Malachi O'Doherty: The alternative universe of dissidents... why they will keep making excuses for their deplorable acts
It takes some nerve to justify murder as stray act in defence of community, writes Malachi O'Doherty
You'd need some nerve or have to be particularly insensitive to justify the murder of Lyra McKee as an accident arising from the defence of your community.
Or you would have to be living in an alternative universe in which things are just not as most people see them.
In the vision of dissident republicans, the New IRA is legitimately preserving a military machine poised against an illegitimate state. They know that they do not have the power to overthrow that state but they believe that, as before, larger numbers of people will one day swing behind them and a new opportunity will arise to fight more strategically for Pearse's republic.
They take their legitimacy from the Proclamation that Pearse read on the steps of the GPO on Easter Monday in 1916 and the general election of 1918 which massively endorsed Sinn Fein.
By that vision, the police are not the police. They are the armed front of British imperialism, the British war machine. And they have no more right to disarm a republican than to eat him.
It doesn't matter to them that the treaty which ended the war for Irish independence was signed by the leaders of the IRA and endorsed in elections, or that the Union which places six Irish counties inside the UK is recognised by the United Nations. It is of no consequence that the right of a majority in Northern Ireland to determine whether or not to unite Ireland has been accepted by majorities on both sides of the border.
That's irrelevant. There is a Republic. It was conceived in the mind of Patrick Pearse and it is our future, perhaps at the end of a rainbow, but no less real for that.
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Strictly speaking, it is wrong to call these republicans 'dissidents' for they are the ones who have never changed. And that is a matter of pride for them.
There is no essential difference between the position they hold and that which was held by the IRA that attacked Lisnaskea police station in 1956, or blew up the Abercorn bar in 1972 or murdered Mountbatten in 1979.
If anyone has dissented, it is the Provisionals and before them the Officials and before them the IRA that spawned Fianna Fail.
And just as the Officials, who changed first, sneered at the Provos as chauvinistic sectarian throwbacks, the Provisionals of today sneer at the New IRA for their failure to get with the programme.
Modern Provos may express their disgust with the murderers of Lyra McKee for using 'defence of the community' as an excuse and calling it an accident.
But that is precisely how they defended their own role in Bloody Friday when they lacerated Belfast with bombs on July 21, 1972 and killed nine people.
There is continuity in the self-serving humbug.
I have spoken to some of the 'dissidents'.
- Suzanne Breen: The world will be a far darker place without my friend Lyra
- Leona O'Neill: A haunting scream I will never forget after shots rang out
- Lindy McDowell: I'm angry at her killer, at the people who gave the orders... and at how my generation has failed people like Lyra
- Ruth Dudley Edwards: She was driven by journalistic passion, but Lyra's life was also centred around love
- John Downing: It's time for NI political parties to return to their work
One I met was a leader of the IRA in Derry before the split of 1970 and wanted to take credit, in our discussion, for creating the Battle of the Bogside of August 1969.
"That was all our doing," he said.
And he told me how, back then, he had spoken with older republicans about their unpopularity, asked him how he had put up with the disdain.
He said his mentor had assured him it has often been like this in the past, but that the Irish people will come round again to the republican vision. The true republicans accept this, that they will be scoffed at through the fallow years.
We are in one of those periods now in which Pearsian republicanism is mocked or reclaimed by people who have tweaked it, but in this man's view, the truly heroic republican is the one who holds on to the pure vision and waits for the next opportunity.
I went to the annual conference in Dundalk last year of Saoradh, the republican group that supports the New IRA, the people who killed Lyra.
It was interesting.
They were electing their new leader, Brian Kenna. He was a Provo who had been released from Portlaoise by the Irish Government in 1995 as a gesture of faith in the peace process after the first ceasefire. He was a bank robber. Then he became an 'anti-drugs' activist.
He went back to jail a few years ago after being caught smuggling comms out of prison, messages about the debriefing of three new prisoners.
We sometimes imagine the 'dissidents' to be young hoodlums using the mask of republicanism to cover their criminality, but Kenna's roots are deep and the republican cause, as he understood it when he was a Provo, is still his life's mission.
It's the same with Dee Fennell, the north Belfast republican who is also a member of Saoradh.
I interviewed him for a book coming out later this year. His great grandfather Frank Fennell was a British soldier, injured at Ypres. When he came home he joined the IRA. But he sided with Collins and supported the treaty.
Dee Fennell says: "My grandfather and his brother were both active republicans from the 1930s. My grandfather's brother was interned in the North and my grandfather was active right up until the early Seventies and the split. He sided with the Officials at the time of the split. His name was Jimmy Fennell."
And Jimmy Fennell told him stories of how, on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, he went round the houses in Ardoyne trying to collect money to pay for bunting and flags and had doors slammed in his face. So Dee thinks being unpopular is just what republicans have always had to endure until the people reawaken.
Dee Fennell's father and his siblings were all republican activists though his father has no convictions.
"They would certainly have been involved in a range of organisations, either the Official Fianna, the Provisional IRA, the INLA, the Official IRA."
As he sees it, the movement passes through periods of alienation and disgrace and he particularly admires those who endure those periods. They are the true republicans.
For now there is no prospect of the New IRA waging a war that might eject the British from Ireland but what they can do is keep the flame alive, maintain an organisational structure that can lead a future revolution, and absorb new members, and provide them with arms and training, as the Provisionals did in the 1970s.
Then, people had taken to the streets to campaign for civil rights but the near-dormant IRA had been able to absorb much of that energy and direct it towards a campaign of murder and sabotage with an all-Ireland republic as the objective.
The irony is that the Provisionals reverted to putting rights issues at the front of their concerns and settled for a deal that would allow Irish unity to be achieved by exclusively peaceful means.
Yet the same organisation now leads the contempt for people who thought the same as themselves, used the same methods as themselves and voiced the same excuses as themselves.
And in total contradiction of that celebrates the Provisional IRA campaign again this weekend, as a noble struggle. It would help a little if they would admit their own mistakes and failure.