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“Armies” without people: The recent attacks on the PSNI and the political futility of dissident Republicanism… November 14, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Republicans, The North, The other Sinn Féin.

It’s hard to assess the nature of an enterprise which considers that shooting at a PSNI member in 2007 somehow constitutes either a serious military or political endeavour. But such an assessment is necessary if only to demonstrate the tenacious hold that armed struggle has on some within Republicanism even at this point in time. A hold that the political developments of the past 15 years or so have done little to alter.

The details of the attacks are fairly clear.

A lone gunman is reported to have approached the car and opened fire, hitting the officer, shortly after the car left Dungannon PSNI station and as it slowed for traffic lights.

Despite his injuries, it is understood the officer managed to drive the short distance from the scene on Circular Road near St Patrick’s Church back to the town’s PSNI station, and an ambulance was called.

His condition in Craigavon Area Hospital was described last night as stable.

The attack follows a similar shooting on Bishop Street in Derry last week. Jim Doherty (43), another off-duty officer, was shot in his car as he left his child to school. That attack has since been claimed by the Real IRA, which opposes the powersharing deal at Stormont involving the DUP and Sinn Féin.

There is an element there of testing the water. Wanting to strike but being unsure as to whether to. But that is little or no comfort. To take up arms is to allow for the potential for killing. And to wound is to injure and to maim. The scant information available doesn’t indicate the level of injury, but it could range from minor to considerable.

The supposed motive?

It is thought the attack was designed to coincide with a meeting of the local District Policing Partnership, a forum for members of the public and community leaders to raise matters of local importance with the PSNI’s area commanders.

Last night Sinn Féin, which recognised the PSNI in January this year, was due to nominate its candidates for membership of the body.

The meeting was called off once news spread of the shooting.

But the meeting will be called again, and it will happen. Sinn Féin will nominate its candidates and they will sit on the DPP – as they should.

So what precisely is the point again?

There is a paucity to these shootings. A sense that they are little more than gestural acts. And that is all they are.

Because, apart from the fact that two people have had their lives disrupted in one of the most appalling ways possible, it is the sheer meaningless of this tactic which is so difficult to take. Do those who went out on Monday and last week genuinely believe that by shooting PSNI members they are in some sense furthering the arrival of a United Ireland? An obvious question, but one which demands an answer. Martin Meehan of PSF (and PIRA) was quoted as saying that during the height of the Troubles there was always the sense that ‘it just needed one last push’. Time disabused him, and many others, of that idea.

Sheer pragmatic analysis (or ‘objective’ as we used to say in the WP) of the material conditions leads to a very simple conclusion. Meehan was talking of a time when the North was militarised, when PIRA was able to field large numbers of Volunteers, when there was little or no political, cultural or social space for Republicanism. Yet even then PIRA was only able to move the situation to a stalemate. Britain could not impose their chosen solution. PIRA could not impose their will.
But however bad things got in the North there was a self-limiting aspect to the violence. Characteristics of other societies with similar stresses simply did not appear. There were very very few actions against political leaders from opposing communities. Violence between paramilitary groups from opposing sides was equally limited (consider how unusual the Shankill bombing was). There was almost no mobilisation amongst the middle classes and even within the working classes there remained (as Ed Hayes has noted on a thread yesterday – and it is an important point) significant sections who would not cede support to PIRA. That provided constraints to the level and ferocity of violence – although it is a back handed tribute to all involved in the processes that ingenuity managed to create circumstances that tested those constraints but rarely broke them.

So, it’s hard not to believe that what was achieved was about all that could be achieved armed struggle or not. Much is made on occasion about how Jim Lynagh and the ‘flying column’ model of activity on the Border in the late 1980s could have been a means of prolonging or even extending the armed struggle. Frankly, I doubt it. Whatever the sincerity of those involved in an age of mass overlapping surveillance I suspect that it would have taken little or no time for such groups to have been removed. And the Afghan or Iraqi model of insurgency – which has also been quoted as a template in a fit of enormous wishful thinking – doesn’t suffice as an example for the reasons stated previously… pragmatic political considerations trumped nihilism at almost every stage. Belfast isn’t Baghdad, Armagh isn’t Kabul.

