Belfast Telegraph

Republicans torn between Armalite and the ballot box

Martin McGuinness campaigns for the Irish presidency, but dissidents have a campaign of a different sort in mind, says Brian Rowan

In recent days, we have seen the two faces of republicanism - mainstream and dissident - and further evidence of a tug-of-war between peace and conflict.

A little over a week ago, as we waited for confirmation that Martin McGuinness would be a candidate in the Irish presidential election, I was sitting in the company of a dissident leader - a member of the 'army council' of the Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) faction.

Just hours earlier, there had been an attempt to kill police officers responding to an alarm call at Mill Road in Newtownabbey.

As the officers arrived on the scene, a device was thrown at them - an explosion that broke the relative silence of recent weeks.

The protracted jail protest at Maghaberry has been a distraction for the various dissident groups in terms of taking their attention away from their different wars.

This, in part, explains the recent relative calm. Now, the talk is of more attacks.

And as McGuinness steps up his campaign to become president, the dissident focus may return to a campaign of a completely different - and more deadly - kind.

One move is a further confirmation that the war of the mainstream IRA is long over, but what is threatened by others is more fighting and more violence, making themselves heard not in terms of votes, but in the use of bombs and bullets.

For many years, Danny Morrison was the republican wordsmith - the man who coined the big phrases at the right times, including his reference to taking power with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot paper in the other. It was the selling of the dual strategy of politics and armed struggle.

Morrison supports the peace process and describes McGuinness's election decision as "very dramatic" and "very bold". "He's in there with a chance," he said.

"None of the mud-slinging and smear appears to be working," he told this newspaper, in a reference to the constant questioning of McGuinness about his past in what Morrison describes as the media "re-run of the IRA armed struggle and the worst aspects of it".

And he believes dissidents are "perplexed" by the McGuinness decision to run. "Sinn Fein has this proven ability to keep surprising people," Morrison added.

"A strong vote for Martin McGuinness is going to be another body-blow to them [the dissidents]," he said.

"If McGuinness gets a powerful vote, it's a powerful vote for what he stands for - ceasefire and peace and negotiation and dialogue."

Whatever questions are asked of McGuinness in this election campaign, and no matter who asks them, he will answer as he chooses.

Was he one of the IRA's most senior leaders in a decades-long conflict? The answer is yes. Was he a man of the IRA's war and in a position to give orders and direction? Again, the answer is yes.

But it is what he is now that probably most frightens those who make up that dissident republican world.

If he were to be successful in this election, what message would that send out to the republican community? That politics is working; that the strategy of Adams and McGuinness is working.

That this is a new Ireland, a different Ireland, and a place beginning to be at peace with itself; an Ireland in which McGuinness is not a no-hoper in this election, but someone in with a real shout of success.

And this is what the dissidents will fear.

That this presidential election - and a strong electoral performance by Martin McGuinness - will speak against the actions of Oglaigh na hEireann and the Real and Continuity IRAs.

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