Brief thoughts on the dissident campaign


I’ve just come back from the NIC-ICTU peace rally, and I suppose it’s worth jotting down some thoughts on the deadly dissident attacks of the past few days. But there really isn’t much that can be said about the killings themselves, except on a human level. The depressing jolt back to what we used to hear on the news on a weekly basis, but had become accustomed to not hearing in recent years. Then you’re struck by the sheer futility of it, and the stupidity of any idea that rerunning the Provo campaign on a micro scale is a worthwhile exercise. How, if you aren’t part of that small milieu that values militarism in and of itself, this is completely insupportable.

That’s just in terms of immediate, subjective responses, and as I say, there’s not much more to be said about the events. There is plenty, though, to be said about the context and the responses. There are some useful points made by Liam, some more by Richard, plenty of intelligent discussion as usual on Cedar Lounge, and if you’re so minded you can read Eamonn McCann’s take on the situation, although Eamo does seem a little disingenuous to me.

So I want to offer a few thoughts on things. The first is that, while the dissidents obviously pose a physical threat to whoever they choose to target – and, if they’re claiming pizza delivery men as legitimate targets, that’s distressingly large – the dissident “threat” that’s being talked up is not an existential threat to society at large or the peace process or whatever. Even on the micro level, it’s very unlikely that their strategy of tension is going to have many tangible effects – increased security at barracks, and that should be about it.

It’s true that there is a fair amount of discontent in the republican heartlands, but much of that centres around the explosion of crime and anti-social behaviour, and the lack of a robust response to the hoods. It’s also true that there is a smallish but still significant layer of republicans who reject the peace process and all its works, but a large proportion of them – quite likely a majority – are not in favour of a return to armed struggle but of a political opposition, even if they can’t say what that should be. The militarists, at this point, are a minority of a minority of a minority.

At this point, armed dissidence remains a Mickey Mouse concern. Not only are the four or five organisations tiny, but they’re so divided that there are factions within the factions. They are riddled with agents, which is how Hugh Orde knew there was an attack in the offing even though he didn’t know what it would be. And there has been no shift of support towards them – you might say that they aren’t trying to be popular, which is true, but they are actually managing to isolate themselves even more. This is a movement that is not stronger but weaker than five years ago. And they have been trying, and failing, to kill uniforms for quite some time – that they eventually succeeded has been due not to strength on their part but simply to the law of averages.

There’s also the question here of grinding axes. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s hard not to be a little cynical in a few cases. Gordon Brown was over here in a flash. It’s quite likely that he genuinely felt what he was saying, but you can’t help noticing that most days now you hear of one, or two, or four British soldiers being killed in Afghanistan, and he isn’t so keen to flag that up.

There were also the callers on Talk Back, which is usually a good barometer of unionist opinion. What was striking was hearing some punters actually arguing along the lines that the IRA should be brought back for the purpose of wiping out the dissidents. This was a minority position – more of the punters wanted the SAS deployed in West Belfast, which is predictable – but interesting nonetheless.

I’m also interested in how this was turned so quickly into an exercise in Provo-bashing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having a go at Gerry Adams, but it should be for what he’s said or done, and not for stuff he has no control over. I think, from Gerry’s point of view and bearing in mind his tortuous use of language, that his statement after the Massereene attack was as straightforward as anything you’ll ever get from Gerry. And his argument that the dissident campaign was counterproductive was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to say, bearing in mind that not too long ago his own movement was doing the same thing. For him to have taken a high moral tone would just have made him look like a hypocrite.

But immediately we had the chorus from the media and the unionists that Gerry’s statement was too cold and impersonal, didn’t have enough emotional adjectives, had too much politics in it. And there was, and this is still continuing, a smeary campaign to try and make the Provos responsible for what they haven’t done. A fairly typical example is the inimitable Gail Walker, doing her Skibbereen Eagle turn in the Belfast Telegraph:

If there’s any hedge-trimming by Sinn Fein people will rightly conclude the peace process is just a sham.

I suppose their leaders have just about passed the first hurdle and kept the show on the road. Still, while their condemnation may have satisfied all the legalistic necessities many will feel it has more to do with the political logic of the situation than any deeply felt revulsion.

And many will be waiting for SF backwoodsmen to tip the wink to their natural constituency by humming and hawing, calling for ever more ‘confidence building measures’ or rambles down republican memory lane, droning on about how there can be no purely military solutions to armed republican resistance.

See how this works? The thing is, the unionists know what the dissidents know, that this is a serious pressure point, that it’s very difficult for republicans to side with the state against other republicans, no matter how reprehensible you think their actions are. Now, Martin McGuinness’s photo-op yesterday with Peter Robinson and Chief Constable Orde should have definitively shown what side he is on – his statement was so strong I almost expected Orde to grab his shoulder and say “Steady on mate, don’t go over the top.” And yet, it’s still proving hard to mollify the unionists.

Yes, the dissidents are strategically bankrupt. But they aren’t the only republicans facing serious questions about their strategy.


  1. neil said,

    March 11, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Any thoughts on the demo itself?

  2. Mark P said,

    March 11, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Are you sure that the militarist dissidents are weaker than they were five years ago?

    They certainly seem to be more divided, but without having much firm evidence to go on I’ve tended to assume that they are probably stronger in terms of numbers and support. That is we are still talking about tiny numbers and a very low level of support but a little more than previously.

    As for the law of averages thing, well it could be just down to that, or two successful attacks in such a short space of time could also indicate increased capacity.

  3. Ciarán said,

    March 11, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    I think Mick Hall’s post is worth a read in this regard as well. I haven’t seen much written from a republican perspective.

    Do you have thoughts on the rally itself? I wasn’t at it but a few people I know who were said that there was a very visible loyalist presence there.

  4. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 11, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Eoghan Harris is playing much the same role in the South as Gail Walker. A sad fact, but true… 😦

    I’d very much agree with your thoughts, albeit coming from a somewhat different political angle. Which is that strategy has to be explained and substantiated. No point in steady as she goes… Particularly not now. Perhaps a bit of glasnost and spelling out of the reality would be no harm either.

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 11, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    Just read McCann’s piece. Surely not? Isn’t he being very coy about matters?

  6. Wednesday said,

    March 12, 2009 at 6:28 am

    Eoghan Harris is playing much the same role in the South as Gail Walker.

    Interestingly however none of the real politicians in the south is. Yesterday the Dáil carried a motion condemning the killings and there wasn’t a Shinner-bashing moment to be heard in the debate, in fact McGuinness and Adams’s responses were openly praised by Enda Kenny of all people. Which is quite remarkable in and of itself.

  7. Mbari said,

    March 12, 2009 at 7:25 am

    Wednesday, as a Shinner yourself, are you pleased about that? I have no time for the RIRA and CIRA, but surely the fact that Gerry and Martin are being patted on the back by Enda Kenny, etc. is a sign of how house-trained your party is now.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 12, 2009 at 8:40 am

    The rally was substantial, several thousand there anyway, although maybe not quite as big as I would have expected. It was short and silent, so not easy to make any statements about its complexion. I saw some loyalists, although these ICTU rallies always have a loyalist presence and they were no more evident than usual.

    Coming back on Mark P, my take on the militarists’ weakness is purely subjective, and I don’t have privileged knowledge of their actual military capacity. But I do think the constituency for pure militarism, while it’ll always be there, certainly hasn’t grown. The one group to have made some progress is the IRSP, who have kept the armed wing on ceasefire while throwing populist shapes around crime and housing.

  9. johng said,

    March 12, 2009 at 9:53 am

    On Newsnight attitudes to CIRA etc were presented as a generational matter, with older Republicans chastened by actual experiance, and younger people having had no experiance of the war, and thus open to the influence of physical force arguments. I just wanted to ask if there is any truth to this.

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 12, 2009 at 10:10 am

    You certainly notice a generational thing at RSF events. The crowd tends to divide between pensioners and teenagers, with very little in between.

  11. hasta victoria siempre said,

    March 12, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    That ability to recruit teenagers may be significant.

    Whether the dissidents are stronger or weaker than they were I couldn’t say, though the police seemed to be saying last year that they were becoming more dangerous.

