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Tarring all dissenters with same brush easy but wrong

There is a noble tradition of dissent in democratic societies. So how did the term 'dissident' come to be synonymous with violent opposition to the Good Friday Agreement? And what does it mean for the future of the still fragile peace process?

By Jonny Byrne

Published 12/02/2016

A 32 County Sovereignty Movement event
A 32 County Sovereignty Movement event
The PSNI’s ‘Dissident Dan’ figure
Independent republican councillor Gary Donnelly

In a democracy dissent is good and violence is bad. Yet, in our context, the word 'dissident' has become common parlance with politicians and reporters alike when commenting on violent terrorist attacks, public disorder, pickets and protests.

Yet, do we really understand what it means? Or have we become so complacent with its application in our post-conflict society that there has been a gradual shift in the conventional meaning and interpretation of the word?

Only last month police in Craigavon introduced us to 'Dissident Dan' - a "balaclava-clad, stick man with attitude", a virtual character created in response to security alerts and public disorder in the area.

For those who have seen him, I am sure you will agree he will not be in the running for a Turner Prize.

Yet, like most artistic creations that evoke the imagination or deliver a message, Dissident Dan has succeeded, albeit with some ambiguity.

In other words, is Dan a terrorist in the traditional sense? Or is he a stone-thrower - the recreational rioter?

By not making this distinction clear are we running the risk of merely diminishing the actions and activities of violent dissident republican terrorists by presenting such a simplistic character?

Within any conflict or post-conflict situation language is of crucial importance.

In our case, both governments and local parties quickly adopted the term 'dissident' while the peace process was still in its infancy, and the word came to symbolise those individuals and organisations intent on using violence to pursue their goals.

Since then it appears that the application of the word has diversified to incorporate anyone that does not neatly fit within the popular peace process narrative.

For the most part the word is associated with those from a republican and nationalist background and has become synonymous with negativity, criminality, violence and terrorism.

Furthermore, as the term became more frequently used, other phrases and words emerged alongside it, such as 'anti-peace process groups', 'anti-Sinn Fein individuals', 'micro-groups', 'violent dissident republicans' and 'dissident republican activists'.

Reflecting on the word, a dissident is broadly defined as a person who actively challenges an established doctrine, policy, or institution.

In many societies dissenters are welcomed as providing both an alternative to and a critique of the status quo.

Yet we have managed to not only demonise this term, but to also apply it to a broad range of actors while ignoring their different motivations, behaviours and ideological positions.

The Government and security services are very clear that the current threat from dissident terrorist organisations comes from the Continuity IRA, the New IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, which reject the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and aim to undermine the democratic institutions through the use of violence.

There is little evidence to suggest that they have significant popular support from within their own community, and they have failed to provide a practical and non-violent alternative to the current political process.

It was for these individuals that the term 'dissident' was originally intended.

Beyond this constituency we know very little about those who are not engaged in an armed campaign, even though they continue to project a very different narrative to that of mainstream republicanism - one in which policing and the political institutions are underpinned by British influence - and they have cultivated an environment similar to that of pre-1994.

They, too, are labelled dissidents through their engagement and participation in white line pickets in support of prisoners, protests outside PSNI information recruitment centres and involvement in parades and marches in commemoration of historical August events.

The term 'dissident' covers all of these actions, but the rationale for participation and potential outputs are very different, which leads one to ask whether the casual application of the word has in fact blurred the lines between that which constitutes as violent and non-violent behaviour?

More significantly, is there a danger that we have stigmatised the word 'dissident'? And, furthermore, what exactly do the dissidents actually disagree with? And, most importantly, how do we begin the process of addressing their anger and concerns while also isolating those who advocate violence?

To apply the 'dissident' label with such a laissez-faire approach simply stifles debate and does not helpfully clarify the difference between those people who actually support a violent, armed campaign and those who simply disagree with the current trajectory of the peace process and with both the republican and nationalist parties that take part in it. While dissidents advocating violence appear uninterested in using elections to pursue their goals, there are those - usually characterised by their disengagement from the peace process and their anti-Sinn Fein rhetoric - that have begun to challenge the existing political establishment by participating in council elections. There is Gary Donnelly, who ran as an independent (but with links to the 32 County Sovereignty Movement). He was elected in the Derry and Strabane constituency in 2014.

Furthermore, parties such as the Republican Network for Unity and eirigi, along with independent candidates emerging from a traditional republican base, have shown, through votes cast for them, that their political and ideological beliefs resonate with certain members of the public.

Their participation in the electoral process has been welcomed by all shades of political green and is seen as the first of many steps in resolving the political and ideological fractures that exist within nationalist and republican communities.

In a democracy, the values of questioning, critiquing and opposing dominant powers should surely be welcomed.

This then raises the question as to whether our peace process is now mature enough and stable enough to defend itself from critique and debate from non-violent dissident republicans?

In taking up Dissident Dan, the PSNI has managed to blur the boundaries around violent opposition to the peace process, public disorder and wider criminal activity.

They are not solely to blame, of course, for society itself has allowed the term 'dissident' to come to encapsulate all behaviours and actions - whether violent or non-violent - of those people who disagree with and oppose aspects of the peace and political processes.

We have allowed ourselves to fall into a language trap, were we use words without contemplating what they really mean.

This presents a fundamental challenge to the very democratic values that the peace process is meant to inspire and embed.

Dr Jonny Byrne lectures in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University

Belfast Telegraph

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