Hardline republicanism shows public face with Saoradh launch at swish hotel
The expected venue for the launch of a new dissident republican political party would be a community centre or social club in a traditional stronghold. But Saoradh was launched in Newry's swish Canal Court Hotel, an altogether more mainstream venue.
It appeared as though the party's founders were saying: "We won't be restricting ourselves to the political margins any more."
Indeed, a line in one of the speeches admitted that "at times we were the faithful and the futile." Not that this was a sign that dissident republicans are finally moving towards an acceptance, even reluctantly, of the peace process. Contempt for constitutional nationalism was repeatedly stated and the message was a hardline republican one.
The stance of speakers was similar to that of Sinn Fein in the 1970s or 1980s, their language utterly uncompromising. This conference was, first and foremost, the dissidents now offering a prominent, public face which will articulate their position.
A 12-strong executive sat at the top table under a banner of the 1916 leaders. They included Nuala Perry, a former Provisional IRA prisoner from west Belfast; Ardoyne dissident, Dee Fennell; Kevin Murphy, a former Real IRA prisoner from Coalisland; and Mandy Duffy from Lurgan who is a sister-in-law of prominent dissident Colin Duffy.
A third of the executive was female, but among the 150 members at the ard fheis, men outnumbered women 10 to one. A high proportion were in their 20s and 30s. Among the older members, some had left the Provisional movement in 1997, others had departed more recently.
While republicans from both sides of the border were there, the overwhelming majority were from Northern Ireland. There was no mention of 'armed struggle' at the ard fheis. But messages of support from New IRA prisoners in Maghaberry and Portlaoise prisons clearly showed where allegiances lie.
A message of support for the new party was read out from Provisional IRA founder, Billy McKee. Colin Duffy attended the ard fheis but did not publicly address it.
The big question was whether Saoradh would enter electoral politics. The party made no such announcement but said it would not rule out contesting elections in future if that would "advance republican objectives". It added that, if successful, it wouldn't take its seats in Stormont, Westminster or Leinster House. It's most unlikely to be in that position anyway. While there is growing discontent with Sinn Fein in working-class republican areas, there is little support for the dissident position. Disillusioned Sinn Fein supporters, who see the party increasingly as part of the establishment, are far more likely to vote for the socialist People Before Profit, which opposes violence and is unencumbered with paramilitary baggage.
But Saoradh's launch was still significant. Not so long ago, dissident republicans wouldn't have been able to show a public, political face in such numbers in Northern Ireland - and certainly not under the chandeliers of one of our leading hotels.