Reflections On Oglaigh na hEireann

Is there a non-violent political alternative to Sinn Fein in the nationalist community, or will the dissident republican movement just have to bite the bullet and go 100% democratic if Fianna Fail and the SDLP cannot reach an accommodating merger rather than a shotgun marriage? In his latest Fearless Flying Column, controversial political commentator, Dr John Coulter, reflects on his reporting of the dissident republican terror movement and asks how it can become a credible mainstream nationalist party. 

Collapse Stormont and we’ll stop the terror! I remember that terrifying quote from the summer of 2010 as if it was yesterday.

I’d been on a relaxing family holiday that year when a dissident republican source contacted me for an interview. That interview was published in one of the Dublin-based national newspapers under the chilling headline: “Terror won’t end till we smash Stormont.”

If the situation was not so serious with the current impasse, I’d make the childish jibe – the DUP and Sinn Fein have beaten you to that one!

That headline in late August seven years ago was the blunt message coming from my major dissident republican source in Oglaigh na hEireann.

The group, which has been responsible for many of the dissident republican terror attacks that year, was also adamant it was conducting a debate within republicanism on a way forward at that time. The finalised tactics could last three to four years.

The spokesman said in 2010: “Oglaigh na hEireann is a bit like the IRA in the 1970s. Our main objective is to bring down Stormont and all its corruption. This is pretty much the thinking in our organisation at the moment.

“But we will not stop with the collapse of Stormont. The rest is up for negotiation. If Stormont fails, it will also get rid of the Provo mentality.”

This was a reference to Sinn Fein’s peace strategy which then supported the power-sharing Executive and the Northern Assembly.

It was clear in 2010, the Oglaigh na hEireann spokesman viewed the collapse of Stormont as embarrassing Sinn Fein among the republican community. How that mentality has changed as Sinn Fein collapsed Stormont in January this year!

My ONH source said the organisation was set on devising a short-term, three to four-year campaign rather than the so-called ‘long war’ strategy, which he blamed on current Sinn Fein President and former West Belfast MP Gerry Adams, now a Louth TD. 

“It was Adams who pushed for the long war, but that became MI5 inspired and it didn’t succeed,” I was told.

The ONH spokesman also alleged that the late deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness “was an MI5 agent from an early stage”.

He alleged Mr McGuinness, a self-confessed, one-time commander of the Provisional IRA in Derry at the time of the Bloody Sunday massacre, had been recruited by the then RUC Special Branch in 1972 and had begun working for the British.

“McGuinness tried to make a break, but was forced back. He has been working with MI5 for a long time,” he alleged. Sinn Fein and Martin McGuinness have both told me to my face this allegation is totally untrue.

The ONH spokesman denied there was any rivalry between the various dissident republican factions as to who was operating more successfully.

As well as ONH, dissident republicans also include the Real, New and Continuity IRAs as well as an even smaller faction known as the Irish National Republican Army. During the following years, I was to have interviews published in the print media with the Real IRA, New IRA and Republican Action Against Drugs.

The ONH source added to me in 2010:

No one dictates to anyone else. It is whoever can pull off the best. We have settled for different groups and it is safer to have a cell structure. There is healthy competition between us, but no animosity. There is certainly not the situation as existed between the Provos and the Stickies. There is a debate going on within our movement at the moment on tactics and a way forward, and this hasn’t been completed yet.

At that time, the ONH source also appeared to pour cold water of the level of alleged negotiations between the London and Dublin Governments and dissident republicans on bringing about a ceasefire.

Former Deputy First Minister McGuinness had been adamant in 2010 that such talks were taking place – claims hotly denied by both Governments.

Speaking in the 2010 published interview, the ONH source told me:

There’s feelers going out and people have been approached, but it’s at an early stage. I know people whom our people consider to be MI5 who are living among the local population. How genuine they are, we are not sure. There are people who are MI5 and MI6 who are being talked about. They are making clumsy approaches to us, as if by accident. But there are too many people who have been around for too long. There are approaches, but the Governments are keeping far enough away. I think they are trying to weigh people up as to who can and who can’t be dealt with. Can they take out people by hook or by crook and take over the leadership. We’ve seen this happening before on the 1970s and there is a clear pattern. We are very wary of such approaches. Oglaigh na hEireann is the main group. They have been the IRA since the 1920s. We are not interested in a vote. We have evolved politics to the Left. At local level, we would support councillors who were Left-wing.
The source would not be drawn if ONH was developing a political wing in the same way that the Continuity IRA had links to Republican Sinn Fein and the Real IRA was linked to the 32 County Sovereignty organisation.

He would also not be drawn if council candidates supporting the ONH strategy would contest the May 2011 planned local council elections in the North. So far, I’m not aware of any serving councillor or candidate from that period openly supporting the policies and strategies of ONH.

