Dissidence in the New Dispensation


Wait till I tell you, the Easter commemorations were pretty desperate this year. But weren’t there an awful lot of them? Actually, there seem to be commemorations going on all the time. And this is something that strikes me, that the more the Provisionals turn into a constitutional party, the keener they are to celebrate the republican past. It’s easy to be cynical on this point, but I don’t think it can be explained purely by cynicism. I think there are other things going on here in terms of republican identity.

This was something that occurred to me apropos of the tributes to the late Marie Moore. I don’t want to seem disrespectful to the memory of Marie, one of the grand old women of Belfast republicanism and someone who was very well liked. But I was a little taken aback by the Andytown News running a double-page spread explaining to the broad masses what they owed to Marie Moore. If you took the paper at face value, if it wasn’t for Marie we would all be sitting in a hovel in Short Strand with no trousers or shoes. And this is something that, for instance, Jim Gibney has developed into a fine art over recent years, simultaneously backslapping the republican base and impressing on the base the need for gratitude to the leadership.

Departing from this for a second but sticking with the Andytown News, the other noteworthy thing has been the ongoing propaganda campaign against dissident republicans. This has actually got to the point of being scurrilous bordering on the downright hysterical – if you believe the Andytown News, every single dissident, not only members of the armed groups but even extending to éirígí activists, is a criminal of some description – glue sniffers, burglars, paedophiles, you name it. In fact it is quite possible, even likely, that there are criminal elements among the dissident ranks, although they are probably small fry compared to the Provo and Stickie entrepreneurs. But Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is not a man to be too fastidious about his propaganda.

None too fastidious, either, is Bobby Storey, who’s recently been holding forth on this point. Some folks will fall over laughing at the idea of Bobby of all people taking a high moral tone against the men of violence. But that is to miss the point. When Bobby Storey goes around saying “I know where these guys live,” there’s really only one way to take it. The question is whether the threat carries any credibility without the military wing to back it up, and with no prospect of the Provisional IRA being resurrected for the purpose of wiping out the dissidents. (The Brits might be tempted to stave off the emergence of a local Hamas by bringing a local Fatah into play, but I can’t see the DUP standing for it. During the peace process, they went buck mad whenever the Provos did in a dissident.)

But anyway, back to the criminality thing. Once we get past the black propaganda, this often morphs into the Gibneyesque line that, while the Provisional leadership have put in decades of sacrifice for the cause, the dissidents are nothing but young thugs. The fact that some of the people most strident on this issue were young thugs themselves once kind of gives the game away. Because, of course, the dissidents in themselves are not all that different from the Provos of years past. It’s the Provos who have changed – the context obviously has changed massively, but rock-bottom republican theology has never required, for instance, mass popular support, and would regard power-sharing at Stormont as an irrelevance at best.

This poses a bit of a problem for supporters of the GFA process. A few weeks back I saw a letter in the Irish News from Danny Morrison lambasting the dissidents and all their works. At least, that’s what it looked like at first glance; at second glance, I was left wondering whether Danny was completely out of touch or whether he just liked nursing his grudges. The reason for this is that Danny spent most of his time getting stuck into the Irish Republican Writers Group, a body that’s been defunct for a decade or more. Frankly, for Danny to be harping on what Tommy McKearney and Tony McIntyre were saying twelve years ago is a bit odd, at a time when Fourthwrite has at least one foot in the Big Tent, and the Blanket has folded. But this also points up a little conundrum, in that the peace process got by for a long time by simply co-opting the opposition. If you were a republican or loyalist critic of the process and you were able to string a sentence together, there was a good chance you’d be put on the payroll. In the end, virtually the only republicans left outside the Big Tent were RSF, who really are died-in-the-wool ideologues, and who, having correctly surmised that there would always be a market for traditional republicanism, were mostly content to keep their elderly cadre together until a new generation of disaffected youth came along. But that was then and this is now. The spotty youths causing most of the trouble at the moment are outwith the peace industry, are likely to laugh in your face if you tell them Martin McGuinness is a great republican, and nobody seems to have a clear idea what to do about them.

