Written By: John Coulter
Published: April 3, 2016 Last modified: March 30, 2016
Will the real republicans please stand up? That may sound flippant in the aftermath of the recent commemorations to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. But given the splits which have occurred in republicanism since that failed rebellion, the question needs to be seriously addressed as to which group really can claim to be the genuine political successor of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizens Army.
More significantly, just as the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty did not bring peace to the island, so, too, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement did not bring an end to sectarian conflict in modern Ireland.
A violent dissident republican movement bitterly opposed to the peace process – and especially to the Sinn Fein political agenda – has emerged since that Belfast Agreement was signed.
Just as the British decided in late 1919 that the time was right to talk peace with the IRA during the War of Independence, so the Rising centenary has sparked arguments that the time has come to talk to republican dissidents.
The problem is: with what faction of the heavily fragmented dissident republican movement does the British and Irish governments negotiate?
Ironically, the fragmentation was a deliberate policy to combat infiltration by security force agents. At one time, there were up to five different terror groups representing dissident republicanism – Real IRA, New IRA, Continuity IRA, Oglaigh na Eireann and Republican Action Against Drugs.
Each group had its own command structure with a simple, brutal agenda: kill Brits. But the huge difficulty for British and Irish government negotiators now is how to bring the dissident republicans into the democratic process when there is no significant political party to represent such dissidents.
By 1998, Sinn Fein had established itself as a major political voice for republicans in Northern Ireland. In 2016, there is no such voice for dissidents.
Perhaps the first step is for Sinn Fein, now that it has significant representation in both the Dail in Dublin and Stormont in Belfast, to act as a political conduit for the dissidents.
There is a variety of fringe dissident political groups, but all of them lack the influence to bring about a terrorist ceasefire by all the violent factions.
Likewise, many of the dissident factions believe that Sinn Fein has sold out on the principles of the 1916 Rising and that the party is merely administering British rule in Northern Ireland.
Republican dreams of having a united Ireland by 2016 to coincide with the Rising centenary have vanished in pretty much the same political smoke as in 1916 when the rebellion leaders realised they could not defeat the British forces in Dublin and that further fighting was pointless.
Many in the pro-Union community in the UK still believe the British intelligence analysis that the IRA’s ruling Army Council still calls the shots in Sinn Fein. For years, Sinn Fein was dismissed as the political apologist for the IRA’s terror campaign. But since 1998, the party has brought more politicians who have no links to the republican movement’s terror wing into its ranks of elected representatives.
This has enabled Sinn Fein to sell itself to the crucial Catholic middle class voters – a tactic which has seen the party steadily eclipse the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party at the polls. Indeed, the May 5 Northern Ireland Assembly election could well see Sinn Fein hammer the final nail into the SDLP’s coffin.
If this that happens, Sinn Fein will have transformed itself from an ultra Marxist mouthpiece for the IRA into a modern 21st century version of the now defunct constitutional republican outfit the Irish Independence Party.
A word of warning. There is also the chance that a more sinister agenda could emerge from the British thought process.
Just as in 1919 when the British used the notorious Black and Tans militia to hammer republicans to the negotiating table, the British and Irish governments could bypass Sinn Fein as a conduit and use solid military muscle to hammer dissident republicans into surrendering, as the leaders of the Rising were forced to do in 1916.
The challenge facing dissident republican factions is simple: do they have a realistic political agenda they can place before British and Irish negotiators?