Dissident Republicanism in the North

In the North at present there are infrequent attacks by at least three armed Irish Republican insurgent guerrilla 'armies'. 'Dissident' Republicans were responsible for the April 2011 bomb attack in Killyclogher, near Omagh, which killed PSNI member, Ronan Kerr; the Antrim fatal shooting attacks at Massereene Barracks in 2009; a fatal shooting attack in North Armagh, and the Omagh bombing of 1999.

For a variety of reasons these groups are uniformly referred to in the media by the blanket term 'Dissident Republicans'. The main players at present are: the Real I.R.A (RIRA), Oglaigh na hEireann (O.N.H) and the Continuity IRA (CIRA). To date, and in some cases despite nearly 25 years of operational existence, dissident Republican armed groups have managed to kill only four members of the Crown forces (PSNI members Ronan Kerr and Stephen Carroll, and Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar). There are of course many cited reasons for this lack of 'real' casualties, in comparison to the earlier campaigns of the Provisonal IRA (PIRA) and the smaller, though deadly, Irish National Liberation Army, not least being the near unassailable grip that the Provisionals have been able to harness, in electoral terms at least, by their longstanding indefinite ceasefire.

The Provisional IRA's eventual official cessation of armed struggle, decommissioning, and their wholehearted embrace of constitutional politics, has had a clearly positive effect on their political mandate. The reality for any armed Republican group waging a guerrilla war in the current political climate is fraught with near insurmountable difficulties, such as: lack of even the slightest political mandate (not just necessarily electorally speaking); lack of even tacit support in traditional Irish Republican working class areas; the huge operational and technological advantages of the British Crown Forces; a political force on the ground in traditional Republican areas, Provisional Sinn Fein, who are now diametrically opposed to the use of arms and more importantly have invested their support in the PSNI/RUC; the fact that Crown Forces and Provisionals' short and long-term interests have dovetailed in opposition to the current sporadic campaign of 'armed struggle' by contemporary Republican insurgents.

There are a myriad other factors and reasons but the bottom line is that any armed group needs a support base in its operational area, for logistical reasons, and the reality, at present, is that such a thing does not exist for the dissidents. There is also the fact that a population that has been wearied by a forty-year campaign of armed struggle, would take a generation, at least, to be placed on anything resembling a war-footing.

It is worth noting that previous guerilla groups like the Provisional IRA and the INLA, during their armed campaigns, could just about absorb much of the negative reaction they incurred, and the near inevitable civilian casualties involved. The current Republican armed groups do not have that broad support base

Arguably, sporadic attacks will only strengthen the Good Friday Agreement, as 'the only show in town' and present Stormont as the only alternative to death and destruction. Sporadic attacks such as those we are witnessing at present are debatably strengthening the Provisionals' power in working class areas - colloquially put, working class people view their brand of Republicanism as being 'better the devil we know'.

As regards the British 'securicrats', nothing suits them better, operationally, financially and propaganda-wise than to have a very low-intensity armed campaign to contend with. Never has the British regime's previously desired ‘acceptable level of violence’ been such an attractive situation for the multi-million pound British military-industrial complex in the North. Arguably one could say that the current armed campaigns by Republicans provides the 'secureaucracy' with a containable counter-insurgency laboratory to hone their skills for other adventures overseas. The decision to site MI5's massive headquarters in the occupied six counties goes some way to confirming that.

However, the causus belli for Irish Republican insurgents most certainly still exists and despite the cosmetic changes to the political fabric in the North, the very fact that a British presence remains in Ireland allows the simple but unshakeable logic that armed resistance will always be an option. Reconstructed Irish Republicans in Sinn Féin are on unsteady ground, from a moral perspective, when they try to condemn attacks.

The recently stated short-term goals of Óglaigh na hÉireann – namely 'nicking at the heels' of the enemy - may very well be their only tactical option, until such time as some as yet unseen political upheaval may create the conditions for a more sustained, 'popular' armed campaign. In conclusion, there is little doubt that Irish Republican armed attacks will continue sporadically and almost certainly some will prove fatal. Conversely, their very actions may actually fortify the current status quo. Armed struggle will invariably remain an attractive proposition to those who want to hear simple solutions to complex problems. The April 2011 Killyclogher fatal bomb attack may very well be a tragic example of the contemporary armed 'dissident' Republican strategy of 'nicking at the heels' of the 'enemy' rather than any upsurge in their campaign.

Image top: infomatique.

Note: this article was amended on at 4pm, Thursday 25 August.