So what do we have now? Dissident groups which can mount individual attacks of murderous potential but little more. To get to a point where they might challenge the state (a state that now has absorbed Republicanism in the main and in the process has also had to reformat itself into a configuration that is largely unrecognisable to previously existing structures) they would have to effectively rerun the process of mobilisation that took twenty odd years the first time around. Granted the initial momentum towards conflict was rapid and the earliest years were marked by the greatest violence. But that was at a time of massive sociopolitical structural change. This time it would have to occur in the context of a largely agreed state where there is representation and participation of all groups within the society.

I can’t see that happening. The pools of rage and alienation that in part contributed to the longevity of PIRA have been largely drained. The arrival of SF in government is – by whatever yardstick one chooses – a qualitative change in the nature of the administration of the North. The support for SF appears near-hegemonic, and… as importantly, the change in the nature of the society with effectively a decade of relative calm has its own calming effects. The engagement by the South (and here can I actually praise Ahern for a second for recent comments on FF in the North?) however cosmetic on some levels is clearly genuine on others such as infrastructural funding. The dismal sense that Nationalists were a forgotten people shrugged aside by the Irish polity at partition is no longer true and partitionism not withstanding all know it isn’t true. So the sort of ‘defenderism’ which characterised some, but not all, of the struggle has little or no currency any longer.

But there is something strange about these acts if one places them within the context of Irish Republicanism. This must be the very first time in that history during the last 80 odd years where acts are carried out by groups with no political representation at all (and I’m deliberately discounting the micro-groups that were carried along on the tail of the Troubles  – or indeed during the Border campaign – since there was a broader political context)  and are carried out anonymously. While that may seem to fit a template of the Troubles it actually doesn’t as regards mainstream Republicanism. From 1916 onwards violence was used either overtly and by (semi) uniformed groups (as with 1916 and the Border Campaign) or within the context of a broader socio-political struggle and as a means of placing pressure on clearly defined targets. I’ve said it before, I think the armed struggle was a cul-de-sac after the first ‘defensive’ stages and we can all argue the toss about when that ended, but having said that I wouldn’t minimise the difficulties that would have been faced even in the absence of an armed campaign as regards altering the societal structures. Yet violence happened within social structures, a hinterland if you will, that placed certain constraints upon those engaging in armed conflict.

Contemporary dissident Republicanism has no such constraints. The organisations that support it have no representation and as such have not even the most peripheral degree of oversight from those they nominally represent. This is a very disturbing situation. The only analogues I can think of are the urban terrorists of the 1970s on the continent who by dint of their separation from the people in effect became a self-referential elite.

Hence the recourse to the rhetoric of the ‘Republic’ by those who continue to ‘dissent’ because when you lose the people, or a sizeable section of same all one is left with is ideas. But their notion of a Republic appears more and more to be a semi-theological concept with less and less relationship to the existing world. The concentration on ‘sovereignty’ understandable but irrelevant.

Jackie McDonald made a number of statements at the weekend about the UDA. Much of it was the sort of rhetoric one might expect. A lot less polished and varnished than we are used to from SF, but one phrase caught my attention (and that of Splintered Sunrise). He said that the UDA’s weapons were the people’s weapons. Hyperbole, of course. And utterly self-serving.

But I can’t help feeling when one looks at the RIRA that their time has passed. The GFA remains. The current institutions may be unloved – but they are worked. And they represent the people – whatever that strange amorphous body of many different individuals may be. And, it seems to me that any Republic can only root itself in the people. And those people, not the groups who would act on behalf of a Republic of the imagination, voted this year overwhelmingly for candidates who support the GFA institutions.

Which means that when it comes down to it perhaps the people want their weapons back.


1. ejh - November 14, 2007

The dismal sense that Nationalists were a forgotten people shrugged aside by the Irish polity at partition is no longer true

You sure about that?


2. Phil - November 14, 2007

The only analogues I can think of are the urban terrorists of the 1970s on the continent who by dint of their separation from the people in effect became a self-referential elite.

In Italy (which is the area I know most about), this sounds much more like the post-1979 tail of the armed struggle scene than the 1977-9 peak; the Red Brigades, Prima Linea and the rest of them didn’t have any formal political representation, but they did have an informal hinterland in ‘the movement’. By the end of 1979 the movement had been policed off the streets; for some, turning to sporadic, vaguely-political gangsterism seemed a better choice than abandoning the struggle altogether. We can agree that those people were basically murderous headbangers who wrecked lives for no good reason, but I don’t think we should lose sight of the context they were operating in.

