger, alienation, bitterness, frustration.’ (3)

Republican commentator Liam Ó Ruaric took issue with O’Neill’s analysis, saying that the traditionalists are simply attempting to remind the British that the settlement is not a done deal. Complaining about O’Neill’s take, he told me: ‘In 2007, Oxford professor Paul Bew noted how, from a military point of view, Robert Emmett’s 1803 insurrection was a small and sordid affair. However its symbolic value was significant, meaning that the “nullity of its short-time effect” was different from its “long-term impact”. The 1803 insurrection was above all a blow against the British government’s policy of “normalisation” and “amnesia” following the Act of Union.

‘Armed actions by traditionalist republicans today follow a similar logic. They do not throw British armed forces into the sea but set limits upon the British government’s ability to “normalise” the Six Counties and constrain the working of an internal settlement. Even if they are a small and sometimes sordid affair, they have a symbolic value of setting limits on current normalisation and amnesia, meaning that, as was noted in the Belfast Telegraph recently, there is “relative” pacification – and thus not absolute.’

But the key question to be asked about the various IRAs is not whether they have a significant capability to inflict damage – clearly they do – but whether or not they have any support. Do they express something, reflect something, win people’s backing, or are they ‘legitimised’ merely by long-gone historic documents and debates? Are they simply ghosts from history correcting the wayward political reality of today?

RSF’s Geraldine Taylor claims Sinn Féin is losing support in the republican community: ‘We knew it was going to be a long and slow process to take back control [of the republican movement] from the Provisionals, [but] people are now beginning to question Sinn Féin, support us and lose their fear of the Provisionals’, she told me.

But there is little evidence to support such a claim. The situation for Northern Catholics is not remotely like it was in 1969 and while some disgruntled activists are abandoning Sinn Féin, particularly in the Republic, those who leave tend to do so over policy matters and either move into small socialist groups or abandon politics altogether, exhausted and demoralised. If any great numbers have taken up arms and (re)turned to the bosom of (another) IRA they have yet to do anything to show this.

Some have speculated that the microgroups’ plan is to drive the British Army back on to the streets of Ireland, thus inflaming republican sentiment and reigniting a full-scale conflict. Anthony McIntyre, a former member of the Provisional IRA who is now very much a republican dissident but does not support a renewed armed campaign, disagrees: ‘I’m not sure their actions are that thought out – I don’t think there is a strategic logic behind them. Bringing the Brits on to the streets wouldn’t phase them but I don’t think it’s what they’re after’, he told me. ‘I think they probably see the pool settling, and every now and then they’ll throw something into it to create a ripple effect – and embarrass Sinn Féin. They get an obvious enjoyment from Martin McGuinness’s discomfort every time he has to stand beside a British politician and call them traitors. McGuinness would probably like nothing better than for the SAS to shoot them all.’

For McIntyre the blame for the dissident actions lies with the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin – but not in the way that hardline Unionists often claim: ‘The Provos need to come out and say their campaign was wrong and that they were the product of British state policy in 1969, not of ideology. Otherwise you get into a situation where these groups can justify continuing by pointing to the campaigns of yesterday’, he said.

Perhaps any future there is for republicanism lies with unarmed political groups such as the nascent socialist republican party Éirígí. Yet the Irish public, angry as it is with the economic policy in both jurdisdictions, has shown no more appetite for socialism than it has for a revived republicanism.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. He is the editor of forth, a new online current affairs magazine.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume remembered the Brighton bomb. Brendan O’Neill described the Real IRA bombings of March 2009 as the work of the Zombie IRA. He also called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past and discussed the admission of government collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Kevin Rooney described the IRA’s shift from insurgency to identity and railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Chris Gilligan revealed the impact of therapy culture on Northern Ireland’s police. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

(1) See ‘Rebels without a cause’, by Jason Walsh, Irish Examiner, 17 September 2009 and Could IRA splinter groups bring back Northern Ireland’s Troubles?, by Jason Walsh, Christian Science Monitor, 23 October 2009

(2) The Baader Meinhof Complex: hippy terror, by Rob Killick, 13 November 2008

(3) The Zombie IRA, by Brendan O’Neill, 10 March 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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