    As to the question of being “house-trained”, would that be more or less than the British left is?

  12. March 12, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    Did ICTU demonstrate against the murder of Paul Quinn? Clearly that was a “cowardly murder designed to sow terror”. Did the ICTU demonstrate against the RIR homecoming march? Or do some killers get a pass? (almost) No one wants a return to the futile, bloody past but this selective outrage from union tops is hard to take seriously. The game of “who condemns most loudly” is always brought out to gauge the submissiveness of communities to the ruling politik. Here in the US after 911 for years any utterance of even a context to the attacks was seen as “being weak on terror” or worse, and accomplice. The “condemnation game” might make your White House trip easier, but is sure doesn’t address the issues let alone realize the problems.

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 12, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    The answers to the above would be no. Most of those at the rally yesterday would have been there out of basic human sympathy, but it’s not hard to be cynical about ICTU. Especially as they had some ground to regain with respectable society after their march for Gaza.

  14. malachi said,

    March 12, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    The Provo campaign was not a complete failure. It never had a hope of imposing a united Ireland but it did have the potential to prevent any alternative settlement. The settlement that was reached would have been impossible without their ending their armed campaign. So the PIRA campaign was a veto rather than an assertion.
    The question that matters in regard to the dissidents is not whether they can achieve what the provos failed to achieve but whether they can similarly block all political growth in Northern Ireland, by driving a wedge between two communities and making it impossible for them to govern together. It may be that they can, by pushing the state towards taking security measures that SF can’t stomach and thereby scuppering the devolution of Policing and Justice.
    Remember that the executive couldn’t meet for five months because it couldn’t agree on a devolution date. The deadlock ended, I believe, when the Chief Constable, Hugh orde, made a public statement in September about the danger of a dissident attack. At that moment, surely Robinson and McGuinness realised that a split executive would not be able to sustain that shock.
    Other pressures that will follow from further dissident action will be pressure on catholic police officers to leave for their own safety, wrecking the 50 50 plan, and DUP disaffection, expressed as votes for Jim Allistair (sp).

  15. Andy Newman said,

    March 12, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    The Provo campaign was not a complete failure. It never had a hope of imposing a united Ireland but it did have the potential to prevent any alternative settlement.

    That is certainly true. From the other side of the Irish sea, I would say that the war was effective in both keeping the issue of Ireland continually at the forefront of politics, and also gradually wearing down the automatic assumptions towards unionism among all classes in britain.

    From the point of view of the establishment, the capability of the republicans to fight a long war (perhaps indefinetly) did have a huge effect, and was a constant problem. The Britsh state couldn’t find closure of the war through military means, and that was itself a blow to their international prestige and standing.

    From the point of view of the working class the effect was weariness, and increased disinterest in Ireland, as the war was seen as more and more pointless. Every time there was a poll of public opinion in more recent years, there has been a majority on England for withdrawal from the six counties; and an important shift was that there was increasingly less distingusihing between the unionists and nationalists. Ian paisley was seen as just as bad as Gerry Adams.

  16. Remi Moses said,

    March 12, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    I noted that the Socialist Party had a decent presence at the rally yesterday. They are at least consistent, having supported various peace rallies down the years. Reading McCann’s piece I am struck by some differences with the SWP’s statement on their website (though Eamon does like to show that he knows a bit about republican history, or a version of it at least). But back to consistencey. I am an ex-SWM member and I can tell you there have been at least five different versions of what the party said about the IRA, the armed struggle and the national question. They tend to suggest they have always been consistent though. These days I would err towards the SP position historically; I am unconvinced that there was anything either inevitable or neccesary about the armed struggle.

  17. crackhead pete said,

    March 12, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    My memories of Ian Paisley go back to his planned visit to Liverpool about 1966 and my feeling is that Paisleyism was always seen as an abhorrent throwback by the vast majority of English people, of whatever class or religious background. In terms of sympathies with unionism, it depends how the question is posed – most English people would have no desire to be citizens of a state like the Irish Republic, and would vote against that option if given the choice. So they don’t blame Northern Irish Protestants as such for feeling the same way, I think.

