The so-called New IRA which admitted killing journalist and activist Lyra McKee during a night of riots in Derry’s Creggan estate may have announced its formation in July 2012, but its origins stretch back five years earlier, writes Dieter Reinisch
On 28 January 2007, an extraordinary ard fheis of Sinn Féin supported policing in the North. Less than a year and a half after the decommissioning by the Provisional IRA in September 2005, throwing its support behind the PSNI was another crucial step towards constitutional nationalism of the Provisionals.
The support for policing was overwhelming among party members in attendance in Dublin – just 5% of the delegates opposed it. Despite this historic decision, Sinn Féin experienced no significant split; apart from the formation of the tiny campaign group éirígí (Arise).
Following the formation of the Continuity IRA in the late 1980s and the Real IRA campaign of the late 1990s, many observers saw the dissident campaign finally halted.
Yet, what only became known years later was that former leaders had already broken away from the Provisional IRA and embarked on reorganising their movement. Although hidden within the remoteness of rural villages in counties Tyrone and Armagh, the period 2006 to 2008 was a watershed moment for modern republicanism.
Those alienated by Sinn Féin were not merely small pockets of die-hard republicans but a group of seasoned republicans, their families and supporters. Shortly afterwards, a series of independent Easter commemorations were organised in Co Tyrone. Thousands marched under the banner of the independent Tyrone National Graves Association, rather than at Sinn-Féin-affiliated commemorations.
When in September 2013 the Tyrone NGA organised a commemoration for the three Provisional IRA members killed in an ambush at Drumnakilly outside Omagh, up to 2,000 locals attended the event supported by the families of those killed. The Sinn Féin commemoration on the following day attracted significantly smaller crowds.
Opposition to Sinn Féin manifested itself in the rapid rise of organisations like éirígí, the 1916 Societies, and the Republican Network for Unity in republican areas throughout Ireland.
However, a parallel development emerged unnoticed by the public. Experienced former Provisional IRA reorganised the IRA.
On April 2, 2011, Ronan Kerr was killed by a booby-trap bomb planted outside his home in Killyclogher near Omagh. Like the death of the PSNI officer, it is suggested that the attack on a British army base in Masserene, Co Antrim, can be attributed to those who later formed the New IRA, although the Real IRA then claimed the latter attack.
Other former Provisionals emerged under the name of “Republican Action Against Drugs” in North Derry and West Tyrone, tackling criminality and drug-dealing in nationalist areas. In this way, they filled a policing vacuum left by the distrust for the PSNI that existed since the Troubles.
In July 2012, these alienated former Provisionals joined forces with some sections of the Real IRA, then the largest of the dissident republican paramilitaries. In November 2012, the new group killed Maghaberry prison officer David Black. Another victim was prison officer Adrian Ismay in 2016.
While the group pursued a low-level campaign of violence against the PSNI in the North, the amalgamation faced fierce opposition from Real IRA members in the Republic. Following the killing of Dublin Real IRA leader Alan Ryan in September 2012, militant republicanism was riddled by a deadly feud in the Republic. Among those believed to be victims of the feud were Alan Ryan’s brother Vincent, Deccy Smith, Peter Butterly, and Aidan O’Driscoll.
It was only in 2016 that the decision was taken to form a new political organisation. Saoradh (Liberation) held its inaugural conference in November 2016 in Newry. The new organisation managed to unite former members of the Provisionals with experienced dissidents from organisations such as éirígí, the 1916 Societies, or Republican Sinn Féin.
The formation of Saoradh saw a wave of new, young recruits from socially deprived areas in the North joining anti-Good-Friday-Agreement republicans. Many were born only after the signing of the agreement.
While Saoradh experiences significant support in impoverished areas such as Creggan where people feel left out by the “peace dividend”, the organisations’ support in rural areas is often underestimated. In rural areas of the Tyrone, Armagh, and Fermanagh, republicanism evolves around family linkages, stretching back for generations. Here, the militant republican ideology of groups like Saoradh or the New IRA falls on fertile ground.
Saoradh has establish a small presence south of the border, particularly in Dublin and parts of Munster. The election of Dublin men Brian Kenna as chairperson and Ger Devereux as secretary, as well as holding their main commemoration in Dublin, are significant developments for the party.
While Saoradh faces a harsh public backlash, the participation of up to 1,000 supporters at their Dublin commemoration, as well as hundreds in Belfast and Derry only days after the killing of Lyra McKee underlines that their support base will not be affected by the tragic events in Derry. For them, armed struggle for a united Ireland is justified. The death of innocent civilians is unavoidable if guns are produced on the streets, this has happened in 1916, and for radical republicans, 2019 is no different.
There are no indications that the support of Saoradh will affected by the death of Lyra McKee in the long-term, nor that the New IRA will reconsider its attacks in the North. On the contrary, Monday night’s New IRA statement indicates the likelihood of further attacks. The threat from militant republicans is here to stay.
Dr Dieter Reinisch is an Adjunct Professor in International Relations at Webster University and a Lecturer in History at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg.