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Dissident republican thinking off the rails since start

The dissident republican tactic of targeting the Belfast-Dublin railway is evidence not of the strength of their support, but rather of the weakness of their argument, writes Henry McDonald.

Published 27/01/2016

A police Land Rover at the scene of the attack
A police Land Rover at the scene of the attack
Bomb disposal experts search the railway line

Terrorism has been described as an act of advertising, although in the context of north Armagh it seems to be more akin to a cry for attention.

It is blindingly obvious to anyone who has observed dissident republicanism over the last few years that, on a purely military front, the various armed factions opposed to the peace process are having a hard time.

The police on both sides of the border, but most notably the Garda, have scored countless successes against the New IRA, CIRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, with attacks thwarted, weapons seized and activists arrested and charged.

While it is always dangerous to tempt fate, it is indicative of the state of play within the secret war between the dissidents and the security forces that the hardline paramilitary groups have failed to land a lethal blow on police or troops in the north in the past 18 months.

Indeed, the majority of their victims in terms of shootings have been individual members of the nationalist community who have transgressed against these organisations.

Of course, the old saying comes to mind about only having to be lucky once when it comes to terror attacks. One successful sortie out of dozens of compromised bombings and shootings can capture world headlines and catapult the small but determined array of dissident groupings into global consciousness again.

In part this is what last Sunday's petrol bombs, other missiles and a single shot in Lurgan was about - a reminder that they are still among us.

Aside from the heavily-armoured police officers and the unfortunate residents living around the Lake Street area, the other casualties in these disorder-to-remember tactics are the long-suffering passengers on the Belfast-Dublin rail link.

The disruption to their journeys brings back dark memories of even darker times, when the Provisional IRA repeatedly placed bombs and hoaxes on the inter-city, cross-border rail line in the 1980s and early-1990s.

This, of course, prompted popular movement the Peace Train Organisation - an alliance of trade unionists, political parties, writers, artists, peace groups and concerned individuals - to oppose the attacks on one of the networks that connected our island together.

Back in the Peace Train days it was pointed out that, during the unionist-dominated Stormont regime pre-1969, some hardline ministers had considered severing the line to Dublin in order to physically bolster partition on the island.

The irony of bombing the same rail link in the name of a united Ireland appeared lost on the Provisionals at the time, so it seems the irony of that cheap terror tactic is also lost on their recalcitrant descendants in their mini-strongholds like north Armagh.

Aside from the immorality and tactical stupidity of endlessly disrupting a train bringing together the people of north and south on a daily basis, whether in terms of business or tourism, there is also a calculated cynicism about the hoaxes on the rail track.

They are, of course, designed as a come-on to lure police and bomb disposal personnel into a trap. The tracks have to be checked to ensure that no actual real device has been placed less it threaten the lives of Enterprise and NIR regional passengers travelling along it.

This means that the security forces must be deployed in the area and, in turn, risk being sitting ducks for the dissidents and the ranks of the young that follow them.

On one level the incidents at Lurgan reflect a degree of nihilism within these organisations - a sense of simply lashing out to remind the world they still exist and can cause trouble.

However, this is not to suggest there is no political thinking or debate going on inside these groups or among those political allies orbiting around the dissident republican world.

There is undoubtedly debate going on about the efficacy of 'armed struggle', albeit mainly from Left-republican voices who have long seen violence as counter-productive and completely played-out as a strategy.

With the emergence of forces like the 1916 Societies, there have been small but significant signs that some dissident republicans might be channelling their energies in a purely political direction.

The societies have in certain areas, such as republican heartlands like east Tyrone, been enjoying some traction and gaining ground, although it is far too early to tell if this movement will translate into a conventional political force capable of diverting dissidents away from the armed struggle cul de sac.

However, the greatest problem facing those both inside the fractious republican family and those outside in constitutional nationalism remains the issue of continuity itself.

It was no accident that those dissidents who first broke away from the Provisionals in 1986, aligning themselves politically with Republican Sinn Fein, chose to use that word as a kind of adjective for their version of the IRA.

The message was clear - the struggle goes on because of the unfinished business of 1916, and they are part of the unbroken connection, the continuity of armed struggle that flows back to Easter Week 100 years ago.

Of course, all republican generations throughout the decades have transformed - or at least a majority of them have - from purely militaristic movements into fully fledged political parties.

At present, though, given the scenes of destruction and disorder in a corner of north Armagh, it appears on the surface at least that such an evolution is light years away.

But, as recent revelations show about that seminal year of 1993, when Northern Ireland teetered on the brink of outright civil war following the Shankill and Greysteel massacres, there may be more going on underneath that gloomy surface than first seems obvious.

The tactic of targeting a transport connection that has helped unite the two Irelands since both States came into being failed in the past, is failing in the present, and will fail in the future.

In a real sense, the repetition of that tired old tactic is a manifestation of weakness rather than strength - a cry for attention to a world that has given up listening to the soundtrack of bombs and bullets.

Belfast Telegraph

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