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Marisa McGlinchey: For the Continuity IRA and the New IRA, England's difficulty remains Ireland's opportunity

Dissident republicans see Brexit as just another opportunity to be exploited. For them, it is all just business as usual, writes Marisa McGlinchey


Lyra McKee

Lyra McKee


Police at the scene of the Wattle Bridge bomb

Police at the scene of the Wattle Bridge bomb

Brian Kenna

Brian Kenna


Lyra McKee

For Saoradh, it's very much business as usual. That is the message conveyed by the party's chairperson Brian Kenna in an interview this week with Sky News. This is the first such interview since the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry in April by the New IRA.

It is widely believed that Saoradh is the political wing of the New IRA; however, both organisations deny this link. While the interview attracted a flurry of media attention, there is nothing unexpected in what Kenna said as his message is in keeping with the Saoradh line to date, which references previous generations taking up arms.

Echoing other Saoradh spokespersons, Kenna described an armed campaign as "inevitable" and stated: "It will always happen so long as the country is artificially divided."

The killing of Lyra McKee provoked widespread revulsion, including from some within the so-called dissident republican base, thus leading to speculation about the future of Saoradh. Rumours circulated that the organisation was being evicted from its headquarters in Derry, Junior McDaid House.

However, the organisation continues to operate out of the premises and continues to have an office in Belfast. Visitors to the headquarters in Derry will note the continual police presence passing the office multiple times per day.

The New IRA has dominated headlines due to a high level of activity, particularly since January. But they are not the only active militant republican group, as was demonstrated on August 19 when republicans detonated an explosion at Wattle Bridge in Co Fermanagh, intending to kill PSNI officers. Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the Continuity IRA.

The first of the modern-day 'dissident' organisations, the Continuity IRA was formed in 1986 and is believed to be the military wing of Republican Sinn Fein. Such attacks are sporadic in nature, with a key aim being to disrupt "normalisation" within Northern Ireland.

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A spokesperson for the Continuity IRA in north Armagh has previously stated: "If there was nothing happening, it would appear normal on the surface, but it's not normal and the more that we do, the more people will lift their heads and rise and possibly the more people that will come forward."

Such groups are keen to demonstrate that they are still here and that they are capable of launching attacks, particularly on the PSNI. Dissident republicans fundamentally reject the state of Northern Ireland and its associated structures, including those of law and order, and their message is dominated by anti-PSNI campaigns.

Republican activity is not a response to Brexit, nor is it a response to the vacuum at Stormont. Dissident republicans are fundamentally opposed to Stormont and, in fact, there were higher levels of armed republican activity when Stormont was functioning.

Republicans have sought to capitalise on the collapse of Stormont by presenting it as evidence that Northern Ireland is a failed state. But a functioning Stormont will not affect the level of dissident republican activity.

Dissidents assert the traditional republican message, which seeks a 32-county socialist Irish republic, and locate themselves as simply the latest phase in the one, long campaign for Irish unity. Some of those involved were active in the republican movement prior to the formation of the Provisional IRA in 1969.

The New IRA have rejected being called the New IRA, simply referring to itself as "the IRA". Furthermore, the organisation has been keen to distance its activity from Brexit.

Following the bomb attack on the courthouse in Derry in January, the New IRA released a statement which it said "all this talk of Brexit, hard borders, soft borders, has no bearing on our actions and the IRA won't be going anywhere". The statement also said: "We will continue to strike at Crown forces personnel and their imperial establishment. We also caution those who collaborate with the British that they are to desist immediately as no more warnings will be given."

The message articulated by dissidents is the same traditional ideological republican message that was articulated by the Provisional movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Those involved in armed republican groups have stated that they do not believe that the Provisional IRA's armed campaign failed, rather they believe that the leadership failed - thus providing an insight into the motivation behind continuing activity from groups such as the Continuity IRA or New IRA, and why they feel they could succeed where the Provisional campaign didn't, even at its height.

Over the past decade low-level dissident activity has been ongoing and the threat level within Northern Ireland has remained severe since 2010, meaning that an attack is "highly likely". PSNI security situation statistics over the past decade reveal the ongoing seizure of a significant amount of weapons and ammunition, as well as bombing and shooting incidents.

Some commentators have argued that a non-functioning Stormont (and levels of deprivation) has resulted in young people being increasingly attracted to republican groups. While there are some who have questioned the so-called "peace dividend" and who maintain that they have not benefited from it (particularly in areas such as Creggan in Derry), there is no evidence to suggest that an increasing number of people are turning to republican groups because of a political vacuum, or because of Brexit.

However, it is clear that Brexit is seen as an opportunity to be exploited by republicans. It has put the issue of the border back into the mainstream in a way in which it hasn't been in recent years.

Republicans seek to exploit Brexit-related instability and the gathering momentum around the question of the border - particularly in the increasingly likely context of a no-deal Brexit.

In the event of a hard border, republican organisations would undoubtedly target the infrastructure and we would see an escalation of activity along the border.

But armed activity from dissident republican groups will persist, whether or not there is a hard border, with members of the PSNI being a primary target.

For republican groups such as the New IRA or the Continuity IRA, it is very much a case that England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity.

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

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