'There will be a united Ireland; it will come from republican socialist agitation'
Ciaran Cunningham, a member of Republican Network for Unity, talks to Chris Kilpatrick about the ideology of the organisation, his thoughts on the Good Friday Agreement and why he believes there will be a united Ireland
Question: What is Republican Network for Unity, is it simply a mouthpiece for Oglaigh na hEireann?
Answer: Absolutely not. Definitely not.
Question: How big is the gap between the two?
Answer: As big as you want it to be. There is no linkage. Every political activist in Ireland has been touched by the conflict. Everybody over 30. So we would certainly understand the mindset of people who still advocate armed actions. That's not saying we endorse them.
Question: Do you condemn them?
Answer: We don't endorse or condemn them. We understand the logic. Armed actions are a legacy of British occupation in Ireland. The ascendancy of the British state in Ireland was made possible by brute force, force that did not care for morality, for anything. It didn't care for the suffering or people, human rights, simply the destruction of any expressions of resistance. That's what today's state mechanism is built on, brute force. There will always be a group of people, no matter how small, who will remember that and say that, rightly or wrongly, the logic of the gun is fair enough. That's the legacy issue. It would be inaccurate for me to say that mindset is wrong. It would be equally or wrong for me to say it's right. Is it worth the suffering? That's not something our party hasn't done. We haven't sat down and had that discussion. What we allow for is our members through freedom of thought regarding armed actions to have their own opinions. Within RNU you will find members with completely different views on armed actions.
Question: The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to move on. Small pockets of so-called armed resistance aren't going to change anything, are they? Surely they haven't a hope of delivering a united Ireland.
Answer: Do I believe pockets of resistance, small gestures of armed actions can lead to Irish unity? Personally, no.
Question: So their actions are futile?
Answer: I'm not saying armed struggle is futile. What I'm saying is it is a legacy. I will never put the blame on the practitioners of armed actions because I know about Irish history. They are the karma to what England did. They are the legacy of how England took over this country. England has to live with that.
Question: How long can we go back to things that happened hundreds of years ago. Surely it's time to move on?
Answer: It was only five years ago there were more British troops in Ireland than Iraq. It's not hundreds of years ago. It would be ideologically unsound for us to condemn armed actions. It would also be disingenuous of us as republicans to put the blame of armed conflict upon republicans practising armed actions. The media have to accept there is a huge difference in refusing to condemn armed actions and advocating armed actions.
Question: You call them armed actions, many call it murder. The killings of David Black, the soldiers at Massereene barracks, Ronan Kerr. Isn't that murder?
Answer: In exactly the same way mainstream media doesn't refer to the Nato invasion of Libya as murder, they don't refer to the dropping of massive bombs on weddings in Afghanistan as murder. It doesn't cross their minds to describe those acts as murder. There have been more people killed in Afghanistan in two hours than in 15 years in the six counties. That's a fact. The media are under no compulsion to describe those acts as murder and will justify it because there's an oil field 20 miles away. I'm under no illusions as to the tragedy caused by every death in this country but to take sides, to take moral sides saying this is murder, this isn't, that's not something I'm going to do.
Question: When acts were carried out such as those I mentioned, when you turned on the news at the time and saw that, how did you feel?
Answer: When people are killed? I feel the same as you. I recognise the human tragedy behind that and the way it leaves families. Absolutely. There's no doubt about it. Where we differ, as alternative republicans, is we see the dynamic coming from a different place. The deaths didn't arise from any personal defect in the people carrying out armed actions, no more than the dynamic for deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq arise from defects in RAF pilots or British soldiers. It isn't personal defects, it's political conditions and historical legacy which causes those deaths.
Question: Is it not a personal choice?
Answer: The people who carry out the armed actions are the butchers, the teachers, the unemployed who are into the politics, the historical legacy of this country. They have made a decision to express opposition to that legacy by force. It's up to them to justify to the public. RNU can't because we don't practise armed actions.
Question: Are there any RNU members who are also members of those groups?
AI don't know.
Question: There are widely-reported links to groups including Oglaigh na hEireann.
Answer: That's media sensationalism. That's all it is.
Question: You spent time in prison a decade ago for intelligence gathering (while working at the Royal Victoria Hospital). Do you regret what you did?
Question: Would you do it again?
Answer: It's not where I am any more.
Question: Would you like to see others who have the same mindset you had then opting for a different approach?
Answer: Personally, I did my analysing of the Good Friday Agreement in jail and I possibly didn't before that. I believe there's much more effective means of creating an alternative to Good Friday than what existed in 2003.
Question: Is that through political means?
Answer: I believe alternative republicans are only now gaining the confidence, the talent, the skills needed to build a political alternative.
There's a vast difference between building an alternative to Good Friday and promoting a return to the past.
Question: A peaceful alternative, no need for bloodshed?
Answer: It can be. It depends on the state as well. I envisage a future struggle in which we bring the respectable minority along the road of political action; strike action, civil disobedience, the vast array of methods capable of putting pressure on the state. And we can take back Ireland using those methods. The question is, will the state allow us to do that without reacting violently. If we were to pursue our objectives peacefully would the British state step in violently? I believe they may.
Question: Is it a fragile peace?
Answer: I believe Good Friday contains the seeds of sectarian conflict. That would be a complete tragedy. It could happen because people's minds are focused on stupid issues – flags and emblems, marching.
QAre they stupid?
Answer: Yes they are. On the eve of the British government trying to implement the Welfare Reform Bill, for the six counties to be obsessed with a piece of coloured cloth on the roof of City Hall instead of those cuts is absurd. For any nationalist to celebrate the flag coming down while ignoring the reality of what the Tories are trying to implement is crazy. It's smoke and mirrors. Good Friday encourages fighting over flags and emblems.
