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Ireland's Long War: Despite Peace Agreement, Dissidents Continue Their Violent Campaign

Northern Ireland is a case study in building sustainable peace. But recent violent activity from dissident republicans poses threats.

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Those who are active in the dissident organisations are fully aware that the tide of feeling is against them. Perverse as it may seem, that hostility only serves to reinforce their self-belief.  When asked in a Channel 4 interview if the military campaign did not require a degree of support at the ballot box, the Republican Sinn Fein spokesperson Cait Trainor replied “Certainly not. We have a mandate stretching right back to 1798. We really don’t need the public to rubber stamp the republican movement.” (Channel 4 News, 24/9/2010). The reference to 1798 is a harking back to the first rebellion of the Irish against British rule, that led by the United Irishmen, and the core belief of Irish republicanism since that time is that history has bequeathed a duty to complete ‘the unfinished revolution’. That is the foundational belief, and is accompanied by another equally fundamental article of faith: that the republican vanguard does not require any mass support in order to act.

Republicanism has always believed that a small minority can and should act on behalf of a majority that has not yet achieved full political consciousness. The opprobrium heaped upon the dissidents can thus seem to confirm that they are acting in the same way as the Easter 1916 rebels who were booed in the streets of Dublin, or indeed in the same way as the Provisional IRA of the 1970s and 1980s who were attacked in exactly the same language as is used to describe the dissidents today. In such unpropitious circumstances, their task is simply to keep the republican flame alive.

In order to fulfil that mission the dissidents have only to succeed in a limited series of objectives. The all-island republic may lie beyond the horizon of their ambition, but a number of more short-term objectives have evolved. These are:

  1. To disrupt the liberal consensus and show by regular acts of violence that the Good Friday settlement has not produced the peace that was promised.
  2. To drive Catholics out of the PSNI and convert it back to a Protestant dominated force.
  3. To gain legitimacy as a community police force in nationalist areas by acting against drug dealers, thieves and those involved in anti-social behaviour.
  4. To agitate in contended situations, particularly during the marching season, in order to maximise adversity between nationalists and state forces, in order to maximise adversity between nationalist and state forces, and to provide leadership for militant youth.
  5. To prompt over-reaction by the security forces – ideally to force a return of the British army onto the streets.
  6. To build capacity to the point where a bombing campaign can be launched in England.

Working to this prospectus the dissidents have been able to maintain a presence for longer than anyone expected. It’s now 14 years since the Good Friday Agreement and their campaign continues, with very real human costs. They are unlikely however to present any real threat to the stability of the political institutions. In the language of conflict resolution theory, the dissidents can be seen as a ‘spoiler’ group ( Stedman;1991), but the results of spoiler activity can be hard to predict, and can on occasion run counter to the intentions of those trying to destabilise a peace process. Northern Ireland is a case in point, where the activities of violent groups have served to consolidate the centre, rather than to fragment it. The shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity shown by Sinn Fein, the PSNI and the DUP in the wake of the killings of the two soldiers at Massereene, or the whole island display of unity following the murder of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr, can be seen as high points of the peace process, rather than representing any dip in its fortunes.  The test of public opinion that came in the May 2011 elections showed no evidence of real support – not a single dissident won an Assembly seat, and their combined vote was less than one per cent.

 
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