Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 29 May 2016

Today's dissidents have little in common with predecessors

By Henry McDonald

Published 08/03/2016

'Dissident' used to be a badge of honour in the 1970s and 1980s.

It used to refer to that relatively small majority of dissenters living under communism who risked everything to stand up to a nuclear superpower such as the Soviet Union or China.

'Dissidents' once meant playwrights like Vaclav Havel or nuclear scientists such as Andrei Sakharov who were often lone but morally-important voices who championed human rights over the collective willpower of the state. 'Dissidence' symbolised back then a kind of anti-ideology ideology that objected to a vision of man in which individuals were reduced to mere tiny cogs in the grand wheel of history; 'dissidence' sought to put man back at the centre of the human story.

Today in Northern Ireland 'dissidents' call to mind the cliched image of masked men brandishing automatic weapons and who are prepared to pursue the same failed violent path that those they split from have now abandoned.

These net-dissidents are, in fact, the antithesis of the original 'dissidents' from the late 20th century, the latter being men and women who opposed the use of violence to overthrow the state, recognising in the great seizures of the 20th century, such as the 1917 Russian Revolution, the disastrous forces they unleashed on mankind.

Across this island the term 'dissidents' is now a catch-all phrase to describe the disparate, often squabbling, factions of hard-line republicans opposed to the peace process and the political settlement at Stormont.

At present there are three main violent organisations that sit under this umbrella - the New IRA, the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Oghlaigh na hEireann (ONH).

At times these groups work together - indeed, the New IRA was formed from an amalgam of armed groups encompassing Republican Action Against Drugs in Derry, elements of the Real IRA and independent republican units most notably from East Tyrone, the latter the people that killed Constable Ronan Kerr in 2011.

Some observers and commentators tend to think that this alphabet soup of 'dissidents' is a ruse, that, in fact, they are a holistic, coherent force operating under different flags of convenience but are in fact controlled by a single high command. This analysis, however, underestimates the deep schismatic nature of Irish republicanism down through the ages.

The Continuity IRA for instance is aligned to the politics of Republican Sinn Fein, which doesn't even recognise the present Dail Eireann and refuses to engage in electoral politics beyond local government.

CIRA see themselves as the true inheritors of the armed republican tradition and regard others in the 'dissident' camp as Johnny-come-latelys to the struggle, given that many of them were until 1997-98 working within the mainstream, Sinn Fein-dominated republican movement.

The New IRA and, to an extent, ONH, have been more pragmatic about their approach to electoral politics, standing candidates in the north for local councils (and in Derry succeeding in getting elected) while, of course, remaining resolute in their support for 'armed struggle'. These differences might appear like a row between the two factions in Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' who hate each other more than the occupying Romans. Nonetheless, these differences are important in the parallel republican universe.

What's in a name they used to ask when we had the UDA by day and the UFF killing by night during the Troubles? With 'dissident' republicanism it is more complex and it is also a reason, while despite last week's attempted murder of a prison officer in Belfast, these recalcitrant organisations remain weak and dis-coordinated. The names reflect that reality.

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