Former Blanket columnist and Unionist commentator, Dr John Coulter, assesses how dissident republicans can take the moral high ground politically within nationalism now that unionism and loyalism have been thrown into confusion over the Union flag protests.
The various factions which comprise the dissident republican movement must be highly amused at the assorted baby-faced new generation of young loyalists who appear to be on the brink of achieving what more than a decade of dissident violence could not accomplish – Peter Robinson deposed as DUP leader, and Stormont collapsing.
Working class loyalists used to be the foot soldiers of middle class Unionism, ready at the drop of a bowler hat to do the bidding at elections of so-called ‘Big House, Orange Order Unionists’ who ruled Northern Ireland for generations.
Unionism’s biggest blunder was not to throw cold water on Terence O’Neill’s liberal policies in the late 1960s. It was the failure of the joint Unionist leadership to find a workable alternative when it decided to bring down the Sunningdale Executive using the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974.
Working class loyalists were the backbone of that 1974 strategy. Almost 40 years later, loyalists will no longer be conned by Unionist parties into doing their bidding without questions. Like many Middle Eastern nations, a loyalist revolution is underway, but it has no idea in which direction that revolution will take Northern Protestantism.
Unionism is politically rudderless; the DUP is having major problems trying to reconnect with working class Protestants because of its cosy Stormont partnership with Provisional Sinn Fein. Indeed, Provisional Sinn Fein is actually in danger with becoming tainted with the DUP’s dilemma. How many in republican heartlands are wondering if Provisional Sinn Fein, rather than actively pursuing the agenda of a united island, is in reality merely propping up an increasingly unstable DUP partner?
As with loyalism, a new generation of young post ceasefire republicans has emerged. Unlike the 1980s, when Provisional Sinn Fein seriously entered the Northern political arena, the ex-Provisional IRA card does not hold the balance of power within the republican movement. The overwhelming majority of Provisional Sinn Fein candidates, elected representatives and senior party workers had served an apprenticeship in the IRA. Many were ex-prisoners or ex-internees.
Provisional Sinn Fein now finds itself in the era of the ‘draft dodgers’ – young, well-educated republicans who were never members of the IRA. Increasingly, this new generation of Provisional Sinn Fein republicans are emerging from middle class Catholic backgrounds, not the traditional working class republican heartlands.
These new ‘Super Shinners’ are bristling with honours degrees, not armalites. Slowly, but surely, Provisional Sinn Fein is emerging into the now defunct Irish Independence Party formed by Protestant nationalist, the late John Turnley. Eventually, if the peace process holds, Northern Provisional Sinn Fein will become a mirror image of the also now defunct Irish Nationalist Party once fronted by Stormont MP, the late Eddie McAteer.
Just as the DUP remains resolute to wipe the increasingly irrelevant Ulster Unionist Party off the pro-Union spectrum, so Provisional Sinn Fein seems equally resolute on condemning the SDLP to the dustbin of nationalist history.
Now is the time for dissident republicans to go political with a radical alternative to Provisional Sinn Fein. Anglo-Irish relations have developed to such a level that dissident republicans can no longer rely on the Republic as a safe haven for its terrorists. It seems that dissident republicans have not taken account of the development of the British-Irish political institutions. These should not be confused with the cross-border bodies.
Southern Ireland may deem itself neutral in terms of a global conflict, but it is by no means neutral when it now comes to dealing with dissident republican terror cells in the 26 counties. With the British and Irish Labour parties confirming they both will not contest elections in Northern Ireland in a last ditch bid to rescue the fading SDLP, the leaderships of the various dissident groups needs to combine to form – not a new terror group such as the so-called New IRA – but a new united republican socialist party capable of competing with the increasingly middle class Catholic looking Provisional Sinn Fein.
Readers of The Pensive Quill and The Blanket know that I am an unashamed and unrepentant Radical Right Wing Unionist. But I did believe the Concerned Republican initiative which emerged in the new millennium was a credible experience at trying to provide a feasible alternative to the Provisional Sinn Fein roller coaster rampaging through the republican family.
The Concerned Republican project was basically a decade ahead of its time. This year, and now, would have been a good time to launch this. A decade ago, republicans were more interested in getting Provisional Sinn Fein to topple the SDLP as the leading party for nationalists. Like the political malaise which has struck Protestantism, Unionism and Loyalism, dissident republicanism has been fragmented with internal strife and factions – a key factor which has benefited Provisional Sinn Fein.
The first thing which dissident republicanism must comprehend is that violence does not work. Using its well placed network of informers and spies, the British establishment brought the Provisional IRA to the ceasefire table and Provisional Sinn Fein into a partitionist parliament at Stormont.
No matter how many terror cells or organisations which dissident republicans launch, eventually the British will get the upper hand in terms of intelligence and force that group to either disband or negotiate. The bitter medicine which – at some stage – the dissident republican movement must swallow is that violence does not work, and democratic politics are the only paths forward.
Provisional Sinn Fein is riding two horses at present in terms of its all-island vision – it is the party of government in the power-sharing Stormont Executive in Northern Ireland, and it is portraying itself as the champion of opposition against the austerity cuts in the Republic. There is always the danger one of those horses will stumble.
As for dissident republicanism, 2013 marks the centenary of the formation of two nationalist militias – the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. To commemorate these events with a terror campaign will only provoke a combined back lash by the British and Irish governments.
A much better strategy would be to launch a new Democratic Republican Party in Northern Ireland as a viable political alternative to the cuts which are to come from the DUP/Provisional Sinn Fein dominated Stormont Executive.
That makes more sense that a terror campaign which included the murder of my good friend, Constable Steve Carroll in March 2009. The anti-fascist movement has a slogan – hope not hate. The political gauntlet for the dissident republican movement is if it possessed the courage to rise to the challenge of that slogan.
Can dissident republicans bring hope to the nationalist communities in this time of cuts and crisis, or will it simply try to swamp the Catholic people of Ireland with the empty rhetoric of hate? Irish history is littered with Protestants who tried to steer nationalism along a democratic path.
I have never been an Irish republican, am not an Irish republican, and will never be an Irish republican. But just maybe, I am another Protestant whom Irish republicans might listen to. I live in hope.