Towards the end of September a group of people gathered in a hotel in the Northern Irish border town of Newry to discuss the future of Irish republicanism.
They were gathering for the ard fheis (annual conference) of the newly formed party Saoradh (meaning ‘liberation’ in Irish) and this meeting caught the attention of the media because the party numbered among its ranks some of the most prominent republican dissidents of the last 20 years.
Saoradh is made up of Anti-Good Friday Agreement republicans for whom the Northern Irish peace process has been a fundamental betrayal of aims and ideological objectives of their political tradition. Many of those present had already been involved in other groups that had split with Sinn Féin and the Provisional republican movement over the last 30 years, and this was the latest throw of the dissidence dice.
In the room, among others, yet capturing the headlines, were media causes celebres like Colin Duffy, a Co Armagh republican who had recently served two years bail for membership of a dissident IRA and attempting to murder police officers in Belfast in 2014, and prominent Belfast dissident Dee Fennell who has been in the headlines because of his upcoming trial over charges relating to encouraging terrorism.
The formation of Saoradh is a significant development in Irish republican politics because it comes at a time of crisis for the Peace Process, the Stormont assembly and the profound uncertainty that Brexit has triggered in Ireland.
It may be coincidence rather than correlation, but the political upheaval of the next two years may provide an opportunity for dissenters and dissidents to re-stake a claim for traditional republican ideals, either politically or in tandem with some armed actions.
There is an important distinction to be made here: dissidents are those for whom the use of violence is still a central plank of their ideological viewpoints. These are small in number, relatively speaking.
Dissenters are those for whom republican doctrine has been compromised by a peace process that has failed to deliver lasting benefits for the largely Catholic republican population, and has put the cause of Irish unity back enormously, but these people see no utility in a return to armed struggle.
Both groups may be better described as revolutionary republicans: committed to the historical struggle of Irish unity but diverging on the use of violence as the defining mode of resistance.
Irish republican dissenters’ critical appraisal of the peace process is not unique to them because 18 years after the signing of the historic 1998 agreement, it has delivered little economic or social transformation in the lives of people in Northern Ireland, where poverty and deprivation are among the highest levels in Britain.
Critics see the agreement as little more than a fudge to pacify warring sides, and as a cynical means of managing a crisis as opposed to resolving it once and for all.
The devolved Stormont Assembly, established after the peace accord has also been rocked repeatedly over charges of corruption at senior levels in the last three years, including a multi-million pound debt fraud which might yet implicate the family for former First Minister Peter Robinson and civil servants and business people close to him.
As a result many people with no link to republicanism have denounced Stormont as an ineffective talking shop dominated by the hard line unionist DUP and Irish republican Sinn Féin, both of whom are charged with ambivalence to breaking down the religious divisions in Northern Irish political life which allow them to repeatedly return to office on a basic sectarian head count.
Critics contend that the Assembly, with little legislative independence from Westminster, is merely a jumped-up parish council elected along narrow sectarian identity lines, which achieves little other than feathering the nest of those elected to it. Declining numbers of voters, in particular, from the Catholic nationalist population, has revealed deep-seated misgivings about the effectiveness of Stormont.
But criticisms of imperfect democratic institutions are hardly unique to Northern Ireland.
Dr Kevin Bean of the University of Liverpool, and the author of several important works on republicanism, including a co-authored major study of dissidence to be published next year, says that the recent development of dissent in Northern Ireland is reflective of wider trends of cynicism aimed the political process in the West. He says:
There is disquiet at the Good Friday Agreement and the feeling that the structures have failed to take the republican project on and that Sinn Féin are seen to be managing the status quo. There will be people, not just dissenters, who believe the Good Friday Agreement has replaced one party sectarian rule with two party sectarian rule. And, like a lot of people across the world, there is a sense in contemporary politics that there is no alternative. While in the rest of the world it has taken 30-40 years for this to occur, in the North of Ireland it has only taken 10-20 years and this is despite quite high electoral turn outs until quite recently.
Republican dissidents have said that Sinn Féin had abandoned republican principles years ago by standing in elections to parliaments it should not recognise. They accuse the party of sitting in the assembly in return for high wages which has fostered a nepotistic “jobs for the boys” approach which has denuded it of its revolutionary roots.
Republican dissidents have been part of the modern political landscape of Ireland since 1986 when Republican Sinn Féin left the Provisional movement over the decision to end electoral abstentionism. In the intervening period other groups have split from Sinn Féin and the Provisionals over issues of doctrine and reform of republican ideals, including the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, éirígí, Republican Network for Unity and, now, Saoradh.
