Dissident republicans drawing on flawed IRA view of history
There has never been a time in Irish history when the use of physical force was either less justified, or less likely to succeed.
Yet, it is obvious from the actions and occasional statements of the dissident republican groups, that they draw their inspiration from a series of previous IRA campaigns that were, in their turn, unjustified.
That tradition may well have been what was going through the mind of the republican dissident who set himself on fire with his own incendiary in Belfast.
His organisation is trying to assume the mantle of the Provisional IRA by doing what the IRA used to do. Car bombs, shooting, attacks on the police and now incendiaries are clearly an attempt to carry out the full gamut of Provisional IRA activities in the belief that it will entitle them to call themselves the IRA.
Distinctions can be drawn between the two organisations. Every previous IRA campaign has claimed legitimacy from the 1918 Westminster election, in which Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party in Ireland.
Afterwards, the Sinn Fein MPs formed their own Irish parliament in Dublin, the first Dail, and declared independence. When the British authorities refused to recognise them, the first Dail 'mandate' was passed on, like a family heirloom, to the each generation of the IRA leadership who fought to make it a reality.
That was the theory, but inconveniently for the physical force tradition, Sinn Fein gained just under 47% of valid votes cast and not a majority.
The argument is leaky, even in its own terms, and there were other factors in the Sinn Fein victory – principally opposition to conscription, which would have accompanied Home Rule.
This already weak argument was bolstered by the claim that the 1918 mandate would stand until the people of Ireland voted again as a unit.
Sinn Fein got a taste of that in a number of European elections where, while the IRA campaign continued, it did badly.
A more decisive vote was taken in the 1998 referenda on the Good Friday Agreement, when a huge majority of people on the island (71% in the north and 94% in the south) voted for the proposition that Irish unity can only be achieved by peaceful means through further referenda.
Sinn Fein argues – correctly – that there is now no justification whatsoever for the use of violence to subvert the demo- cratically expressed will of the people. The way forward is through political argument.
Sinn Fein's moral authority is undermined every time it justifies the last IRA campaign. Dissidents are bound to be encouraged by the words of Gerry Adams in the Dail, when he said that the killers of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan, the two RUC officers murdered at Jonesboro in 1989, had been doing their duty just like the two detectives.
Potential recruits for dissident groups may well feel that, if they continue, it is only a matter of time until their exploits are endorsed by elected politicians.
In fact, the Jonesboro shootings were carried out in defiance of what most Irish people wanted, or supported. At the time, Sinn Fein had 11% of the vote in the north and a derisory 1.9% in the south. Its mandate soared when the violence ended.
It may be a too much to expect the present Sinn Fein leadership, still packed with IRA veterans, to admit that the last campaign was wrong.
What they could do, though, is stop trying to publicly glorify it by using terms like "duty".
There is never any duty to use violence, or tenuous justification, either, when a democratic alternative is available.