Meticulous examination of republican dissidents

As the end of the Adams and McGuinness leadership of Sinn Féin looms on the horizon Gerard Howlin reviews a book that wonders if violent dissidents might succeed them

Divided We Stand: The Strategy and Psychology of Ireland’s Dissident Terrorists

John Horgan

Oxford University Press

IN AN assertion in 2003 the Real IRA (RIRA) leadership stated accusingly, “The Provisionals ... are now supporting and lauding a process they rejected for 25 years.” For many the central issue today about Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA remains their past. For dissident republicans the issue instead is what they have now become.

Dr John Horgan’s rigorous and scholarly study of violent dissident Republicans (VDR) is a statistical, political and personnel mapping of a scene he correctly describes as “complex, diverse, ambiguous, amorphous, and highly localised”. The author, not to be confused with the Press Ombudsman of the same name, is a psychologist who studied at University College Cork and is now Director of the International Centre for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University. Horgan’s book is a dense but lucidly written study of the origins, organisation and capacity of violent dissident republicanism. This book is not a political polemic. It is the analysis of a highly trained and internationally experienced psychologist. It deals primarily in established facts rather than political or moral argument.

The strength of this book, and it will be of interest to both the general reader as well as specialists interested in politics and terrorism, is its comprehensive analysis of published data on the dissidents and their activities over many years. In a world where access to ever increasing amounts of data is matched by a correspondingly diminishing attention span, Horgan takes a long view and a hard look.

The dissident view as Horgan sees it is fundamentally one of dissent from the continuing political hegemony of Sinn Féin and the earlier military dominion of the Provisional IRA among militant republicans generally and northern ones especially. Rejection of the strategic political analysis of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness accepted, albeit narrowly at critical junctures by the Provisional’s, is the overarching text of the dissident narrative. It is also the ongoing context of their sporadic, often ineffectual but sometimes deadly violent campaigns.

Those campaigns show signs, however, of becoming increasingly lethal. If the public support levels of these groups remain inconsequential, their capacity appears to have increased and their military threat is real. The potential for a consequential slow but insidious remilitarisation of Northern Ireland is less predictable.

What is certain is that Horgan’s account deals with a maze of groups that pose a clear threat, albeit of unquantifiable proportions, to the peace of the island. For that reason alone his scholarship and insight is important.

As Horgan meticulously documents, the split between Sinn Féin and those loosely termed as dissidents has been unfolding for decades. The easing of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh from the Sinn Féin leadership, his departure from the party and the ‘continuing’ by him and his faction of the party 1986 Árd Fheis they walked out of, over the abandonment of the policy of parliamentary abstentionism, was the kernel of the formation of Republican Sinn Féin and the thus named Continuity IRA (CIRA).

Ó Brádaigh has proved as unrelenting an ideologue as he has been ineffective a leader, a pope emeritus of unsullied, and in Horgan’s term “pseudoreligious” republican theology. Sinn Féin split apart from him and the continuity movement itself has split several times since.

While origins of the CIRA predate the peace process, Horgan shows how the Real IRA and 32 County originate in it. The Real IRA came into existence in October 1997 and was led by key Provisional’s, including quartermaster general, Michael “Mickey” McKevitt. The split coincided with the separation from Sinn Féin of key former members. The latter went on to form the 32 County Sovereignty Committee. That divide had been averted before by ending the first 1994 IRA ceasefire in 1996.

The Canary Wharf bomb was the price of republican unity then. By late 1997, the glue of war had finally dissolved and common cause went with it. The Omagh bomb on Aug 15, 1998 murdering 29 people, two unborn babies and injuring over 300 others, was devastating proof of intent by the RIRA faction to continue their war.

Horgan’s book recounts the continuing consequences since then. The RIRA murder in March 2009 of British soldiers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar at Massereene when they went to the gate of their barracks to collect pizza was described by dissidents as “resistance”. Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister for the Northern Ireland statelet, the shared goal of all militant republicans had been to demolish, said the killers were “traitors to the island of Ireland”. The dissident retort was that McGuinness like his party had turned his coat and “put on the armour of the state” to “repress the very people that they fought beside”.

Beginning with Sinn Féin’s public embrace of parliamentary politics in1986, in conjunction with paramilitary action, through the Good Friday Agreement to the establishment of a power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland, the argument is about whether the politics of reform in effect stabilises Northern Ireland and cements union with Britain. From a dissident perspective Adams and McGuinness are traitors to republicanism.

It is an irony of much commentary on Adams and McGuinness that while criticism focuses on their militant republican past, arguably the most devastating critique of their leadership is its failure in terms of the republican goals and ideology they set for themselves and their followers in the decades of war before they embraced a peace process. They certainly succeeded in leaving violently disillusioned people behind on their ideological evolution.

If these ideological chasms are the basis of the splits that gave rise to the main dissident organisations Horgan’s book details the myriad further splits since then. At one point eight separate “IRA Army Councils” could be counted. Each was as oblivious to the democratic mandate of the Good Friday Agreement as they were to the competing mandates of each other.

Ultimately this book gives a picture of groups determined to prevent at any cost the peace process becoming a new normalcy. Low level but persistent vigilantism in nationalist communities provides a focus for disaffected youth, a continuing challenge to Sinn Féin, and a reminder that new political architecture has not in fact brought harmony everywhere. The continuing targeting of Catholic PSNI members is a deadly reminder the cross community policing comes at a terrible price.

Hogan meticulously documents the political narrative of the groups involved. They regularly complain their political views are effectively censored in the media. This book is an antidote. It explains in detail not only their origins, gives detailed statistical analysis of the myriad events ascribed to them but reproduces in considerable detail the sometimes conflicting arguments for their continuing activity.

An unsatisfactory element of Horgan’s account is its too brief analysis of dissident involvement with crime. And the strength of this account is the rigour upon which all its analysis is based. Nevertheless, the paucity of discussion, never mind the lack of any positive conclusions, leaves an important gap in an otherwise comprehensive account.

Understandably Horgan offers no firm conclusion as to whether violent dissident Republicans are destined to remain on the fringe, hampering but failing to stop a generational shift that will see peace as the new normal. Recent developments suggest an increased capacity on the part of dissidents but little if any increase in their support.

If their whole reasoning revolves in opposition to the strategy and Sinn Féin of Adams and McGuinness, we should remember that the end of the Adams–McGuinness era is now in plain sight. Planning that succession is a huge challenge for an enlarged and empowered Sinn Féin. There is no northern figure who could obviously lead the party in the south. It is questionable if any of the younger southern TDs can capably lead the party in the north.

If the unity that McGuinness and Adams pursued so relentlessly and at such a price does not survive them, conditions may arise where there is a wider opening for dissident republicanism including violent dissident republicanism. For now John Horgan’s thorough and excellent book is a detailed account of a threat that has not gone away and which we cannot ignore.

To buy this book click here.

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