Belfast Telegraph

The first act in a drama of dissident engagement

Can all the cast of republicans find a common stage to talk about how to finally achieve peace here,asks Brian Rowan

Last Saturday was the start of something; an on-stage dialogue or debate between what we now label the mainstream and dissident wings of republicanism.

The opportunity was created by the theatre; a panel discussion which I chaired and which followed a matinee performance of Sam Millar's play Brothers In Arms.

Its director, Martin Lynch, came up with the idea of a follow-up symposium in the Waterfront Studio.

And, on stage, the panel stretched from former assistant chief constable Peter Sheridan sitting beside the last IRA OC in the H Blocks, Jim McVeigh, who in that move from war to peace is now the leader of Sinn Fein on Belfast City Council.

To my left sat Ciaran Cunningham of the Republican Network for Unity (RNU) and beside him first-time playwright Millar, himself a former prisoner and 'blanketman' from that period when the jail was another battlefield.

Several years ago, Cunningham was jailed for intelligence-gathering.

More recently, he was arrested during a protest at Alliance Party Headquarters in Belfast. That was linked to jail conditions at Maghaberry and designed to catch the attention of Justice Minister David Ford.

RNU styles itself a pressure group, and some of its members reach into the armed faction Oglaigh na hEireann, the group behind the bomb explosion at Palace Barracks which houses the NI Headquarters of MI5, and also the attempt to kill police constable Peadar Heffron.

Sinn Fein agreed to participation in Saturday's event, but has since declined requests to take part in a Nolan Show discussion on Radio Ulster and a second panel debate in Armagh next Wednesday.

But it is not a walk away from dialogue; more a statement that the talking, if people are serious about it, needs to come off-stage.If that unfinished business of the republican community is to be addressed then it will have to happen in a facilitated face-to-face exchange away from stage and airwaves.

There is the matter of continuing armed actions. What is their purpose? What can be achieved that wasn't by an IRA supplied by Libya?

There is the question of a United Ireland strategy; can politics advance that goal?

Policing and the role of MI5 will be on any agenda, and the specifics of intelligence operations and agents.

Criminality will be part of any discussion. And then there is the issue of the needs of ex-prisoners.

There are undoubtedly those who feel left behind in the peace.

Writing on the Eamonn Mallie website, one of the church witnesses to the IRA's decommissioning, Rev Harold Good, said: "For a meaningful and lasting peace we must do all we can to include rather than exclude each other.

"Don't let our bloody history repeat itself. Please keep talking."

It is easier said than done.

The dissident world is a fractured and scattered community. It is a bit like dropping a glass and then looking for the pieces and never being sure you found them all.

There are splinters of splinters.

So, it is not just about getting the Republican Network for Unity into the room.

There is the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, Republican Sinn Fein, the IRSP, and then the armed dissident groups the Real IRA, Continuity IRA, Oglaigh na hEireann and others under the heading "unaffiliated".

It is a massive piece of work and it may be that there are those who are not interested.

But we will only find the answer to that question if a place for talking is established, and if everyone is invited into the room.

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