Dissident republicans are not stuck historically in 1916 and the failed Easter Rising; they are stuck in 1956 and the failed Border Campaign which began that year and eventually fizzled out in 1962.
Four years ago in 2019, I penned an article emphasising the futility of ‘armed struggle’ by dissident republicans.
The Official republican movement realised the futility of terrorism in 1972 when the Official IRA called a ceasefire. Nine years later in 1981, the Provisional republican movement realised the advantages of the ballot box when hunger strikers won seats in the Dail and Westminster, especially the victories of Maze PIRA OC Bobby Sands and his election agent Owen Carron in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Commons by-elections.
As a young cub BBC Radio Ulster freelance, I covered Carron’s victory. Could you imagine what his reaction would have been if I’d told him that one day the Provisional republican movement’s former Derry IRA commander Martin McGuinness would operate a successful partitionist power-sharing parliament at Stormont with DUP boss Rev Ian Paisley!
Or, that opinion polls would indicate that the Provisional republican movement’s political mouthpiece, Sinn Fein, would be odds-on to form a coalition government in the next Dail General Election in the Irish Republic, let alone Sinn Fein TDs taking their seats in the Dail!
But Sinn Fein has worked the ballot box to its advantage to the point where in Northern Ireland, with the exception of a couple of constituencies, it is electorally eclipsing the moderate nationalist SDLP in the same way the SDLP eclipsed the old Irish Nationalist Party from the original Stormont Parliament which was prorogued in 1972.
After the Provo ceasefires of the 1990s in the run-up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, republicans who vehemently disagreed with the Sinn Fein peace strategy formed a series of terror gangs and political wings.
In those years, we have seen the New IRA, the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, and Oglaigh na Eireann (ONH) to name but a few of the splinter groups. Their reasoning for so many groups was to try and make it more difficult for the intelligence community to infiltrate their ranks.
But as the security forces on both sides of the Irish border have demonstrated, surveillance techniques have developed to such a capacity that infiltration of the dissident movement has become almost second nature and dissident terror leaders are having to try and rely on new, young republicans for whom people such as Martin McGuinness and Rev Ian Paisley are now merely names in their history books.
For a start, dissident republicans will have to rebrand themselves. Just as Provisional Sinn Fein abandoned the ‘ballot box and Armalite’ tactic in favour of the ‘ballot box and honours degree’, so dissident republicans will have to create a new identity for themselves as the Alternative Republican Movement - but with no violence!
Two decades ago in 2003, there was some hope so-called dissident republicans might adopt this path when during the Northern Ireland Assembly election of that year, a number of republicans entered the fray under the banner of Concerned Republicans.
That was the election in which Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP as the leading voice for nationalism, and Concerned Republicans failed to win any seats.
Rather than focusing on an ill-fated terror campaign, those republicans who do not agree with the Sinn Fein peace strategy should bond together and form a new alternative and united republican party capable of giving Sinn Fein a run for its money in future elections.
Then again, does the old jibe come to mind - that when a new republican group is formed, the first item on the agenda is ‘the split’! This brings to mind the comic scenes from the 1979 Monty Python blockbuster film, The Life of Brian, featuring the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea, and the Popular Front of Judea!
With each of the dissident republican terror gangs having a so-called political wing, could a combined new Alternative Republican Party be a non-starter as each of these political groups would claim to be the true political descendants of the 1916 Rising, or even the United Irishmen of 1798.
What would really throw a spanner in Sinn Fein’s works would be if any new Alternative Republican Party opted to take its ‘fight’ right to the very heart of the British Establishment by taking its seats at Westminster. Look at the impact which the then Bernadette Devlin had when she took her Mid Ulster Commons seat as a Unity candidate in the late 1960s. If the Scottish National Party and the Welsh nationalists as well as republicans within the Labour Party can take their Commons seats, then imagine the impact an Alternative Republican Party could have especially after the next Westminster General Election if either Labour or the Tories have only a wafter-thin majority?
Just as former Tory PM Theresa May needed a ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ with the DUP to keep her administration in power, could Labour boss Sir Keir Starmer need a couple of Alternative Republican Party MPs to hand him the keys to 10 Downing Street? Where would that leave Sinn Fein’s strict abstentionist policy?
With the cost of living crisis biting hard and so much being decided at Westminster because of a lack of a Stormont power-sharing Executive, each vote in the House of Commons will be vital in the coming months of 2023.
Put bluntly, given the importance of such votes, Sinn Fein MPs are meaningless at Westminster no matter how much they might chuckle on about influence in the corridors of power! Makes you wonder that one of the main reasons the SDLP still have Commons seats in Foyle and South Belfast is because its MPs take their seats?
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.