Former Blanket commentator, DR JOHN COULTER, maintains that loyalism must not react violently to the dissident republican terror agenda, but must also re-engage the political process by joining or merging with mainstream Unionist parties.
The loyalist community must NEVER, Never, never (to quote a phrase from Ian Paisley senior in 1985) ever play the dissident republican game and return the serve by unleashing a rival dissident loyalist movement.
The real challenge facing the loyalist community is the need to re-engage politically within mainstream Unionism, not prepare for a new armed conflict with a significant, but unrepresentative, faction of the broad republican family.
This is not to ignore the fact that the ‘drip, drip’ method of republican dissidents is becoming an increasing irritation in the Protestant community.
The murder of prison officer David Black and the desecration of the village war memorial in Glenavy, Co Antrim, has served to test loyalist resolve to the extreme.
Unlike the Provisional republican movement, the rival dissident republican movement cannot claim widespread support across the majority of working class nationalist heartlands which spawned Provisional Sinn Fein.
Dissident republicans are largely confined to the Three L’s locations – Lurgan, Londonderry and the Lower Falls. They have been branded as ‘traitors’ by Stormont deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, himself a former senior PIRA commander in Londonderry.
The republican dissidents face the added barriers of a flow of information to the security forces in Northern Ireland from within the nationalist community, as well as joint security initiatives against dissidents on both sides of the border.
Unlike the Provo and INLA campaigns during the Troubles, republican terrorists can no longer fully rely on the South of Ireland being a safe haven from which to launch a border campaign, or run to after committing attacks.
On a more sinister note, from my own interviews with dissident republicans, it is clear that while there are limited pockets of support in Northern Ireland, the dissidents do want to increase their profile in the Republic both in terms of numbers and influence on attacks in Ulster.
This is especially the case since the death of leading Real IRA commander Alan Ryan in Dublin. It is clear that dissident republicans in the South of Ireland are feeling the pressure of the electoral successes of Provisional Sinn Fein since party president Gerry Adams left his West Belfast Westminster bolthole and became a TD for the Louth constituency.
In the last Dail general election, the Adams agenda saw Sinn Fein produce one of its best returns since the 1919 General Election when it won the majority of Southern Irish seats when the entire island was part of the British Empire.
If Adams can keep the Provisional Sinn Fein bandwagon on track, the movement may be in a position after the next Dail poll that it will be seriously knocking on the door of becoming a minority partner in a coalition government in Dublin.
Imagine how the dissident republican position would become even more isolated with Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister in Stormont and Gerry Adams as Deputy Prime Minister in the Dail? Essentially, the dissident republican movement is incapable of responding politically.
Dissident republicans will want to play their hand by developing a so-called Southern Command in the same way as the Provisional IRA operated a Northern and Southern Command terrorist structure.
This strategy was hinted at in an exclusive interview with a source in the dissident republican faction, Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH).
Ironically, ONH is not one of the dissident factions which has joined forces to form the so-called New IRA. The New IRA is composed of the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs, and independent republican terrorists. The Continuity IRA has also remained outside of the New IRA fold.
Terrorists from Southern Ireland seem to be having a greater say in the running of the overall dissident republican movement since the killing earlier of Ryan.
He was “pretty high up the organisation, a big mover and well thought off by his comrades”, according to my well-placed Northern Ireland source in Oglaigh na hEireann.
My source – who has given me interviews in the past about ONH activities – was adamant that negative media coverage of 32-year-old Ryan being some kind of gangster “could not be further from the truth”.
The source maintains that the former Londonderry-based republican always wanted to use his Real IRA unit to strike at Northern Ireland, and Mr Black’s murder was merely his successors carrying out his wishes.
The source added: “I knew Alan from when he was 17. He joined the Fianna of Republican Sinn Fein and then went to the Real IRA. He left behind a tight group in North Dublin.
“He was always well dressed. That was the way he was brought up and it’s not a crime to be well dressed. Everyone who knew him was very impressed by him and saw him as honest and charismatic.
“The prison officer was killed out of respect for Alan.” ONH members came to the Republic from the North to give support to the North Dublin Real IRA, the source stressed.
“Ryan was certainly very prominent in the Real IRA and would have had a big say in their strategy.”
The source said the murder would act as a “springboard” to launch dissident republican activity not just in Dublin, but right across the republic, adding that the level of support was seen by the attendance at Ryan’s funeral.
Asked if there would be reprisals for Ryan’s murder, my source said: “I would be amazed if that did not happen. It is bound to happen. And it may come against the Crown forces.”
The killing of prison officer Black is more evidence of the dissidents’ drip-drip method of terrorism rather than the Provisionals’ previous long-war sustained strategy.
The dissident strategy is clearly two-fold. Firstly, embarrass mainstream republicans by proving that a military campaign against Britain and Unionism is still viable, and secondly, try and provoke a violent reaction from a section of loyalism.
But loyalism must hold the line in its community and not return the serve. Loyalism’s central focus must be to re-engage the two-thirds of working class Protestants who have abandoned the ballot box.
Perhaps the strategy should be that if mainstream Unionist parties will not come to loyalists, then loyalist should join the mainstream parties – especially the ruling DUP – and influence Unionism from within.
Some bitter medicine which loyalism must swallow is that the Ulster Democratic Party experiment has run its course since Gary McMichael’s days in the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, and the Progressive Unionist Party has lost considerable ground since it clinched two MLAs in the 1998 Assembly poll.
Former UDP councilor Frank McCoubrey has taken the very courageous and wise step of entering mainstream Unionism by joining the DUP. Other elected representatives from loyalist parties should consider likewise.
The hard reality is that the loyalist working classes can no longer afford to sit about and wait for the mainstream Unionist parties to come to them. Working class Protestants must take the initiative and join mainstream Unionist parties.
In the meantime, the DUP especially must dismiss any talk coming from working class loyalism as communism under another name. It must confine to the dustbin of history any views that the PUP is some kind of ‘Shankill Soviet’.
Whatever view is taken of loyalists joining the DUP or UUP, the key factor is that loyalism must be brought in from the political cold.