As Sinn Féin has gradually evolved to become a primarily parliamentary movement whose core motivation is gathering votes, the dissenting groups have assumed its previously revolutionary role, which can broadly be defined as ‘the Four Ps’: critiques of the Peace Process and the perennially controversial issue of policing, along with leading protests against contentious Protestant Orange parades in Catholic areas as well as the welfare of republican prisoners in Northern Ireland’s jails.
Sinn Féin, and all of those dissenting from it, share a broad range of ‘republicanisms’, beliefs that focus on Irish nationalism and which once included a commitment to violence to achieve liberation. The use of violence to achieve their aims was abandoned by Sinn Féin long ago, and most dissidents would admit privately that they have neither the capacity nor support to recommence an armed campaign like that waged during the Troubles.
Violence, however, was not the defining characteristic of Irish republicanism, and intertwined with it are Irish national liberation and self-determination based on complex personal and group identities based on Irish nationalism and Catholicism. There is also an emphasis on left wing class struggle and a communal identity politics that have deep roots dating back to the 1916 Easter Rising’s revolutionary leader James Connolly.
One of the ironies of sections of the Northern Irish Unionist population voting for Brexit is that the border, Irish unification and debates on self-determination, central to their bitter republican opponents’ agenda, are back at the heart of the political debate, something the Good Friday Agreement had put on a backburner for nearly two decades.
Dr Bean says dissidents, who have ideologically opposed the border are now at the centre of the zeitgeist for the first time in many years. He says:
The old phrase of a stopped clock telling the right time twice a day has resonance in debates about Ireland and republican dissidents for whom the border has never been off the agenda. There is a tendency to overly historicise republican dissent, to root it in the past and seeing these people as been stuck in the mud. But it is often much more immediate than that and the national question – of Ireland’s sovereignty – becomes a way of dealing with the economic and social issues of the day.
Brexit has brought the land question back to the table and dissidents who did not buy into the fudge of the Peace Process or the idea that the border would suddenly magically one day disappear as peace progressed, appear to be due some degree of vindication. Dr Bean says:
Every time we get a debate about Brexit, we get a debate about the border because it is a very immediate presence in the life of many republicans who live close to it. The border is coming back into play because the overall Brexit debate is about self-determination and of where the nation is in regard to other nations. It brings back into play the idea of what is the nation? Is there a national interest in all of Ireland staying in the EU? It’s no longer simply about whether there are going to be watchtowers on the border that dissidents can take potshots at. We used to say that people who were talking about national sovereignty were living in the past, like Republican Sinn Féin that was talking about a federal Ireland and the relations between Ireland and Britain. But this is back on the table again. Use whatever cliché you like, but the genie is out of the bottle.
Just as we can link the growth in dissenting republicanism to wider trends in political thought and alienation from the political elites, they are also part of a pattern of revivals in nationalism, of which the English nationalism that drove Brexit is the most prominent recent example. Dr Bean says:
We were told repeatedly over the last 40 years that the nation wasn’t important and yet we got the revival of nationalist and regionalist movements all over Europe. Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 1990 about how it was only as nationalism was ending that we were beginning to understand it. Yet, in the 1990s, there was a revival of nationalism in Europe. Therefore, it is foolish to write the obituaries of dissenting Irish republicans, given that they appeal to certain elements of modernist politics and are relevant to ideas like the nation and democracy. There is a debate to be had about what these groups represent in the emergence of this kind of politics.
Looking at the fall out of Brexit and the political and financial uncertainty it may cause, security commentators have tried to assess whether it offers an opportunity for a return to concerted violence by republican dissidents.
But, Dr Bean says:
This is not 1969. The IRA that emerged in 1969/ 1970 was not the same kind of IRA of the 1920s. The IRA of the 1970s was a very different organisation born out of a very different crisis and a very different historical period. In Ireland people in 1970 were looking for something like the Black and Tan war of the 1920s, including many within the republican movement, but they didn’t get it. In some ways, activists are often fighting the last war and in the current period we need to see how far the dissidents have absorbed these lessons. Revolutionary republicans have no theoretical objection to the use of armed struggle but realise the relative futility at the minute because many of the organisations have been penetrated by the security forces and they can’t get operations off the ground.
In September, Saoradh’s chairperson David Jordan lambasted republicans co-operating with the Peace Process with the kind of rhetoric that once characterised Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA more than 30 years ago. He said:
Those who sit in the pay of our nation's oppressor while claiming to champion our liberation are false prophets who have been defeated and consumed by the very system they claim to oppose.
Republican dissent like this, of one kind or another, has been a consistent aspect of Irish and British political life at least since the late 18th Century, yet to this point it has always fallen short of its overall goal. Therefore, the odds on Saoradh succeeding in influencing the course of history where others haven’t would appear to be slim, but to ignore it is to be blind to the lessons of Irish history.