If this is a good analogy, perhaps we should start thinking about the GFA and all that’s followed as a historic defeat for republicanism, or at least conceding that it’s possible to see it that way.


3. Starkadder - November 14, 2007

“And the Afghan or Iraqi model of insurgency – which has also been quoted as a template in a fit of enormous wishful thinking – doesn’t suffice as an example for the reasons stated previously… pragmatic political considerations trumped nihilism at almost every stage. Belfast isn’t Baghdad, Armagh isn’t Kabul.”

When the IRA began their camapaign in the late 1960s & early
1970s, France had pulled out of Algeria, and American was
losing the Vietnam war. Perhaps the Provos thought they could
emulate the FLN and the Viet Cong, and defeat a major world
power through guerilla warfare.

The flaw was, the IRA never-even when things were at their
worst-had the support of the whole Nationalist community,
let alone the people of the Irish Republic.
The fact that these renegade republicans are acting
without any substantial support means , despite its many
flaws, the power-sharing agreements have eroded support
for violence on both sides.


4. WorldbyStorm - November 14, 2007

ejh, fair question. I think within the North Nationalism doesn’t feel as isolated and why would they, they’re co-running the show. Outside of it the sort of investments we’ve seen by Dublin do indicate at least some mid to long term planning that is all island.

Phil, you’re absolutely right. I’m being a tad unfair, even the Red Army Faction had links into broader left thinking. But… they remained – very much for their own reasons – increasingly cut off, a sort of inverse Stockholm Syndrome. I’d also buy into your analysis as regards how things have gone. The pool of alienation has drained, leaving puddles but nothing like enough to sustain a serious armed campaign (or even much of a half-assed, albeit potentially deadly one).

Starkadder, couldn’t agree more. That thinking must have permeated PIRA. And again looking at Lynagh, he too was in thrall to it a decade or more later. But as you say, to mobilise that was impossible. The closest was during the hunger strikes and there the dynamic was – for obvious reasons – political, not military.


5. franklittle - November 14, 2007

“But I can’t help feeling when one looks at the RIRA that their time has passed. The GFA remains.”

I think that’s very much the case. To be very coldly blunt about this, in the space of a week the RIRA have managed to injure two police officers in separate shooting attacks. It’s not exactly the opening of the second front.

I would suggest though that there was at one time potential for something like the RIRA to emerge. A couple of republicans who stayed with Adams described making the choice as akin to the Provisional/Official or Republican/Free State split in that they were fearful of making the wrong decision.

But it was the failure, even at what was arguably the organisational height of the RIRA and the CIRA in the late 90s, to even begin to offer a credible military alternative and to seem to think a political strategy was not required that I believe kept some republicans with Adams & Co.


6. Garibaldy - November 14, 2007

Frank may well be right about why some people stayed with the Provos. I wonder how big a role intimidation played, but I suspect not very much. More the chaotic and incompetent nature of the other groups. I also suspect most of those who stayed for such reasons have just drifted off, often into the bar to lament the waste of time they and their comrades were involved in.


7. WorldbyStorm - November 15, 2007

Frank, I’d tend to agree with your analysis. 1998-2000 was the crucial period. But, with CSM and RSF there never seemed to be a serious engagement with the political (I know both plough their own fields, and in fairness some thoughts have come from there, but in terms of impact on a broader stage – nada). Garibaldy, I know what you’re getting at, and agree that other homes were less – attractive – but… you can’t keep a group disciplined and sticking to a line without some degree of acceptance on their part. I simply don’t believe that the vast bulk of Republicans toed the line because of intimidation, I think that they saw that a political path brought dividends. And again credit where credit is due. Incidentally, I don’t quite buy into the ‘waste’ argument although sharing much of it. Reading various UIs from the early 1970s its fairly clear that OSF wasn’t in any sense interested or keen on, and in no way supportive, say, of the various early political precursors of the GFA. That changed. But slowly (I’m not slagging off OSF and after, it was a learning curve, but it’s worth noting).