He added:

We see Oglaigh na hEireann as the cutting edge of the movement. Politics have only been used by others to promote themselves and we see that as a total failure. Initially, Oglaigh na hEireann had a core of people who were at the wrong scale of things, that is, in their 30s to 50s. We are now targeting young people and are having a certain amount of success, but it is taking longer than we thought. I would say about half our membership is now young people and the young militants are told to stay away from public activities, such as protests. By fair means or foul means, we will bring down Stormont. There are people who would push politics, but we are not political. We want a three to four year intensive campaign, but we realise the difficulty in organising this. Perhaps we will do things now and again to keep things going, although we realise that in recent months things have been stepped up. We would be content for something to happen every two to three months, but we are interested in stepping things up. We want the military campaign to destabilise Stormont.We did play the Orange card, too. We feel we had the prisoner successes at Maghaberry jail. We used it as a success because we did not attack the Orange parades.

The ONH source also commented on the past Police Ombudsman’s report on the 1972 Claudy massacre in which nine people were killed in three no warning bombs.

Although the Provisional IRA did not claim responsibility for the blasts, the massacre was blamed on the IRA. A local Catholic priest, the late Father James Chesney, was identified as a senior IRA operative in the massacre.

  The ONH source said: 

It was clear Claudy was used to take the heat away from Derry. But the target should have been Coleraine. County Derry had to co-operate with Derry to do something. Claudy was a silly thing to start with.  Martin McGuinness was involved as well. He was in Derry right up to the time of Claudy. Father Chesney was sacrificed as he was one of 20 people involved.

While Father Chesney was later transferred out of the region to a parish in Donegal, the ONH source said he could not rule out that the priest had been murdered by British intelligence when he supposedly died of cancer in 1980.

The ONH source claimed another priest had been secretly murdered by British intelligence because he was suspected of being an IRA member, and an innocent person was murdered in a hospital bed by British intelligence who mistook the person for an IRA operative.

This interview with the ONH source took place in County Antrim and concluded with the source stating: “There is a debate on the direction of the organisation, but I don’t know how long that will take.”

Seven years later as I was reflecting on that interview, I wondered what set of circumstances need to be in place whereby ONH will follow the Provisionals into the political arena. It was clear from that interview that a political route for ONH is out of the question, but never say ‘never’ in Irish politics.

My reflections drift back to 1981 when I was a young cub freelance with BBC Radio Ulster sent with senior colleagues to cover the Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster by-election following the death of Bobby Sands MP. Owen Carron won that by-election.

As I recorded his victory speech in Enniskillen, you would be forgiven for thinking of the concept – bomb first, talk later. But Sinn Fein not only entered the political arena, it eventually operated a partitionist parliament at Stormont with the DUP.

If Sinn Fein can easily operate Stormont ministerial posts in a power-sharing Executive with Unionists, surely a set of circumstances can evolve where dissident republicans can be persuaded into the political framework and the position outlined in my 2010 ONH interview becomes redundant?

But then I suppose the same question was asked in 1641, 1688, 1789, 1841, 1916, 1919, 1940, 1956, 1969, and 1994 – what price peace in Ireland? 

As a Unionist, who or what is the Oglaigh na hEireann terror group?

  • Formed in 2005 mainly from disaffected members of the Provisional IRA who disagreed with Sinn Fein’s participation in Stormont, the IRA ceasefires, and latterly with Sinn Fein taking its seats on the Policing Board.
  • Its name roughly means Soldiers of Ireland and it is currently one of the most active of the dissident republican terror factions, overtaking the Continuity, New and Real IRAs in the number of attacks.
  • Earlier in 2010, it critically wounded a Catholic police officer in Co Antrim when it used a booby trap bomb in his car.
  • That summer, the group attempted to use a booby trap bomb against an Army officer in Co Down, and carried out a bomb attack on Derry’s Strand Road police station.
  • Ironically, the title is also the official Irish language name for the Republic’s Irish Defence Forces.

➽Follow John Coulter on Twitter   @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

2 comments to ''Reflections On Oglaigh na hEireann "

  1. I first heard Adams use the term 'armed propaganda' with respect to the PIRA campaign, the tributaries of thought that flow from it are quite interesting. If membership of an anti-state group is more dangerous for its members than its opponents, its hard to see how they could coerce said opponents militarily. A smaller group can leverage their size with brutal violence that would not be acceptable to State actors (if truthfully reported to its citizens), but their appeals to morality and justice seem to be better done within an exclusively non-violent vehicle. What is left is the pursuit of armed propaganda.

  2. PS I should add, that to me would be the failure of PIRA's progeny, that lack of an acompanying media campaign


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