  18. charliemarks said,

    March 13, 2009 at 12:34 am

    Am I alone in thinking that this is actually marvelous for those who oppose a united Ireland – most importantly, the British state? I think we should be a little worried that the penetration of RIRA hasn’t got any deeper in the years since the Omagh bombing – where there’s some suspicion that preventative action wasn’t taken so as to defend the mole….

  19. prospero said,

    March 13, 2009 at 1:08 am

    “And they have been trying, and failing, to kill uniforms for quite some time – that they eventually succeeded has been due not to strength on their part but simply to the law of averages.”
    I cannot belive that it is the law of averages that this attack has come barely year before the British election in which the dissidents will be aiming to take advantage of splits in a Sinn Fein that has already weakened somewhat on an all-ireland scale. I live 500yds from Massereene, know the area, and heard the shots. It obviously had an entirely different intention than, for example, a token hurling of grenades at Enniskillen. Also with other troops due return home from Iraq/Afghanistan, the dissidents appear to have seen the perfect opportunity to entice more on to the streets of NI with a ruthless cynically co-ordinated campaign of violence. In many ways this wasn’t hit and miss.

  20. Wednesday said,

    March 13, 2009 at 6:42 am

    surely the fact that Gerry and Martin are being patted on the back by Enda Kenny, etc. is a sign of how house-trained your party is now.

    Certain people have been describing SF as “house-trained” for years and it hasn’t stopped the likes of FG using every opportunity available to have a go.

  21. Andy Newman said,

    March 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    most English people would have no desire to be citizens of a state like the Irish Republic, and would vote against that option if given the choice. So they don’t blame Northern Irish Protestants as such for feeling the same way, I think.

    There are two sides to Unionism.

    There is the unionism of those Irish people who have a political alleigance to the crown and institions of the British state.

    But more importantly, there is the unionism of the British ourselves; to which Ireland has become increasingly peripheral and irrelevent.

    For sure, most british people wouldn’t want to live in the 26 counties, but we wouldn’t want to live in the six counties either.

    A important result of the war was to drive a political and social wedge between Britain, and Irish unionists.

    there is an important issue looming in English politics about the Barnett formula, and I can foresee a time when the cost of the Irish grantocracy to the English taxpayer becomes an issue, particularly if Scotland becomes independent

    I remember having this debate with Jim Mongahan on one of the blogs on whether Irsh Unionism could survive English indifference, and whether the institutions of the crown would be enough for Unionism to survive if England wanted a divorce.

  22. Renegade Eye said,

    March 13, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    I thought your post was thoughtful. Ultraleftism so tragic and farce.

  23. Maps said,

    March 14, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Thanks for this interesting post. I was trying to get my ahead around this stuff, from a distance of many thousands of miles, and I was wondering: are Republican Sinn Fein quite closely linked to the Continuity IRA? I ask because I was reading the RSF programme, and a little about the ideas of their leader O’Bradaigh, and I was struck by how thoughtful they seemed – a long way from some of the rhetoric of the military dissidents. I thought RSF’s notion of a federal Ireland and its support for co-operatives as an alternative to both top-down socialism and capitalism were particulalry interesting. Are they a group that is taken seriously on the Irish left?

  24. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 16, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Yes, they are closely linked. I think one of the problems is that while there are plenty of people in the broader republican movement who reckon themselves socialists, their socialism is really a matter of opinion rather than something that guides their strategy. To take someone like O Bradaigh, I’ve a lot of respect for him on the personal level and some of his ideas are very attractive, but you have to set that against the kind of movement he’s been in all his life. I suspect that the people who’ve been recruited to the Continuity movement in the north are not all that concerned about federalism or decentralist socialism. Unfortunately the military aspect tends to have its own logic.

  25. Phil said,

    March 16, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    That’s interesting. On reflection it’s a pattern you see quite a lot among armed struggle groups, and particularly the smaller armed struggle groups – some genuinely interesting and provocative analysis coming from people whose actual practice is pretty ghastly. (Red Action were a small-scale example of this – on the level of theory they were working out a really interesting non-Leninist Marxism somewhere in the region of autonomism & council communism, but on the level of practice… not so good.) In many cases it comes down to smaller groups being able to think more freely, and consequently reaching more radical conclusions, but then struggling to find an equally radical practice to ground them in – and you don’t get much more radical than revolutionary violence. (Or, in the case of established armed struggle groups, more revolutionary violence.)

