Hardliners' lack of political plan shores up a system they despise
Dissident republican 'micro-groups' are not fielding candidates in the Assembly election, but they're watching developments in key constituencies like West Belfast and Foyle with keen interest
Foyle is set to be one of the most fascinating battlegrounds in an otherwise so-far-bloodless Assembly election campaign. Londonderry has become the crucible of a three-dimensional ballot box power struggle. First there are the two big hitters slugging it out in the Maiden City and its environs, Martin McGuinness and Colum Eastwood, both vying for the crown of nationalist supremacy in the constituency.
Then there is an existential tussle for unionism's political representation in Derry, with the prospect of a three-way split in the pro-Union vote, resulting in no unionist candidate being elected to Stormont from the city.
The third contest is among those who could be loosely described as "oppositional forces" to the current (almost) all-party power-sharing coalition politics of the Executive. In one corner stands the veteran socialist (and Belfast Telegraph columnist) Eamonn McCann on a People Before Profit ticket, and in the other popular local GP Anne McCloskey, going forward as an independent.
This third element of the Foyle battle is all the more interesting because it brings into play the votes and support on the ground of those who can be roughly described as republican dissidents. They include unapologetic hardline republicans like ex-prisoner Gary Donnelly, who was comfortably elected to the newly merged Derry and Strabane District Council last year, as well as a number of other independent republican councillors who oppose the political strategy of Sinn Fein.
Although their support base is far thinner than that of the SDLP (up to now, at least, the largest Assembly party in the city with three seats), or Sinn Fein, nonetheless the "republican dissident" vote in Derry - particularly on its West Bank - could still prove critical in a proportional representation (PR) election where second and third preferences could make a massive difference to the final outcome.
While there is absolutely no suggestion that Dr McCloskey has any truck with, or time for, the campaigns of the likes of the New IRA, it is the case that many dissident republican activists have indicated they will support her on May 5.
Many of them have already indicated to this writer that they see her as an alternative voice that needs to be inside the Assembly, disturbing the political peace and what they believe is a cosy consensus.
Yet, the fact that some of the republican dissidents in their Derry strongholds are backing Dr McCloskey in a sense highlights the political confusion and lack of strategic direction in their ranks.
Many on the hardline republican Leftist side of politics would be instinctively pro-choice when it came to the abortion debate. However, Dr McCloskey has described herself as republican, Left-wing and pro-life - the latter stance directly opposite to many other republican leftists in the north west.
The Shantallow GP's anti-abortion position is one of several reasons why McCann and People Before Profit came forward to try to capture a seat this time. And it is not far beyond the realm of possibility that many who style themselves republican dissidents will swing behind McCann instead next month. Even though he has been a long-term, articulate and intelligent critic of the so-called "armed struggle", he is still respected by many on the republican Left in the city.
To add to this confusing picture is the fact that, in the last general election, it wasn't only a sizeable proportion of Derry unionists (including voters this writer interviewed on the Fountain estate) who voted tactically to ensure Mark Durkan kept the Foyle Westminster seat for the SDLP in face of a Sinn Fein challenge; republican dissidents admitted in that campaign that some of them gave the SDLP their vote such was - and remains - their antipathy towards Sinn Fein.
All this suggests that, among the fledgling and disparate political movement evolving out of the dissident republican community, there is still uncertainty and minimal strategic thinking over how to channel the energy and the numbers groups like the 1916 Societies can bring on to the streets.
Their numbers on the ground - and, indeed, votes in places like West Belfast - will probably help People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll, who, if he repeats his impressive performance in the Westminster election, will clinch a seat in the Assembly.
Of course, who the disparate, often factional, dissident republican community swings behind in a couple of constituencies is in the end inextricably linked to the bigger question of "armed struggle" and its efficacy.
At present, despite some lone voices, there appears to be no real momentum building within that section of republicanism to have the armed campaigns of the New IRA, Continuity IRA or Oghlaigh na hEireann called off.
If political action for hardline republicans is only on an a la carte basis depending on individual constituencies and a choice of individual candidates, then there appears to be at this stage no real prospect of a ballot box alternative to the Armalite in their ranks (in the near future at least).
For many dissidents, too, especially those who support the Continuity IRA and Republican Sinn Fein, the very idea of backing a candidate to enter a "partitionist parliament" would be like 1986 all over again when Gerry Adams and McGuinness quite brilliantly (if somewhat cynically) guided the mainstream republican movement out of abstentionism and towards electoral politics.
One important footnote to mention is that it is not just the forces of anti-Good Friday Agreement republicanism which still appear schismatic, factional and at times ideologically confused. While there may be individual triumphs for the Left in this election, the proliferation of rival Left-wing candidates across a number of constituencies will result once again in a shredding of the Left's vote.
South Belfast is a paradigm case, where you have three Left-leaning candidates fighting each other for votes as well the mainstream nationalist and unionist parties.
Aside from the west of the city, there appears to be little chance of a red-in-tooth-and-claw Leftist candidate being elected to Stormont, mainly due to the "keep themuns out" sectarian zero-sum game, but also in part to the "other" sectarianism of squabbling and bickering over what happened or should have happened in Russia 100 years ago.
Until the Left takes on board the suggestion McCann put forward in the last Assembly election of a "progressive list" that would allow for one, agreed, Left-wing candidate in a variety of constituencies, it's likely that Carroll and the Green Party's Steven Agnew will be the only voices of non-confessional politics in the new mandate.