Question: You have two candidates in Belfast in the forthcoming council elections, so what does RNU stand for, what are your policies?
Answer: On a wider level we stand for self-determination, we stand for socialism and an end to sectarianism. What that equates to locally is standing with working-class communities, promoting a strategy to empower working class communities to empower themselves and we aim to do that through everyday struggles.
Question: So it's jointly socialist and republican, which takes precedence?
Answer: That's what we are. We believe the continued British occupation in Ireland is tied in with the wider economic system, the partition of Ireland is. Those who support the partition of Ireland and the occupation of the six counties are the same forces who support domestic and international capitalism. Furthermore we believe that the key to ending British rule in Ireland lies with the promotion of socialist values. Only they can break down the mirage that is the tribal outlook and only those values have the power to let people see beyond tribal politics and recognise the common benefit which would come from the working class being in control of the 32 counties.
Question: You'd agree it's very unlikely there will be a united Ireland in our time?
Answer: There will be a united Ireland and I think it will come from republican socialist agitation. Irish unity will come as an inevitable result of class struggle for national liberation. One can't happen without the other.
Question: The Good Friday Agreement promoted sectarianism?
Answer: Absolutely. It's entrenched in sectarianism. It embodies an acceptance that society can only be seen in terms of two communities. If you read it, it's peppered with terms 'both communities', 'two communities'. It ignores the potential we can one day destroy those barriers and exist as one community. By reinforcing this position and putting communities in competition it's a strategy to prevent the potential of the working class. It's the classic tactic of divide and conquer. Tell the Paddys there's two communities, throw them crumbs and let them bicker over them.
Question: So, you'd happily live alongside those in the Protestant, loyalist, unionist community? You've no problems with them?
Answer: They're being used as pawns and we're being used as pawns. You see it with health cuts. They are done down tribal lines. The right thing to do is say 'no, there will be no cuts', rather than bickering whether the Prods or the Catholics lose theirs. There's one community, the only one we care about. The Irish working class.
Question: The majority of people in Northern Ireland signed up to Good Friday. Huge numbers have also backed the direction Sinn Fein has taken republicanism. How do you take that on, the rejection of conflict?
Answer: The mass growth of Sinn Fein was their reward for delivering an end to an IRA campaign. When the IRA ended their campaign, rightly or wrongly, there was no need for the SDLP any more. Everything the SDLP was calling for for 30-odd years, once the IRA stopped, Sinn Fein embodied what they had called for.
Sinn Fein were more charismatic, their activists were more grounded with the people, they were more grounded through struggle. So it was inevitable for a period they boomed. That doesn't mean they were correct.
Question: You said when the IRA ended their campaign "rightly or wrongly". Was it the wrong move?
Answer: I don't think I'm qualified to say if it was right or wrong. I was 18 when the ceasefire was called. I don't feel armed with the right to say whether it should have carried on or ended. Good Friday was not worth the pain.
Question: To stop the bombs and the bullets, a price had to be paid by all sides, surely?
Answer: We think it ironic many of those who kept the campaign going long after it had lost its logistical merit, many of whom insisted in keeping it going were those who accepted Good Friday. It was possible to achieve peace in Ireland without upholding the causes of the conflict. A perpetual guerrilla campaign wasn't inevitable and republicans didn't have to settle for what Sinn Fein got us. It's inaccurate to suggest Good Friday was required to end the Provisional armed campaign.
Question: Do you have open lines of communication with Sinn Fein? If they invited you guys to the table, would you take them up on it?
Answer: They have done. They know where to get us. They have invited us for discussions on strategy. It was last year. They wanted to sit down for an ideological debate around the merits of their strategy and ours. When we announced candidates that correspondence broke down.
Question: Who from Sinn Fein wanted to meet you and are you still willing to sit down?
Answer: I won't say who but there's no appetite in our circles to discuss strategy with these people. What, if any, common ground is there with any organisation that greets the Queen within occupied Ireland? Refers to republican prisoners as traitors, does nothing regarding prisoners' treatment. Eventually the gulf between their leadership and our membership is so large it would be a waste of time.
Question: Martin McGuinness described dissident republicans as traitors to Ireland, how did that go down with your members?
Answer: I don't think it angered people. He had taken such an ideological somersault a long time before he began using that type of language. He did himself more damage. He exposed how far he had travelled ideologically to some within his own party.
Question: You use the term alternative republicanism instead of dissident, why?
Answer: Dissident republicanism is a media term which was seized on to degrade the legitimacy of republicanism and as a derogatory term. It's used to isolate principled republicans.
Call me a dissident all day long, I dissent from the state, the forces of the state, but I don't dissent from republicanism. The implication is you have perverted your republicanism, which isn't the case at all.
Question: Are Sinn Fein dissident republicans then?
Answer: They are somewhere else. It may be Hibernianism, liberalism, it's not republicanism. They are republicans in those ranks, they are not in that movement. Their party leadership has walked away from their republican values.
Question: How many members do you have?
Answer: About 200 we can rely on, across Ireland. We've no illusions or wish to state we are anything but a fledgling organisation.
QRNU helped organise an anti-internment rally through Belfast last year. Colin Duffy was there. Is he a member of RNU?
Answer: No. We recognise that Colin Duffy, like many others, was the focus of particularly harsh state harassment over the years. Like most principled republicans, we called for an end to that harassment, calls to an end to internment by remand which he was placed under.
Question: On parades, you have members affiliated with the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective. Is trouble inevitable this marching season, again. Would you be willing to meet and speak with the Orange Order?
Answer: The Ardoyne community has succeeded in preventing sectarian coat-tailing through their area. I don't see why they should back down now. Why would they concede any ground?
I'd speak to anybody but all I'd have to say to them is stop marching though areas you're not wanted. I've nothing else to say to them.