Defining Dissidents

Today The Pensive Quill carries an article by guest writer, Liam O Ruairc, on the topic of dissident republicans.

Defining Dissidents by Liam O Ruairc

If it easy to identify those that the media refers to as ‘dissident republicans’ (1) it is far more difficult to identify and define what they mean by ‘dissident republicanism’. For example, a major reference book such as Sydney Ellliott and W.D. Flackes’s Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999 (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999) contains no entry on ‘dissident republicanism’, although it has entries on Republican Sinn Fein-CIRA and 32csm-RIRA. Similarly on the internet, a major academic website such as CAIN carries nothing that helps to answer the question. Surprisingly , the clearest definition is to be found in Wikipedia:

"The term "dissidents" has become the primary term to describe Irish republicans who politically continue to oppose the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and reject the outcome of the referenda on it.” (2)

In this sense theirs is an “opinion which is contrary to a majority decision” and therefore a form of “dissent”. But is it republicanism that they dissent from? A recent article in the Irish Times made the following point:

"There is still the view among a minority that the 1998 Good Friday agreement was a betrayal of 1916 Irish republicanism. It accepted, however temporarily, a unionist "veto" and continued British "occupation" of Northern Ireland. That minority view, of the Good Friday agreement as a "sell-out", is consistent with the attitude of the Provisionals in the 1980s, of the IRA during the Border Campaign of the 1950s, and of the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. It is also in line with the views of the men and women of Easter 1916." (3)

So it is clear that it is not 1916 Republicanism that they dissent from, therefore the expression ‘dissident republicanism’ to describe Republicans opposed to the Belfast Agreement is incorrect. Republicans opposed to the 1998 Belfast Agreement are no more ‘dissidents’ than republicans opposed to the 1921 Treaty were ‘irregulars’. Jonathan Tonge refers to them as ‘Republican Ultras’ (4) but does not specify why their position is ‘ultra’ compared to their predecessors. Richard English prefers the term ‘dissenters’ to that of ‘dissidents’ and define them as “ people who sharply disagree with Provisional orthodoxy about the evolving peace process ” (5) But here again it is not Republicanism that they dissent from. Republicans opposed to the Belfast Agreement are ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ republicans, not ‘dissidents’. In fact, as a Newsletter editorial noted some time ago, it is in the ranks of the Provisional movement that the real ‘dissident republicans’ are to be found:

“Sinn Fein also needs to sort itself out. The irony is that it is Adams, McGuinness et al who are the real dissident republicans, because they are the ones who have reached an accommodation with unionists and the British Government. They are the ones who have abandoned the abstentionist policy. They are the ones who have legitimised partition.(6)

When they are not referred to as ‘dissidents’, Republicans opposed to the Belfast Agreement are sometimes branded as ‘criminals’ and were even recently described (as he stood beside the head of the PSNI) as ‘traitors’ by Martin McGuiness (who did not see the irony in that he is a British Minister serving the interests of the Crown). Such characterisation is widely off the mark. In a letter to the Irish News, former blanketman Padraic Mac Coitir (not close to so-called ‘dissidents’) criticised the use of the term ‘traitors’ by Martin McGuinness to describe such groups:

“From Thomas Ashe who died on hunger strike in 1917 right through the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s men and women protested in British gaols against being branded as criminals. During those years the IRA had little support and were castigated from the pulpit and by others who claimed to be the true heirs of the 1916 Proclamation. Because the IRA of that era didn’t have an electoral mandate they were wrong to engage in armed struggle – that was the well-argued opposition to the republican activists. But for all their criticism, no-one in the nationalist republican camp then ever referred to the IRA as ‘traitors’. Some of the Sinn Fein spokesmen who recently referred to today’s so-called dissidents as criminals were themselves in gaol fighting criminalisation by embarking on protest and hunger strike in the 1970s. Following the noble example of the people of that earlier struggle I won’t brand anyone with offensive tags which can never be retracted. But I can’t help reflecting sadly on the prevailing and shameful scent of sheer hypocrisy. ” (7)

When the media does not call republican organisations opposed to the Belfast Agreement ‘dissident’, they tend to refer to them as ‘republican splinter groups’. Qualifying these organisations as ‘breakaway factions’ and ‘splinter groups’ is also problematical. They certainly were the product of splits, but on a closer study of those splits in 1986 and later in 1997, whether they can be defined as ‘splinter groups’ is debatable.