8. Garibaldy - November 15, 2007

I agree totally that the vast majority of Provos were and are totally behind the leadership. This is because they were never really – apart from the ones who went RSF – an ideological movement, so the various compromises (or somersaults depending on your point of view) posed no problems. I was only referring to the small numbers Frank mentioned who might have been tempted to leave for other groups but didn’t. And as I said, while the former Provo groups would like to think it was intimidation that kept them so small, I doubt it.

On the wasted thing. I’d say if I had done time or seen my friends killed for a deal that could have been done years if not decades earlier, I’d be annoyed, and feel like it was a waste. What was to stop the Provos doing this deal say 5 years before? On the Republican Clubs and the early deals. They were prepared to get involved in the political process, and so oppose them peacefully from within. Had anybody been elected.


9. franklittle - November 15, 2007

I think I might agree more with what Garibaldy was saying was it not for the patronising ‘have just drifted off, often into the bar’. It sounds more like a stereotype of nationalists held because of personal political preference than anything else.

It’s fairly clear the majority of republicans decided to go with Adams & Co. This doesn’t necessarily mean all IRA people transferred to Sinn Féin I suspect. Many just assumed their job was ‘done’ and now the party would take care of it. They saw themselves as soldiers, not politicians, and it was time for others to carry along.

I do think a number went away a bit disillusioned with it but there’s no evidence they ended up in pubs singing Kevin Barry. They may have been failures as political projects, but a number of independent republicans unaligned to CIRA or RIRA have tried to organise in the North and we’ve had Éirigí here in Dublin.


10. Garibaldy - November 15, 2007

P.S. On the learning curve. That argument might hold for the early 70s. But the fact that other people from similar backgrounds made different choices to the Provos shows the extent to which they must take responsibility for their own choices rather than say as they often do now that they had no other choice. The bones of the GFA were there in the first serious British white paper, in 1973. But the Provos had deluded themselves into thinking they might win, and the dynamic of revenge against the British and against loyalism, and sheer sectarianism, should never be forgotten either.


11. Garibaldy - November 15, 2007

Frank, the remark about drifting into bars holds for groups and individuals well beyond the Provos. It was far from meant as patronising but was meant as a serious comment on what happens to many former political activists from all sides. And it certainly was not a sectarian or other jibe at nationalists. Part of it is a consequence of the level of alcoholism in Irish society, part of it due to the still high levels of unemployment, especially among ex-prisoners, and part of it the consequence of the Troubles, where people in working class estates stay in their own areas.

Go to any club or bar in any working class estate in NI, whatever its politics, and you will see examples of what I’m talking about. I was in my original post going to cite the John Hewitt if you know it, where you can find former members of just about every paramilitary group (and politicians and policemen), and see what I’m talking about. Often they sit with each other and share their experiences, reminisce about gaol etc. Not so much singing Kevin Barry as talking about the old days.


12. franklittle - November 15, 2007

I get you. I took it up the wrong way and apologies. I tend to find a lot of people on the left have an image of republicans and nationalists as being composed either of the Maria Duce Holy Rosary Brigade or the stage drunken Irishman. I think firstly that’s inaccurate, but it also means it’s harder to identify and expose the real political errors in modern republicanism.


13. ejh - November 15, 2007

what happens to many former political activists from all sides

I thought these days we drifted onto the internet…


14. splinteredsunrise - November 15, 2007

Well, I don’t think the militarist opposition have much of a perspective beyond keeping a low-level armed campaign on the go. Which they have been doing for a while without many people noticing, but that doesn’t hold out much of a prospect.

As Garibaldy says RSF are a partial exception, because they are ideologues with a programme. That is, the Provisional programme of 1972. Which might have some nostalgia value but does have limitations for today.

Yes, Jackie’s speech did catch my eye. As did the incongruity of the Carpenters being played at a UDA rally…


15. Ed Hayes - November 15, 2007

Well, it was Tina Turner for a while. And did anyone ever wonder why former National Front member Johnny Adair regarded left-wing, multi racial Brummies UB40 (I’m a British subject, not proud of it, I must carry the burden of shame) as his favourite band?

But to the republicans…some time ago I was speaking to a supporter of RSF and his idea was that resistence to the British went in cycles, 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 etc etc and that 1969-1994 was a long cycle but their time would come around again as long as they kept it together. And if you look at them, aside from the 40s and 50s men, there are young working class kids in their ranks. Which is not good, but is a fact. BTW how many of the far left organisations have working class in their ranks?