  26. Dublin Socialist said,

    March 16, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    most English people would have no
    desire to be citizens of a state like the Irish Republic</p

    And why do you say that exactly? Since I’ve returned to the Irish Republic as Irish emigrant in London, it is astounding to see the number of nationalities living and working in Ireland (North and South). In the last Irish (Republic) census one of the largest groups of foreign born residents are from the UK. I work for a large MNC here in Ireland and there are many UK citizens working there, happy to take the Euro and live in Ireland (as well as many citizens from EU countries).

    Sorry to report that the Ireland of John Charles McQuaid is long gone, although perhaps you prefer the “pig in the parlour” vision of Ireland. Again sorry to report that is old and cliched too.

    Yes we have corrupt politicians and a crap health service, lousy public transport, a house price crash and an economy heading towards the buffers. Living in the UK has it’s problems too. Would you like me to list them out from my personal experience?

  27. Dublin Socialist said,

    March 16, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Sorry to report that the Ireland of John Charles McQuaid is long gone

    Just to be clear from my post, lest anyone mis-understand, I should have included “and good riddance too.”

  28. crackhead pete said,

    March 18, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    “And why do you say that exactly?”
    Because it’s true. I am an Irish citizen and I don’t need to be informed about the absence of pigs in parlours, and I suspect I know far more about the realities of rural Ireland than any “Dublin socialist” working for an MNC. The fact remains that virtually no English people would vote to join the Republic oF Ireland if given a choice in the matter. The fact that many English people live and work in Ireland has no bearing on this – many Irish people live and work in Britain, but that doesn’t mean that they would support the absorption of the 26 counties into the United Kingdom, does it?

  29. Paul O'Neill said,

    March 18, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Your OP did not make a great deal of sense to me and to remind you that the statement in your OP was “most English people would have no desire to be citizens of a state like the Irish Republic”.

    Let’s be honest as you hinted in your reply, it is unlikely that the majority of citizens in any modern western country are going to vote to cede sovereignty to another country, particularly one which they perceive to be intrinsically inferior. It’s the phrase “like the Irish Republic”, I was unhappy with, I was perhaps sensing that Ireland for you is also inferior and perhaps backward compared to the UK, as some in the UK and the North do believe. I apologise if I misunderstood your position.

    Now back to your reply. Now what exactly is your objection to me being a Socialist in Dublin and working for an MNC? Am I not proletarian enough for you. Since you’ve never met me and don’t know me, you’ve made some very rash judgements. I bow to your greater knowledge of rural Ireland, however I’m not sure how that helps your argument. I hope feeling “Prolier than thou” is at least some comfort to you. You’re not an anarchist are you?

    Yours fraternally,

    Yes a Socialist in Dublin and yes working for an MNC. Sorry about that, although better that than no work at all.

  30. crackhead pete said,

    March 19, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    apology accepted on first point, my apologies to you re second, I am not at all prolier than thou, my family background is rural middle class and I had no intention of sneering at your city or profession My point was that I was indeed aware of the realities of transformations in rural Ireland and perhaps indeed more than most.

  31. Dublin Soclialist said,

    March 21, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    Cheers Pete, thanks for the reply.

  32. charliemarks said,

    March 24, 2009 at 10:36 am

    re O’Bradaigh and co

    This reminds me of the days when a commitment to socialism was adopted by groups aimed at national liberation, usually via armed struggle, in response to support, material and ideological, from eastern bloc countries. In many cases the link wasn’t causal, but I can think of many such groups who abandoned talk of socialism after the demise of the eastern bloc – whether this relates to internal political changes within the group, it’s hard to say.

    As to Sinn Fein, the inability to retain dissidents within the organisation is perhaps beneficial to the organisation. If there’s little appetite for armed struggle in the six counties, there’s none in the other 26. SF’s condemnation of violent attacks on police and servicepersonnel will make it easier for the organisation to build political alliances in the Republic – with Labour and the Greens, for example.

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