Could Be One Step Away
Dissident republicans could be one step away from plunging Ireland back more than 30 years by replacing their recently ended Maghaberry jail dirty protest with a full-blown hunger strike, especially with the prestigious and high profile G8 conference coming to Fermanagh in 2013.
One by one, the various dissident factions held in Maghaberry jail decided to end their dirty protest begun in May 2011. Was the killing of Maghaberry prison officer David Black the final straw which backfired and forced republicans to end the dirty protest, or did it bring matters to a head and force the authorities into secret talks with dissidents?
Looking back three decades, the common perception is that the Provo leadership had already secured its basic demands from British Premier Maggie Thatcher in 1981 after Bobby Sands and four of his fellow Maze prisoners had died.
However, the 1980 hunger strike IRA leader Brendan Hughes suggested before he died years later that the Provo leadership deliberately let another five republican inmates die simply to milk the publicity to launch the Shinners’ election bandwagon.
The hunger strike has proved to be a potent weapon for republicans over the generations.
While dissident republicans are miles behind the Shinners politically and militarily, a high profile hunger strike could have the potential to covert the drip, drip of support to dissident groups into a flood.
In 1981, republicans managed to mobilise around 100,000 people to attend Sands’ funeral. H Block activists were so well organised they got hunger strikers elected to Westminster and Leinster House.
Stormont deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness could come to regret unveiling that he is to give up his ultra-safe Mid Ulster Commons seat.
Given his impressive Westminster majority along with the constituency boasting three equally high-profile MLAs, including farming boss Michelle O’Neill, and a split Unionist vote, the chances of Sinn Fein losing the seat are next to impossible.
But if the dissidents in Maghaberry jail launch a hunger strike before the Mid Ulster by-election or to coincide with G8 summit and put up a well-known prisoner – particular one with former Provo links – it could place a significant dent in the Shinners’ Northern peace strategy.
However, even if the dissidents manage to muster up a couple of well known names to begin a death fast, there is always the fear the legion of very skilled Sinn Fein spin doctors could hijack their campaign.
It should never be forgotten that while a broad church of republican and nationalist opinion in Ireland backed the Sands and company death fast, the only party to truly benefit from the hunger strikers was Sinn Fein.
The dissident dirty protest had a relatively low media profile. Was the lack of publicity deliberately engineered by pro-peace process republicans to prevent dissidents from gaining ground politically from the Shinners?
After all, previous dissident electoral support – especially from the group Concerned Republicans – failed to make any real impact on the Sinn Fein vote as the key republican task became ensuring that Martin McGuinness secured at least the deputy First Minister’s slot.
Dissident sources also want to try and wrestle the new generation of post ceasefire nationalist young people away from Sinn Fein and back to the traditional republican agenda.
If dissidents could spark a fresh hunger strike, they believe that “young people would be anxious to how their support”, according to one veteran republican.
He said the three big recruiting pivots for the republican movement were internment, Bloody Sunday, and the hunger strikes.
For the dissidents, their seemingly insurmountable barriers of current political obscurity and start-stop terror campaign could be overcome if a hunger strike was used to ‘up their profile’ as the battle begins within republicanism as to who are the true inheritors of the 1916 Proclamation.
The hard question for dissidents is – are there enough republicans willing to die for this specific cause?