Dissidents: Lines of continuity and discontinuity… August 14, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
Reading the Sunday Business Post the week before last there was an overview of the announcement that various ‘dissident’ Republican groups have united to form a ‘new’ IRA. Peter Geoghegan who wrote the overview makes some interesting points, but it’s worth noting a couple of aspects to the announcement that are of interest.
For a start the group Óglaigh na hÉireann hasn’t joined. This according to the SBP ‘has been linked with the RNU’. Nor, perhaps more predictably, has CIRA. Those who have are the former ‘Real IRA’ and Republican Action Against Drugs as well as what is described as ‘a loose collection of independent republican groups’.
And their statement notes that ‘they have come together within a unified structure, under a single leadership, subservient to the constitution of the Irish Republican Army’.
One can only presume they mean by that the structure and constitution of what was formerly PIRA. It’s interesting though that unlike PIRA there’s no clear political expression equivalent to Sinn Féin. And this in a sense is somewhat unprecedented in the longer historical period, albeit effectively a continuation of the status quo in the last decade or so.
There are other aspects of this which are worth considering. Arguably the current period has been one of the more pacific in terms of the history of the island across the past century. Indeed, and it is perhaps somewhat dubious to conduct this exercise, it is possible to chart cycles of activity across that period. 1956-8, 1969 onwards and so on. If so then if one takes the GFA/BA as being a near enough de facto end of one campaign (albeit a ragged and inconclusive one) then fourteen years later we’ve seen a considerable length of time pass.
Also there’s the issue of legitimation. I was recently rereading Deadly Divisions, the history of the INLA, and it struck me that a core problem for that group was the somewhat hazy legitimacy that underpinned it. That’s not to say it had none, in the way that such things are calculated, but regarding itself as a new group rather than a lineal descendant of the IRA (of whatever form) it had, of necessity, to legitimise itself from itself rather than being able to draw upon a longer tradition. While not wishing to overstate this, after all if in a quarter of a century this ‘new’ IRA was the single flag bearer of that name then that would have a degree of impact, it is not without significance. I’m always reminded of the way in which right up to the hunger strikes, and even after in more isolated instances, there was a loyalty on the part of some who might have been expected to go with PIRA and PSF to the OIRA being representative of the ‘Army’. Organisation cohesiveness, self-perception and so forth all flow from such loyalty.
But in a context where there are a plethora of competing organisations all of which styles themselves in some form or fashion as successors, or continuations, of the IRA, such legitimation is harder to determine. And even were they all to merge, something that on the face of it given the history and divisions between them seems all but impossible, it is quite possible that the historical discontinuity (so to speak) would tell against them.
But in a way all that is to suppose that the purpose of the exercise is a simple PIRA redux for the 21st century. And that simply may not be the case and may not even be possible.
In some ways the constraints on dissidents are even greater, albeit the security situation has eased, than they were in previous generations. Few would doubt that there has been massive penetration of those groups by the security forces. Geoghegan notes that ‘since 2009, security forces have intercepted increasing numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is on the rise but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated.’ And the knock on effect is as he further notes ‘rumours that several senior figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months’. The problem with the latter, from a dissident perspective, is not whether they are true or not but that they discredit and delegitimise their activities. But the broader point is that given the dissidents operate at a vastly smaller level than PIRA such issues achieve a prominence they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Geoghegan talks to Jon Tonge of Liverpool University, who makes the basic point that, ‘there would have to be some horrendous mistake by the security forces for the dissidents to gain widespread support’. And that in a sense is that. It’s almost impossible to determine what sort of mistake could single handed bring about such a state change, indeed one would think that the very structural elements of the processes that have led to where the situation is today are predicated on avoiding precisely that.
Tonge concludes by saying that ‘the formation of a new grouping is more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents. the dissidents themsevels do not believe that they can get the British out of Northern Ireland. What they do thin they can do is to stop Northern Ireland from becoming normal’.
That’s a fascinating analysis, not merely because it points to the limitations of dissident Republicanism in terms of what can be achieved, but also in relation to the very subjectivity of what can be described as ‘normal’. In some respects the North will never be ‘normal’ if by ‘normal’ one attempts to map on the broad societal experience of the South or Britain onto it. Societal divisions are too distinctive for that to be the case. The question is whether that distinctiveness can be worked around in a way that produces meaningful outcomes, political societal and economic.