An old chum who once had a background in the Workers’ Party once told me the following ditty – what is the first item of business when a new republican group is formed? Answer – when to split!
But what this ditty really means to me as a Unionist is that dissident republicans have clearly forgotten what befell the Official IRA in 1972 after the latter murdered an off-duty Catholic soldier in Derry.
When the Officials murdered 19-year-old Ranger William Best of the Royal Irish Rangers, they did not believe it would start a backlash which would result in the OIRA having to call a total ceasefire eight days later.
In 2011, dissident republicans opposed to Stormont and Sinn Fein’s peace process killed a Catholic police officer in Omagh.
The Tyrone market town was also the location for one of the worst massacres of the Troubles in 1998, when the dissident Real IRA killed 29 people in a no-warning car bomb.
In 2011, too, mainstream republican and unionist politicians walked side by side at the funeral of the murdered police officer. In 1972, after Ranger Best’s murder, some 200 women from the Catholic Creggan and Bogside in Derry marched on the Official republican headquarters in the city.
The current dissident republican terror campaign has a three-fold purpose – to de-stabilise the Stormont Parliament, although Sinn Fein and the DUP are already making a good job of that purpose; stop Catholics from joining the police, and embarrass Sinn Fein by forcing republicans to condemn dissident attacks.
Dissidents live in a terrorist fantasy world, believing they are akin to the Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army driving the Americans out of Saigon in the mid 1970s.
Unlike Sinn Fein, which believed in a political process operating alongside a terror campaign, the dissidents believe there must first be a military victory over the British and unionists before a political solution can be implemented.
But the dissident campaign is starting to have the opposite effect. Rather than driving a wedge between the nationalist community and the police, it is uniting republican and unionist in a common cause – rooting out the various dissident factions.
The Provisional IRA was nudged into the peace process as a result of losing key operatives in shoot-outs with the security forces, such as the Loughgall ambush in the 1980s when eight top members of the IRA’s feared East Tyrone Brigade were wiped out.
It makes you wonder, though, how many ‘military’ republicans were ‘eliminated’ so that the Sinn Fein peace strategy could be guaranteed a ‘success’? The same question can also be posed off the loyalist movement.
Sooner, rather than later, dissident republican leaders must realise they have to negotiate with the British and Irish governments. What makes the dissident republican movement so different from any other so-called ‘independence’ movements the British Empire has negotiated with?
At some point in every republican generation, the ethos of ‘we need to talk to the Brits’ will emerge.
Militarily, the current generation of dissidents will not be defeated in Loughgall-style ambushes by the SAS. That could only lead to young militant nationalists swelling the ranks of the various dissident terror gangs.
In 1972, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in Derry in which 14 innocent Catholics were killed by the Paras, the ranks of the fledgling Provos were also swelled.
The dissidents will be defeated when people from the nationalist community give the police the necessary intelligence the PSNI needs to bring these terrorists before the courts. The bitter reality is that when violent dissidents have served their purpose, they will be cast aside in the same way de Valera feed Collins to the republican wolves.
Modern dissident republicans of the 21st century would do well to remember the so-called Marxist revolutionary warning – frontline revolutionaries are always expendable.
However, there is the real danger any dissident campaign could spark a second Irish Civil War, which saw republican kill republican.
The history of the present Troubles is littered with bloody internecine feuds within republicanism.
The Provisionals have fought the Officials; the Officials have fought the INLA; the INLA has imploded as the various factions butchered each other.
In late October 1992, the Provos used hundreds of members and supporters to attack people linked to a breakaway republican faction, the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation, on the grounds the IPLO was heavily involved in drug-dealing.
One IPLO member was killed and several others wounded. Within a week of the Provo attacks, the IPLO disbanded.
Officially, the Provisional IRA no longer exists. But if the dissident campaign continues to endanger Sinn Fein’s peace strategy, there is the prospect republicans loyal to mainstream thinking may retaliate against the dissident groupings on a ‘no claim, no blame’ basis.
In the Irish Civil War of the 1920s, former republican comrades slaughtered each other in some of the most notorious incidents in Irish history. The 26 Counties contains numerous memorials to republicans killed by the Free State Army in atrocities more akin to the tactics of the Black and Tans during the earlier War of Independence.
And with the centenary of that bloodbath looming in a few years’ time, old family wounds may be re-opened, especially in the Irish Republic. Perhaps it was the B-Specials, which formed the backbone of the Unionist establishment in partitioned Ireland, which prevented the Irish Civil War spilling over significantly into the emerging Northern Ireland?
Likewise, we can only speculate what would have happened in Ireland had the Great War not erupted in 1914 and a military showdown took place between the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizens Army on one side, and the Ulster Volunteers and Orange Order on the other.
My speculation would be that the British would have helped arm the Unionists – in spite of the earlier Larne gun-running. The Germans would have helped the republicans.
Ireland would have been partitioned, but instead of a 26 to six split, the island would have been divided in two with each side holding 16 counties apiece. Naturally, there would be have been ethnic cleansing on a vast scale in both territories.
Ironically, vast numbers of Unionists and nationalists did die fighting – not each other, but together for the Allies in the trenches of Europe, Africa and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
Irish political, religious and community leaders have stressed they do not want the dissidents to drag the island back to the bloodbath days of the 1970s.
Past speculation that dissidents would try to increase political temperatures by disrupting either a royal wedding or royal visits to the Republic came to nothing. Indeed, even the chances of sectarian conflict – with the loyalist marching season still in full step – are slender as the Twelfth 2017 has proven to be one of the quietest on record.
But what is a distinct possibility is vicious inter-republican blood-letting. That would be a case of dragging the island back to the 1970s.
Unionist voters are transforming the one-time myth of Unionist unity into a political reality by voting in massive numbers for the DUP, making the concept of a single Unionist Party a clear possibility.
An SDLP Assembly member once got his political knuckles severely rapped for suggesting the notion of a single party to represent all shades of nationalist thinking.
Would republicanism be any more stable as a movement or achieve its ultimate goal if it was represented by a single party? As a Unionist, I know how a single movement would bring stability to the pro-Union community. The same ethos would surely work for Irish republicans.
- Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter