Since the killing of Lyra McKee by a New IRA gunman during riots in Derry, commentators, former Provisionals, and politicians called for an end of the armed campaign by republican paramilitaries. The morning after the shooting the political party Saoradh stated on their website that the journalist was shot "accidentally" by a "republican volunteer". The statement sought to blame the "heavily armed British Crown Forces" for the clashes between residents and the PSNI.
Saoradh is understood to be the political wing of the New IRA, a claim rejected by its spokespersons. Over Easter, republicans such as their national executive member Dee Fennell at the Saoradh commemoration in Dublin, and the party’s chairperson Brian Kenna at the commemoration in Belfast called on the New IRA to "take responsibility and apologise if they are responsible for the death of Lyra McKee".
The following Monday, the New IRA claimed responsibility for the death in a statement to the Irish News. This stated that "we have instructed our volunteers to take the utmost care in future when engaging the enemy, and put in place measures to help ensure this."
Both statements delivered the same message: while they regret the death of McKee, the shots fired at the PSNI during the riots were a legitimate act of resistance. While the death of McKee is appalling, the messages Saoradh and the New IRA send are constituent.
For radical republicans, their fight today is not different from the fighting in 1916, 1919, 1939, 1956, or 1969. Rather than dissenting from republicanism, today’s "dissident republicans" are those who brought the Provisionals' message into the 21st century. As Philipp McGarry explains, "these individuals are doing what the IRA have always done, which is using physical force to pursue a political agenda." As long as there is a partition in Ireland, John F Morrison adds that "there will be those who see it as a cause to take up arms."
If paramilitaries produce guns and deploy car bombs on the streets, civilian casualties are unavoidable. Yet, as former Republican Sinn Féin vice president, Cáit Trainor outlined on Good Friday in Duleek, Co Meath only hours after the death of McKee:
one influence on Pearse taking such a decision was witnessing an ordinary Dublin family get gunned down near a British barricade on Moore Street. He too would also have been aware a Volunteer had just accidentally shot dead a teenage girl.
While Trainor is not linked to Saoradh, her speech resonated widely within republican circles. The message is clear; civilians died during the fight for the Irish Republic in 1916, an event the state commemorates. For republicans, McKee died 103 years later during the fight for the same cause.
Hence, the support base of Saoradh and the New IRA will remain largely unaffected by the death of McKee. In the deprived working-class areas of Northern Ireland such as Creggan, where people feel left out from the "peace dividend", Saoradh "offers a sense of meaning to some young people who are alienated from the 1998 vision of power-sharing, peace and prosperity", writes Peter Doak.
However, while Saoradh and the New IRA recently attracted urban youth into their ranks, their support among seasoned republicans in rural areas of Tyrone and Armagh must not be underestimated, as I have outlined elsewhere. The attendance of hundreds of supporters at the Saoradh national Easter commemoration in Dublin, as well as large numbers at similar events in Derry and Belfast only days after the killing of McKee, shows that their supporters are unwavering.
Talking last week, a senior Northern Irish republican close to the group told me that:
when the media attention settles down, Derry will still be the most impoverished city under British rule. It will still be one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped and economically starved cities in the EU. That is the poverty which Lyra wrote about, which has a young person like Lyra jumping from Craigavon bridge every week, isn't going to go away and isn't going to be solved without the Irish people having their sovereignty.
However, more republicans are distancing themselves from the New IRA. The Easter statement from the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, believed to be the political wing of the Real IRA, is a lengthy attack on Saoradh and the New IRA. Following the formation of the New IRA in 2012, both groups engaged in a bitter feud that left at least three republicans dead in the Republic of Ireland.
Republican Sinn Féin, believed to be the political wing of the Continuity IRA, likewise used Easter to criticise the New IRA. Their president Joseph Malone condemned the tragic events in Derry at an Easter commemoration in Fore, Co Westmeath and their former president and ex-member Des Dalton did likewise at a commemoration in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
The CIRA is the most orthodox republican paramilitary organisation. However, this year’s Easter statement failed to mention "armed resistance" for the first time. Although planting a hoax bomb in Lurgan before Easter, the organisation is highly infiltrated and splintered, as I explain in the recent edition of Village Magazine. While not officially declaring a ceasefire, as Óglaigh na hÉireann did in January 2018, the CIRA will drift further away from the armed struggle. Without a political alternative provided by the remnants of RSF, their movement will end in obscurity.
The New IRA pose the biggest security threat to Ireland since the Real IRA in the late 1990s and their long-term strategy and support base will not be affected by the death of McKee. While support for the New IRA is growing, as I outlined in a previous piece and stressed by John F Morrison, there will be no return to the scale of violence of the pre-1994 period. Nonetheless, Brexit and the deadlock at Stormont provide a vacuum that will be exploited by the New IRA. Thus, further sporadic attacks are likely and, unfortunately, Lyra McKee won’t be the last victim of Northern Ireland’s endless Troubles.
➤ He holds a PhD in History from the European University Institute and is an Editorial Board member of “Studi irlandesi” (Florence University Press).
➤ He is also an IFPH member, tweets on @ReinischDieter and blogs on www.ofrecklessnessandwater.com.