Dissidents recruiting in North

There are only a few hundred involved in dissident republicanism despite efforts to recruit disaffected youth in Northern Ireland. Colm Heatley reports“Sinn Féin don't care about us, all they want are votes and then you won't see them again, they do nothing for republicans”, says Ciaran a 21 year-old from the Fisherwick estate in Ballymena.
He used to put up Sinn Féin election posters but now he supports Republican Sinn Féin and sympathises with the RIRA and CIRA. It is estimated there are 2-300 in the RIRA and not more than 200 on the CIRA.
Five of his friends from the Fisherwick estate were arrested last year and charged with explosive offences related to a RIRA firebomb campaign in Co Antrim. The oldest was 29, the others were aged between 20 and 22.
He thinks Sinn Féin has “sold out” and the only people doing anything to advance the “republican cause” are those in the 32-County Sovereignty Committee and Republican Sinn Féin.
Since the Good Friday Agreement and particularly since last September's IRA decommissioning the dissident groups have been recruiting heavily amongst young nationalists across Ireland.
In Northern Ireland they have had most success in areas where Catholics are outnumbered by Protestants and where there is little history of IRA activity, places such as Ballymena and Antrim town. In areas such as west Belfast the dissidents have had virtually no success when faced with a well organised Sinn Féin constituency. Their recruitment drives are simplistic and play upon the disenchantment and deprivation felt by young nationalists.
Using a mixture of old-fashioned republican rhetoric and lending a sympathetic ear to the concerns of young people faced with unemployment, loyalist attack and general anomie the dissidents have had some limited success.
When the RIRA was formed in 1997 following the IRA's reinstatement of its ceasefire in July of that year a number of senior provisionals defected to the new group. Amongst them were senior bomb-makers, seasoned gunmen and members who had provided logistical support over long periods.
But a series of successes by the Garda and PSNI, long jail sentences, internal feuding (the RIRA's leader Liam Campbell was beaten up in Portlaoise jail the week before the riots) and an almost complete lack of support from within republican areas convinced many older republican activists to part company with the group.
When the dissidents began reorganising last summer they were aware that they could not mount any significant attacks and since then their tactics have switched to encouraging their young supporters to riot with the PSNI. Last year young supporters of the CIRA in Lurgan, Co Armagh, rioted with the police for two consecutive nights. There had been no event to trigger off the riots and it later emerged that the CIRA had tried to plant a car bomb in the town during the disturbances.
This week Republican Sinn Féin's vice-President Des Dalton said he viewed the riot as a ‘dry run' for the possible visit of the British Queen to Dublin later this year.
“We view Saturday's march as a dry run for the visit”, he said. “The Queen and what she represents is not welcome. We will continue to protest against such a visit.”
The dissidents clearly see such street protests as the best vehicle for advancing their aims.
As Sinn Féin moves further towards mainstream politics the dissidents have attempted to capitalise on grass-roots resentment in working-class areas.
That claim is hotly disputed by Sinn Féin, but some republicans regard its stance on Saturday's parade, ‘everyone has the right to march wherever they want', as out of step with grass-roots opinion.
Sinn Féin has actively campaigned against loyalist parades in Northern Ireland for a number of years on the basis that they must seek the consent of the host community.
Dissident republicans though remain a micro-group within Irish society.
They do not contest elections in Northern Ireland and most republicans view them as a “talking shop”.
Their republican credentials have been tarnished by their involvement in the Omagh bombing and by allegations that senior members of the RIRA conducted an arms deal with the Loyalist Volunteer Force in 2001.
Furthermore their lack of a realistic alternative to the peace process and an insistence upon a return to “armed struggle” has led to a wide-spread rejection of their politics in war-weary nationalist areas.
Significantly they receive far more support in the South where nationalists have not been subjected to loyalist paramilitary attack.
Ruari O'Bradaigh's leadership of Republican Sinn Féin is also regarded as a major dent to the credibility within wider republican circles.
O'Bradaigh was instrumental in supporting the IRA's 1975 ceasefire, which with hindsight, many republicans now view as a disastrous episode in the IRA's history.
They believe the IRA was duped and the British government used the truce to build up intelligence and better co-ordinate their strategy against the IRA. However the dissidents have provided a home for some younger nationalists.
Pete Shirlow, a lecturer at the University of Ulster, has conducted extensive research into post-ceasefire attitudes among young people.
“In areas where republicanism hasn't been so strong the push toward politics for young nationalists hasn't been strong either”, he says.
“In such circumstances young people have put nationalism above politics.
“To the supporters dialogue is a closed-off option, representing weakness.”
The forthcoming marching season in the North will present further opportunities for dissident republicans.