16. splinteredsunrise - November 15, 2007

You mean Richard Boyd Barrett isn’t a horny-handed proletarian? Surely you jest!


17. ejh - November 15, 2007

How many of the far left organisations have anyone in their ranks?

I’d have thought political involvement, and party political involvement in particular, was at a low point pretty much all over the political spectrum.


18. Mick Hall - November 16, 2007

I must disagree with Frank as to the RIRA ever having the potential to replace the Provos, the reason so few of the PIRA volunteers went with the new organization, despite Mickey being at its helm was because the PIRA volunteers where amongst the first to understand the armed struggle had run its course. By the early nineties volunteers of long standing were entering the jails, some of them for the second if not third time. It is also relevant that many of the RIRA new recruits have not belonged in the past to the Provos or INLA, the late Joe O’Connor was an example of this type.

The movement appears to have been infiltrated at all levels, although not to a degree some have since claimed. Gerry Adams for all his faults [and abilities] above all else has his finger on the pulse of the movement he leads, thus if there had been any hope of the PIRA playing a constructive role he would never have gone down the Peace Process road and lived to tell the tale.

Even the more thoughtful Republicans who wrongly get branded as dissidents recognize that armed struggle is no longer a viable option.

As to the latest outburst of RIRA violence, it could be due to a number of reasons, an attempt by the leadership to get ceasefire negotiations off the ground, so they can get their volunteers out of jail, a case of stamping ones feet and shouting loudly that every generation has the right to resist British occupation by armed struggle. Or it could even be the security services who are said to be well entrenched within RIRA adding some ballast to their demands to extend the 28 days holding etc for terrorist suspects.

What it is undoubtedly not is a viable attempt to remove the British from Ireland, indeed it is liable to have the opposite effect. I agree there are similarities between organizations like the RIRA and Red Brigade type of outfits that existed in Italy and Germany, in the last century, including the level of state infiltration.


19. Mick Hall - November 16, 2007

apologies, the following sentence is out of place in the post above.

“The movement appears to have been infiltrated at all levels, although not to a degree some have since claimed.”


20. WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2007

That’s something I’d overlooked Mick, as regards the internal view of the conflict from those who were involved.


21. Mick Hall - November 16, 2007


I suppose some would say, well the shinners who were in the army would say that as it is party policy now, but it is not only them, if you listen to Tommy McKearney, Anthony McIntyre, Brendan Hughes and many others, they all agree the armed Struggle had run its course, where they differ with Adams is the lengths he has gone to accommodate the British state in Ireland, but that is another debate.


22. Mick Brody - November 16, 2007

The primary problem RSF had with the provisionals was/is the the removal of the Republican componant and the inevitable move toward state politics. The issue was never about armed activity one way or the other or the “introduction” to politics, but the retreat from Republican politics. Republicans were trying to build alternative structures of government based outside the realm of both states on a national basis at “peoples level” ie Eire Nua. One can’t remove or replace the state structure when ones firmly planted within. Now one can agree with Adams politics of course but they arent Republican politics.


23. WorldbyStorm - November 16, 2007

Mick H, true indeed. But, the shape of the agreement is one which still has elements that were anathema to Unionism for 30 years. My read would be that Adams etc wrestled as much as they could given the hand they had.

Mick B, I think the problem with the RSF analysis is that it’s such a reductive view of politics that it really shuts down the prospect of forward movement in the actual existing conditions on this island. The result is adherence to principle but no engagement with the people. For example, why is it a axiomatic that one can’t remove or replace state structures from within? History is littered with state and national structures which did change from the inside out. And then we move onto what precisely are ‘Republican politics’?


24. Mick Hall - November 17, 2007


To know what Adams and his colleagues wrestled from the British State, if any thing, we would need to know what their starting position was and we have never really been told that, perhaps if we new what was in the original Hume/Adams document we might get some idea.


25. WorldbyStorm - November 17, 2007

Surely though we can look at the stated positions of what PSF would accept in 1987 and compare and contrast with 2007. Then we should look at the British Governments stated positions during the same period – and not forgetting Unionism. Can’t be too difficult to audit gains, losses and otherwise.


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