It’s true, of course, that the dissidents don’t have much popular support. When a raft of dissident candidates stood in the last Stormont election, between them they got something under 10,000 votes – not entirely insignificant, but not much in the grand scheme of things. There are, mark you, some caveats that need to be entered. The vote for anti-Agreement republican candidates doesn’t necessarily equate to support for a renewed armed campaign. On the other hand, those candidates were a motley bunch hampered by poor organisation and a lack of a coherent alternative. The majority of them were from Republican Sinn Féin, who are not universally popular even with other hardline republicans; most of the others were in or around the IRSP; and there was Gerry McGeough, the nearest thing to a green fascist we’ve seen in sixty years. It did show that there might be some limited potential for a well-organised political alternative with a knack for populism and a track record of grassroots activity, but the likelihood of a follow-up along those lines isn’t great.

The other thing said about the dissidents is that, as well as having no support, they have no strategy. It’s tempting to believe that if you’ve ever been to one of the periodic meetings that happen in places like Derry to discuss alternatives to the peace process. The usual format is that a bunch of people will talk about the need for an alternative, although they may not have any idea what that should be, and then someone from the Real Republicans will get up and insist on their inalienable right to take potshots at the Brits, regardless of whether taking potshots at the Brits is a good idea. But there is a hazy strategic conception at work. Partly it’s the strategy of tension, which I don’t think the Brits are going to fall for any time soon, but on a more prosaic – and effective – level, it consists of asking the question, “Which side are you on?”

Here’s the thing. It’s often said in dissident circles that the Provisionals have given up on the goal of the 32-county socialist republic. But, while you can make some rhetorical hay around them sitting in the Stormont executive, it’s not true to say they’ve ditched the goal. It’s on the first page of their programme, after all. You can talk about people being corrupted, or institutionalised by a process they thought was going in another direction, or simply worn down by war-weariness, but you’re still, in the main, talking about people who want to be republicans on some level. That’s why the parades, and the tributes to past heroes; that’s why Martin McGuinness was talking just there about winning the republic by 2014.

What anti-Agreement republican activity does, whether it’s low-level disruption by the armed groups, or whether it’s éirígí’s brand of agitprop politics (parenthetically, while I have my doubts about éirígí, the ferocity of the attacks on an unarmed political group suggest that they’re annoying the right people) is to ask the question “Which side are you on?” Do you, in essence, support the state against republicans, no matter how deluded you think those republicans may be? Imagine this being asked to a panel at a debate. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for an RSF member, who would simply answer No. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for a member of the SDLP, which has been collaborating with the state for decades, and who would simply answer Yes. The leftist on our imaginary panel would huff and puff and say that this was the wrong question, and we should really be talking about water rates. But for a PSF politician? Totally committed to the peace process, yet subjectively unwilling to openly pledge loyalty to a partitionist settlement, or even to recognise that that’s what the settlement is. For that reason, it’s still problematic to support the state against republicans – that’s why they don’t say they’re defending the state, they say they’re defending the Good Friday Agreement.

Ah, the vagaries of being slightly constitutional. You can ride two horses for a while, but it doesn’t really add up to a long-term perspective. Eventually the dissonance has to be worked out one way or another.

More thoughts on this point from WorldbyStorm.


  1. April 21, 2009 at 6:28 am

    […] the Real IRA statements that weekend. And what statements they are. I’ve got to mention that Splintered Sunrise wrote a post yesterday that touches on some of the issues of this topic which made me hesitate in […]

  2. April 21, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    The problem for the Provos, it seems to me, is that for years they told their base they were lying to the Brits just as they told the Brits they were lying to their base. But the negotiations are over now, so such deception can’t be done as easily. Plus the Brits insisted the Provos pony up on the promises to them while the Provo base has never been anywhere near that insistent.

    I could be wrong, but doesn’t FF still use “The Republican Party” as a tag line? It’s been generations now and they still use it. Kind of like the neo-liberal Dems here saying they are the Party of Roosevelt or the racist Republicans claiming to be the Party of Lincoln. For sixty years the Second International claimed socialism as it’s goal. When faced with a real socialist challenge they sided with those that shot the socialists, occasionally pulling the trigger themselves. I doubt Noske lost a night of sleep over his duplicity.

    Capitalist politics, at least at the public consumption level, is a lot of bullshit; you can say about any damn thing and it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. I imagine the Provos will continue on calling themselves red republicans even as they lock up those who are and they close hospitals and privatize whatever. The lie may get harder or easier, more laughable or more serious depending on the circumstance, but bourgeois politics is predicated on hypocrisy. The Provo’s hypocrisy may be at a level that would shame some other politicians, but it is certainly not unique to them. It’s the tools of the trade. The only thing that might challenge it is if they lose their base. But as you point out; who would they lose their base to in the present circumstances?

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 21, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    That’s it exactly. Dissident Republicanism is no more left-wing, in certain instances is self-evidently much much more right-wing. It’s a brave person who’d hope that a more clearly left alternative will emerge from self-described civil society or from elsewhere. Still, early days in the current economic crisis so who knows…

    Very interesting point splintered about the support for dissident Republicanism not necessary overlapping with voting patterns – I’ve been wondering about that since I first read the piece. So it could be smaller, or it could be considerably bigger. Any thoughts as to how that number might be determined.

  4. yourcousin said,

    April 22, 2009 at 1:38 am

    I’ve been trying to find the time to get together a post on the dissidents and the current political situation up North but realistically I have no chance of getting it together so
    I might as well comment on it instead.

    I think these two posts (this one and WBS’s over at CLR) are a little more nuanced and a little more well thought out than many of the initial reactions to the recent shootings. And there is so much here to deal with from all sides.

    One of the things that jumped out at me was the death of Donaldson which RIRA brought up. His death did leave many questions and the statement which alludes to the IRA executing picques my curiosity as to whether RIRA is claiming some involvement or whether they were implying that there are dissident provos who while willing to call armed insurrection a day are still unwilling to let one of the main tenets of Irish Republicanism slide simply because Gerry and Martin wanted to warm their behinds on cushy Stormont seats.

    The eirigi thing is interesting as I remember when they broke away from SF in Dublin in order to pursue a more pure bred left wing line. They initially decided not to form a political party in order to better focus on issues (IIRC) and then they did the uturn and suddenly expanded their presence to the North and to places that never really struck me as left leaning. I bring this up because these days the multiple groupings of dissident republicans (meant in a more general meaning than the provo prescribed definition) seem to be able to co-exist with one another in ways that would have been unthinkable with the groups thirty years ago. If one goes back to when the SF MLA and councillor got jumped for clearing the bon fire the juiced up kid who pulled the attacker off affiliates with RIRA on his bebo page and the kid who justified the attack to the BBC reporter has has previous convictions related to CIRA figures (Again IIRC. My main computer account with all of my book marks got corrupted and erased so my plethera of saved links to interesting stories is now gone). So to my mind the lines are a little more fluid than they were during the troubles and I see no reason why eirigi should not be included in this fluid mix. That is not to say that eirigi is a front for other groups just that these days there doesn’t seem to be such a huge problem with a little mixing and matching as the spotlight on Collin Duffy showed. I think there’s still a long way to go before the dissident groupings figure their politics between themselves let alone a public policy to present the world. Remember the stink when some RSF cummans were denied naming their branches after post ’87 volunteers who while willing to kill and die for Ireland were not Republican (cough, cough).

