Belfast Telegraph

Marisa McGlinchey: As Stormont returns, dissident republicans' thoughts turn to Scotland - and Brexit

Resumption of power-sharing will not impact radical republican campaign, which remains wedded to a 32-county independent Ireland, writes Marisa McGlinchey

Republicans on the march in Lurgan at Easter in 2017
Republicans on the march in Lurgan at Easter in 2017

Marisa McGlinchey

New Decade, New Approach has been greeted by the so-called 'dissident' republican base without much enthusiasm either way. After a three-year suspension, the content of the deal fails to provoke much of a response among a base who are fundamentally opposed to Stormont.

So-called dissident or radical republicans fundamentally reject the Northern Ireland state, which was created out of partition, and adhere to the traditional republican position which rejects any form of an internal solution.

The dissident base comprises a wide spectrum, from the armed groups such as the Continuity and New IRAs, to independent republicans who are highly critical of the continuation of an armed campaign.

However, opposition to partitionist Stormont unites the base, who have described the internal power-sharing as a "sectarian carve-up" between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The bitter and entrenched divide between the Sinn Fein, or Provisional, world and the dissident republican constituency can be viewed through the lens of reform versus revolutionary change.

Radical republicans reject any reform within a six-county basis, instead advocating revolutionary change leading to a new Ireland in the form of a 32-county sovereign republic.

Independent republican Tommy McKearney of Monaghan has commented on Stormont: "As it stands, they are bound by the prevailing winds from London... their economic strategy is merely the administration of, at best the tinkering with, the decisions of London."

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Formed in 1986, Republican Sinn Fein is the oldest of the so-called dissident republican groups and is believed to be the political wing of the Continuity IRA.

In reaction to the recent deal, Republican Sinn Fein released a statement in which it cited the absence of an Irish Language Act and a lack of reference to RHI, which it described as "the ostensible reason for the original suspension in 2017".

The statement ends by saying: "This latest development merely underscores the need for a clear alternative. One based on real, all-Ireland democracy, leading to a new Ireland. Eire Nua provides such an alternative."

Collectively, radical republicans have failed to advance a cohesive alternative strategy; however, Republican Sinn Fein's key policy, Eire Nua, which advocates for a federalist Ireland, appears to garner support throughout the wider base.

The most recently formed of the dissident organisations Saoradh - believed to be the political wing of the New IRA, though they strongly deny this - called on the electorate in 2016 to vote with their feet by staying at home.

Having adopted the slogan 'Unfinished Revolution', the organisation has argued that even partaking in elections to the partitionist institution of Stormont provides it with a legitimacy which it does not have, thus leaving us in no doubt about their merely dismissive (at best) attitude to Stormont.

During the formation of Saoradh in 2016 it mopped up numerous individuals who were previously members of the Thirty-Two County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM), believed to be the political wing of the Real IRA, thus leading to speculation over whether the 32CSM has continued on. The answer is yes - the organisation maintains its structures and continues its campaign.

Commenting on the recent deal, a spokesperson for the 32CSM in the north stated: "This is Home Rule versus republicanism. In 1998, Provisional Sinn Fein signed up to Home Rule. The Home Rulers have went (sic) back into Stormont."

Formed in 1997, the 32CSM was born out of a rejection of the principle of consent. Collectively, the radical republican base rejects the Good Friday Agreement and the power-sharing institutions emanating from it.

They also fundamentally reject the central premise in strand one: namely, the consent principle, which makes provision for a border poll.

Radical republicans reject a border poll on the grounds that it is a "unionist veto", thus reiterating the traditional republican position.

Further, they oppose the fact that it would take place solely within the six counties of Northern Ireland and that it must be granted at the behest of the (British) Secretary of State.

In their rejection of consent and a border poll, radical republicans have argued that the goalposts will inevitably change as demographics change and they have pointed to recent suggestions that 50%-plus-one is not enough as vindication of their position.

There is another facet to the republican view of the return of Stormont and that concerns the normalisation process in the north of Ireland, which has been in place since 1998. Radical republican groups have openly stated that a key aim of their campaign is to highlight the abnormal nature of the state of Northern Ireland and to disrupt that normalisation process.

Republicans used the suspension of Stormont as evidence that it is a dysfunctional parliament of a failed state.

But the resumption of Stormont will not impact the nature of the radical republican campaign, nor its message, which remains wedded to traditional republican ideology seeking a 32-county independent Ireland.

Of more interest to radical republicans is what's happening in Scotland. They are quietly watching political developments there in the context of a strengthened SNP and renewed calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence, particularly in the context of Brexit.

While there will be no visible, tangible change on January 31, due to the fact that the terms of the withdrawal trade deal will still have to be worked out, radical republicans are keenly watching the fallout from Brexit and the implications this will have for the border in Ireland; and whether or not an economic border will be erected in the Irish Sea.

Questions around whether the fallout from Brexit will precipitate the break-up of the Union provoke much more interest than the return of Stormont.

Brexit is viewed as a significant opportunity to be exploited, as 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity'. The return of Stormont is simply viewed as same old, different day.

After a three-year suspension, radical republicans have argued that nothing has changed and have asked: what was such a long suspension about?

Overall, radical republicans view the new deal as slightly better for unionism, particularly in the absence of a standalone Irish Language Act, but the fact that the deal is viewed as more favourable to unionism is seen as unsurprising and, in a sense, a side issue by the traditional republican base, who adhere to the old mantra of 'Smash Stormont'.

Dr Marisa McGlinchey is Assistant Professor in Coventry University's Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations. She is the author of Unfinished Business: The Politics Of 'Dissident' Irish Republicanism (Manchester University Press, 2019).

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