In September 1986, for the first time since 1970, the Provisional IRA held a meeting of its supreme decision-making body, the General Army Convention. The Convention discussed dropping abstentionism. Abstentionism was firmly established in the Constitution of Oglaigh na hEireann (IRA) and a two thirds majority was required to change it. The policy was set out in Section 1: “ Participation in Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster is strictly forbidden and in any other subservient Parliament, if any. Any volunteer who, by resolution proposes entry into Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster automatically dismisses himself from membership of Oglaigh na hEireann. ” (8) Sinn Fein had a similar constitutional bar. Section 1b of the Sinn Fein Constitution stated: "No person ... who approves of or supports the candidature of persons who sign any form or give any kind of written or verbal undertaking of intention to take their seats in these institutions, shall be admitted to membership or allowed to retain membership." (9) The 1986 General Army Convention was able to make the constitutional change 75 per cent for and 25 per cent against. Similarly at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis on 2 November 1986 delegates voted 469 to 161 to abandon the abstentionist policy regarding Leinster House. Therefore given that there appeared to have had a majority vote those who opposed the constitutional change and went on to form Republican Sinn Fein and the Continuity Army Council are referred to as a minority splinter group.

This characterisation can be challenged on a number of grounds. People opposed to the change in the Constitution argued that changing the IRA’s Constitution required two separate Conventions. At the first, embargoes specifically forbidding participation in Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster would have to be removed from the Constitution. Only then, at a second Convention, could a mention on entering parliament be voted on. Therefore, the IRA Constitution had been breached. Those opposed to the changes in the Constitution were supported by the outgoing Army Executive. A majority on the Army Executive had voted against the proposals for dropping abstentionism. The Army Executive then rejected the decision to end abstentionism as anti-constitutional, dismissed those who supported the new departure for breaching the existing IRA Constitution and co-opted new Executive members and elected a Continuity Army Council as it held the necessary ‘continuity’ of authority. Furthemore those opposed to constitutional change claimed that the 1986 General Army Convention had been gerrymandered by the setting up of new IRA organisational structures for the Convention without which there would not have been the necessary two-thirds majority required to change the IRA Constitution. (10)

Something similar happened in Sinn Fein. According to section 1b of the Sinn Fein constitution in 1986, proposals supporting entry into Leinster House were banned. Before the Adams leadership put forward a motion to enter Leinster House, they needed to change section 1b by a majority vote. They did not do so, thus broke the existing Sinn Fein constitution and rules. Opponents of the motion also claim that the vote at the ardfheis was gerrymandered : in 1986 the number of votes at the ardfheis, which reflects the size of Sinn Féin, almost doubled from 1985 to 1986, and then reverted to the 1985 level in 1987. (11) The traditionalists claim that they did not split and form “a new breakaway movement” (12) -they kept the old one intact. (The word 'Republican' was added to Sinn Fein to emphasise the republican beliefs of the party.) To speak of “the formation of a new party” in 1986 is incorrect. (13) It was the others who broke away from the IRA and Sinn Fein, not them. They thus claim not to be some “rival organisation” (14), but to be THE authentic Republican Movement.

The IRA that had accepted the constitutional changes in 1986 underwent a significant split with the emergence of the so-called 'Real IRA'. The RIRA emerged from a conflict between IRA Army Council and Army Executive in 1996-1997. (15) In October 1997, the majority of the Executive argued that signing the Mitchell Principles represented a direct infringement of the IRA’s constitution, challenged the IRA’s right to use force and hold arms and constituted a de-facto recognition of the unionist veto. As a result of the unconstitutionality of Mitchell Principles, the Army Council’s failure to ratify the 1997 ceasefire, the army council’s treatment of the executive, the poor morale within the organisation six members of the Executive resigned on 23 October. (16) In November 1997 they held a meeting in a farmhouse in Oldcastle, County Meath were they re-organised Oglaigh na hEireann as the “ true ” (17) post-1986 IRA as the Constitution had been breached. (18) They were therefore the ‘real’ IRA. Recently, a new Oglaigh na hEireann emerged. It is not clear how the group justifies its title. It does not justify its existence in terms of the IRA Constitution and its ideology and politics are unclear. (19) The legitimacy of its title is therefore questionable.

Republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement therefore cannot be defined as ‘dissidents ‘ in ideological terms. Nor can they be defined as ‘splinter groups’ in organisational terms, the CIRA having grounds to be the authentic pre-1986 IRA and the RIRA being the true post-1986 IRA. However, Danny Morrison, who does not mind the Provo label (20), challenges their claim to be the authentic republican movement "because they refused to go along with or respect the opinion of the majority" of the movement. (21) They are minority groupings. He recently argued in a letter that "those republicans opposed to the political process which emerged from the peace process are thoroughly outnumbered by the diametrically-opposed views of other ex-lifers, ex-blanket men, former women prisoners and ex-hunger strikers in support of Sinn Fein policy. ... This minority is actually saying to the men and women who served imprisonment for their beliefs -you have no right to make up your own minds about strategy or the way forward..."(22) What weakens his argument is that there are remarkable similarities between the 1969-1970 and the 1986 and 1997 splits. The Provos had also 'refused to go along with or respect the opinion of the majority' of the Official IRA and a minority had walked out of the Army Convention on 13-14 December 1969 and at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis on 11 January 1970. (23) Did that make them 'dissidents' or a minority splinter group? Does the fact that they were 'outnumbered' (24) make their claim to be the republican movement less authentic and less legitimate? Did that imply that they were telling people 'who served imprisonment for their beliefs' such as Sean Garland, Liam McMillan, Seamus Costello or Cathal Goulding that 'you have no rights to make up your own mind'? Like the later ‘dissidents’ of 1986 and 1997, the early Provisionals claimed that they hadn’t split and formed a new organization -they had kept the old one intact. Ruairi O Bradaigh made a point which applies to 1969/1970, 1986 and 1997: 'no splits or splinters -long may it remain so provided we stick to basic principles'. But when it comes to rules and principles being ignored, 'the minority is going to expel the majority'. (25)


(1) BBC website, Who are the dissidents?, 10 March 2009
(2) Wikipedia: Dissident Republicanism It is important to note that opposition to the Belfast Agreement does not automatically entail support for the continuation of a military campaign. It is not the 'peace' they oppose, but the 'process'.
(3) Seamus Murphy, It is time to leave behind 1916 and the 'forever' war, The Irish Times, 12 May 2009
(4) Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein and the SDLP From Alienation to Participation, London: Hurst & Company, 2005, 219
(5) Richard English, Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA, London: Macmillan, 2003, 315 and 318
(6) Editorial, Political stalemate - here we go again, The Newsletter, 1 September 2008
(7) Padraic Mac Coitir, Sinn Fein are treading dangerously close to hypocrisy, The Irish News, 21 March 2009
(8) Brendan O’Brien, A pocket history of the IRA from 1916 onwards, Dublin: The O’Brien Press, second edition, 2004, 110
(9) Wikipedia: Republican Sinn Fein (This Wikipedia entry is very good)
(10) Robert W White, Ruairi O Bradaigh: The life and Politics of an Irish Revolutionary, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006, 309-310 ; Peter Taylor, The Provos: the IRA and Sinn Fein, London: Bloomsbury, 1998,, 361-362 ; Brendan O’Brien, op.cit, 112-113. See also J. Bowyer Bell, Republican IRA: An emerging secret army, Saoirse, September 1996.
(11) Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, revised and updated edtion, 2007, 296
(12) Richard English, op.cit, 251
(13) Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge, op.cit, 162
(14) Peter Taylor, op.cit, 291 and 361
(15) Ed Moloney, op.cit, 450-454
(16) Ibid, appendix 4, 609-612
(17) Peter Taylor, op.cit, 355
(18) Ed Moloney's book reproduces the post-1986 IRA constitution, indicates the ammendements and areas of dispute between the Army Council and the Army Executive. op.cit. 602-608.
(19) Allison Morris, Dissidents: 'We have recruited ex-Provos', The Irish News, 16 February 2009
(20) Danny Morrison, When one doesn’t mind being called a Provo, Daily Ireland, 6 September 2006
(21) Danny Morrison, A time to build trust, The Observer, 22 April 2001
(22) Danny Morrison, The vast majority of those who risked life and liberty for the republican cause are still with the Sinn Fein leadership, The Irish News, 31 March 2009
(23) Sean Swan, Official Irish Republicanism 1962 to 1972, Lulu, 2006, 320-322
(24) Cfr. Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers' Party, London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2009
(25) Robert W. White, op.cit, 151 and 293


  1. Thats an excellent history of defining dissidents, but it sheds no light on where the term 'dissident' actually came from. Was it the media that gave rise to the term, or was it provisional republicans?

    Either way Liam hasn't come up with an acceptable term, the only term I see in his piece is 'traditionalists', and thats arguable.

    The term 'dissidents' is an umbrella term, and like all umbrella terms it is imprecise. Over time it has taken on negative connatations, but when it was first used it was neutral. Liam doesn't outline how or why this happened. Was it through the behaviour of 'dissidents' or did the shinners impose upon it the negative connations that go with it?

    There is no doubt that Provisional republicans benefit when their detractors within republicanism are labelled dissidents and the label is shunned by the majority of nationalists. Thats why I think its a good thing that groupings have come together to counteract this.

    The on going situation of trying to get a UI one traffic jam at a time isn't helping.

    First I think what is needed is a term that all agree on. Perhaps 'traditionalists' as a new umbrella term, or something else? Then those within the term need to decide how to go about pursuing their goal of a United Ireland, in a way that is acceptable to the majority of nationalists.

    I still think they need to take in the fact that there is no appetite for violence, and if they follow the political road then what is the difference between them and Sinn Fein, so how do they proceed????

    I welcome groups that want to have dialogue with ordinary nationalist people who have a United Ireland at heart. Recently in a bar on the Falls we were in company and the discussion turned to a UI, and one guy , after being asked if he still held the prospect dear said, 'what at £7.50 a pint?' (laugh). Thats the sort of attitude that has to be overcome, theres no point in demonising that attitude if we are to get a UI by persuassion rather than force.

  2. Smart entry by Liam and sharp comments by Marge. Thanks for the guest piece, and I too am eager to find out when and where the "dissident" term originated.

  3. dissident (adj.) Look up dissident at
    c.1534, from L. dissidentem (nom. dissidens), prp. of dissidere "to be remote, disagree, be removed from," lit. "to sit apart," from dis- "apart" + sedere "to sit" (see sedentary). The noun in the political sense first used 1940, with rise of totalitarian systems, especially with ref. to the Soviet Union. The noun is first recorded 1766, in allusion to Protestants.

  4. This reply is long and so will be broken up in order to fit.

    "it sheds no light on where the term 'dissident' actually came from. Was it the media that gave rise to the term, or was it provisional republicans?"
    "I too am eager to find out when and where the "dissident" term originated"
    The aim of the article was not to define "dissident" in general, but only within the specific context of Irish Republicanism.
    It seems that the term was first coined by the media. The search engine 'News UK' ( brought the following results.

    With " dissident republican"entered in "Word(s) in article", a search through all these publications (Publications: Belfast Telegraph, The Daily Express/The Express on Sunday, Daily Mail/The Mail on Sunday, The Daily Mirror/The Sunday Mirror, Daily Record/Sunday Mail, The Daily Telegraph/The Sunday Telegraph, Edinburgh Evening News, Evening Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Independent/The Independent on Sunday, Irish Times, News Letter, News of the World, The Observer, Scotland on Sunday, Scotsman, South Wales Echo, The Sun, Sunday Business, The Sunday People, The Times/The Sunday Times, Wales on Sunday, Western Mail) brought up these results for the following years:

    1993 - 0
    1994 - 3 (one of them unconnected to Ireland)
    1995 - 7
    1996 - 6
    1997 - 12
    1998 - 346

  5. If the expression really became common usage from 1998 onwards, one comes accross it first in an article on the 1994 Loyalist ceasefire by David Sharrock: "The CLMC is expected to announce that a loyalist ceasefire will hold permanently providing IRA violence does not resume. This, loyalists argue, will make it more difficult for dissident republican elements to resume activities since they would shoulder the blame for a collapse in the peace process. The UVF and UDA may also demand to be represented in future political talks." (Loyalists order a ceasefire End to 25 years of Ulster terror, The Guardian; Oct 13, 1994)

    The term appeared a few weeks later when Nicholas Watt of the London Times reported the following: "Fears that dissident republicans are planning to launch a wave of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland were raised over the weekend when Irish police raided the homes of more than 50 activists. Most of the activists raided were members of Republican Sinn Fein (RSF), which split away from the mainstream party in 1986. Some were also believed to be members of the Irish National Republican Army, military wing of RSF. Tommy McKearney, who joined the IRA hunger strike at the Maze Prison near Belfast in the early 1980s, was among those arrested. The dawn raids on Saturday morning were cleared at the highest level of the Irish government. Albert Reynolds, the Prime Minister, pledged that the police would react to any threat to the peace process. "It was always to be expected that there would be some number of people opposed to the ceasefire. We don't expect it to be really a threat but the security authorities are very vigilant in relation to this," he said. (Dublin raid on activists raises fear of attacks, The Times; Oct 24, 1994)

  6. The term 'dissident republican' was synonymous with 'opposed to the ceasefire'. In February 1995, the expression makes its first appearance in the Irish Times when Jim Cusack wrote: "Last October gardai in Dundalk also intercepted what is believed to have been an attempt to mount a booby-trap bomb attack on the security forces in Co Armagh or Co Down by dissident republicans." (Arms search to continue after gardai unearth mortar parts, Irish Times; Feb 8, 1995) Towards the end of 1995, talk of 'dissidents' increases. "The INLA and its political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist party (IRSP), have launched a recruitment drive attracting dissident republicans who have lost faith in the IRA since its ceasefire last year....Gino Gallagher added: "As time goes by people are getting more and more disillusioned with the lack of progress in the peace process and are looking to us as an alternative. At the same time we are concerned not to become a dumping ground for disaffected Provos, so we are keeping things tight." (Liam Clarke, INLA plots renewed terror campaign The Sunday Times; Oct 22, 1995; p. 1 )

    But it is only in November 1995 after explosive finds in Carrickmackross that the term appeared for the first times as a headline in the Irish Times : "The fact that Republican Sinn Fein (RSF) had an armed wing only became significant in the approach to the 1994 IRA ceasefire when fears arose that dissident republican elements might pose a threat to a peace process....Republican Sinn Fein has not made any significant gain in attracting dissident Sinn Fein or IRA members, not even in republican strongholds like south Armagh, despite some reports to the contrary, according to gardai." (Jim Cusack, Gardai link explosives to dissident republican breakaway group Irish Times; Nov 11, 1995; p. 1)

    The Provos tend to use the expression "microgroup" rather than "dissident republicans" to refer to these organisations.

    "Either way Liam hasn't come up with an acceptable term, the only term I see in his piece is 'traditionalists', and thats arguable. "

    A neutral and acceptable term could be "Republicans opposed to the Belfast Agreement" or "Anti-Treaty Republicans".
    Not all of them would qualify as 'traditionalists'.

  7. The identity crisis of dissent has left no definitive authority or even unity amongst the so called “dissidents” defining the word is almost impossible as there is clearly dissent within the dissident factions.
    Would it be more practical to define the cause of dissent rather than the meaning or origin of the word?
    It would seem the only cohesive thing non agreement republicans have in common is that very fact, the anti treaty republicans agree on that.
    Does it matter now which word precedes republican as without a clear united front there is no strength in any opposition.
    The term dissident has been effectively used to great psychological effect as it undermines the minority of republicans who oppose the “new and improved progressive republicans.”
    With PSF having no great republican opposition they of course dictate what republicanism is. Dissidents are relegated to the second class republican status and to date still have not conglomerated or even presented a viable United Republican Front to challenge Provisional Sinn Fein’s dominance.

  8. The earliest introduction of the word ‘dissident’ or of its abbreviations which I myself could find within the context of modern Irish Republicanism appeared only once in a book sitting on my shelf which sits among others of similar persuasion and it is, J.Bowyer Bell’s ‘THE SECRET ARMY’
    A history of the I.R.A. 1916-1970, first addition published 1970.

    In his book Bowyer uses an abbreviation in the context of the split which took place between Official IRA / Provisional IRA following an internal army convention ballot in December 1969 that took place in Dublin on the issue of abstentionism which (reportedly) went 39 votes to 12 in favour of recognising the two governments (Dublin/London).
    On page 431, Bowyer is quoted:
    “The dissenters withdrew and formed a Provisional Army Council.”
    With which the Provisionals were quoted:
    “We declare our allegiance to the 32-County Republic proclaimed at Easter 1916, established by the first Dáil Eireann in 1919, overthrown by force of arms in 1922 and suppressed to this day by the existing British imposed Six-County and 26-County partition states.”

    So in Bowyer’s analysis of the situation in 1969 he pigeon-holed the Provisionals as ’Dissenters/Dissidents’ from the mainstream Republican Movement of that period following the results of the vote so it appears the term dissident is closely related to the losers in the law of numbers.
    But there’s also another form of dissenter and that’s one who dissents from a nonnegotiable set of rules or principles which were supposedly set in stone.

    Looking at this within the present climate it appears the Provisional IRA/PSF leadership and its political entourage who themselves were the once outvoted dissidents now have the audacity to try and stigmatise and demonise those who wont toe their party line who happened to be those who unselfishly and steadfastly stood by the constitutional principles and goals of the original Provisional IRA since its formation in 1969, in other words PSF have turned on and abandoned the very principles that originally created them.

    What I have cynical haste for is the treachery behind it all, those of us who lived through the late 1960s 70s,80s & 90s know exactly what I’m talking about because what we've all witnessed happen since the ceasefire in the 1990s was something British governments failed to do and that was to bring Irish Republicanism to its knees and place it at the heel of the British establishment which PSF can take the credit for doing.
    It seems even this wasn't good enough for their puppet-masters so they then turned republicanism on its head and now they proceed to continuously bang the head off the ground. The thing that annoys me most in all this is the fact that the Brits are paying them to do it in an indirect roundabout way, and it seems they learned nothing from what happened in the war of 1922-23 when the British pitted republican against republican.
    I remember for many years attending funerals of volunteers both IRA/INLA and mainly during the 1980s in Belfast & Derry and I can always remember McGuinness and he would repeatedly say at a number of these events when referring to the RUC or British army who would usually have everyone surrounded at the graveside or who were being harassed while attending, he used to say, “Do you see them…(ruc/army) just look at them straight in the face when you’re leaving and don’t say a world to them, but look at them and say into yourself…you’ll never beat me or any of us and shame on the lot of you for what you've done“.
    The thing that I would like McGuinness to do now is when he looks at photographs of those volunteers who we all helped bury, or sees their names written on paper or stone, he should look at them and say to them,
    “ I lied to you and betrayed you...and you died for fuck all!“.

    I know one thing, if I was one of the poor unfortunate souls now laying in the cemetery I would be turning in my grave.

  9. In the Anglo Celt The Week of January 9th 1970 Dissidents at Sinn Féin Ard Feis pledge allegiance to Provisional Army Council and herald the birth of the Provisional IRA.