    I think RBR is off base by saying that PSF has somehow turned on “true” Republicans, let alone the red kind. This is a fine line that SF has to walk and one which I’ve been watching because of the questions it raises in terms of allegiances. To date the most severe actions against the dissidents has come from the provos and not in the form of finger wagging from a Shinner. Gildernew is on record as saying she wouldn’t reveal a dissident weapon’s stash and PSF put up protest pickets when Gerry McGeough was arrested and again PSF protested against the extended detention of those MM branded traitors. This is hardly the “shut up and get behind the security forces” that Turgon and probably many unionists, not just the TUV type, were looking for on Slugger when the shootings happened.

    Storey seems to be the rarest of things these days, a barely reformed shinner whose likes were probably much more common around the first and second ceasefire. The FF comparison doesn’t work at this point because while SF haven’t been nearly as cosy with the dissidents as Dev was with the IRA it was the hunger strike and attacks on the IRA while in government that really burned down the bridge between FF and the Republicans. I haven’t seen those indications that SF are eager to play the heavy while in Stormont. Especially while we’re still in an orange and green state. Maybe when the order reverses we’ll see something different.

    I would say at this point that SF are a little more than “slightly constitutional”, and there has been to the keen eye a progression from one to another, especially in the up to St. Andrews. I don’t see a change coming so far as the ambivalence goes, even once SF put the other horse out to pasture (which if they haven’t done it yet, they’re leading them out of the barn). That was the whole point of the GFA, not an end, but simply a new mean to the end. It won’t be the exact end they had in mind, but then again even if the armed struggle had produced a 32 unitary Republic it would have still not been the Republic and many would still be asking the same questions we’re asking now.

  5. yourcousin said,

    April 22, 2009 at 1:40 am

    Fuck it, I may have to clean that comment up, expand a little here and there (that progression from the two horses) and put that up as a post this weekend, lord knows it’ll be the closest I get to a real post for awhile.

  6. johng said,

    April 22, 2009 at 8:11 am

    I’ve just revisited patterson’s ‘politics of illusion’ and am currently reading his new history. a heated debate about them would be most helpful…:).

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 23, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I think Rustbelt has a useful point about the way during the peace process that Gerry told the republican base he was lying to the Brits and simultaneously told the Brits he was lying to the base. It’s a big theme of Ed Moloney’s, but what Ed misses out, and is just as important, is Gerry’s capacity for lying to himself. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he genuinely thought this process was going to end somewhere else. But the process would have its own dynamic.

    Johng, I may well oblige you with something. Haven’t read Henry’s new book, but his old ones certainly have some stuff to get your teeth into…

  8. April 23, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    […] Splintered Sunrise made a very relevant point that whatever about the charges, the reality is that SF remains strongly wedded to pushing Republican politics. Or to quote: Here’s the thing. It’s often said in dissident circles that the Provisionals have given up on the goal of the 32-county socialist republic. But, while you can make some rhetorical hay around them sitting in the Stormont executive, it’s not true to say they’ve ditched the goal. It’s on the first page of their programme, after all. You can talk about people being corrupted, or institutionalised by a process they thought was going in another direction, or simply worn down by war-weariness, but you’re still, in the main, talking about people who want to be republicans on some level. That’s why the parades, and the tributes to past heroes; that’s why Martin McGuinness was talking just there about winning the republic by 2014. […]

  9. Lobby Ludd said,

    April 23, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    I am loath to comment on the nuances of Republican politics, so I won’t. Except to say that the British Labour Party had Clause IV. It was dead well before they buried it.

  10. anonymous said,

    April 30, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Very good article.
    Check out our blog for a closely proximate analysis.

  11. June 30, 2009 at 6:25 am

    […] was a pretty good point about Sinn Féin and dissident Republicanism and I quoted it then, and I’ll quote it now… Here’s the thing. It’s often said in dissident circles that the Provisionals have given up on […]

  12. David Dinning said,

    December 30, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    What is it about the good friday accord that the RIRA doesn’t like.

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