Dissident republicans insist armed response to 'occupation' is inevitable
Derry republicans opposed to the peace process are trotting out slogans from the past, writes GERRY MORIARTY, Northern Editor
GARY DONNELLY, the dissident republican kingpin in Derry, picks me up in his VW Passat in the city centre. First stop is the big PSNI station across the Foyle in the loyalist Waterside, where he must sign bail. Normally, he’d sign at the Strand Road PSNI station on the nationalist cityside but the Real IRA bombed it in August, so it’s out of bounds for bail signers.
Donnelly’s on bail on a charge of alleged dissident paramilitary involvement. That’s as far as the police are concerned. It’s because he had a mobile phone, he says. The courts, police and lawyers will sort it out eventually.
Then it’s across the Craigavon Bridge, into the Bogside and heading up into Creggan. He points to a mural of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement – the perceived political wing of the Real IRA – on a wall near where Martin McGuinness lives. It reads: “Those who administer British rule are traitors. They haven’t gone away, you know.”
It’s a double-play on the Deputy First Minister’s charge against the dissidents of being traitors after the Real IRA murdered British soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey and the Continuity IRA murdered PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll – and also on Gerry Adams’s comment about the Provisional IRA being present in the shadows – before the armed Provisionals actually did go away.
Donnelly talks of McGuinness recently visiting the fringes of the Tory conference in Birmingham, regular appearances in Downing Street, and his support for Derry’s successful “UK” City of Culture 2013 bid. “Some of our younger members have put together a video on our Derry 32 CSM website,” he says. It shows McGuinness visiting some of these places, along with doctored photos – including one of him wearing an Orange Order collarette, and greeting Queen Elizabeth. The background music is Part of the Union by Strawbs.
There was a time when no republican, particularly those from Derry, would lampoon McGuinness so brazenly.
You’re transported to the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when the Provisionals sold cold murder and violence with sharp and sometimes humorous propaganda. At bottom it’s the same narrow message too – Brits Out. It’s back to the future.
Into a neat house in the Creggan. The kettle’s on, snacks offered, tea and coffee made.
Donnelly introduces me to Paddy McDaid, at 40 a year older than him, and a big mate – they’ve served time together in prison in the North and South on dissident charges – and Ciarán Boyle (25).
Usual protocols are agreed. They are speaking as 32 CSM members who support the Real IRA’s “armed struggle” because, they say, “there is no alternative”, and/or because “British occupation” makes it “inevitable”.
I pose a question put by another radical republican type who opposes the current political dispensation, but thinks the continuing use of violence is “crazy”. He quoted the purported Einstein definition of insanity as trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Or as local socialist and writer Eamonn McCann recently put it, why continue violence that would just lead to “misery and death” and ultimately another republican “sell-out”?
Donnelly, who is quick-witted, turns the Einstein line around: “Why do the Brits continue 800 years of occupation and expect something other than an armed response?”
And here’s another, very old question for him: can you bomb 900,000 unionists into a united Ireland? “A minority – because that is what they are in an all-Ireland context – cannot hold a majority to ransom. They cannot deny the rest of the country democracy,” says Donnelly.
And can he expect 900,000 unionists to settle happily in a united Ireland? “They can be British in a united Ireland. Do we say to Chinese people living here, you can’t be Chinese?” He says 32 CSM has no intention of testing its Brits Out policy with the people. “Electoralism will not achieve anything.” He says the 32 CSM has about 50 members in Derry. “We are part of the community,” he asserts.
Trade unionists, politicians and ordinary people demonstrated at Derry’s Guildhall over a week ago against the recent car bombing outside Ulster Bank in the city. Also present were members of Kieran Doherty’s family, a Real IRA member in Derry murdered by his former comrades in February. Donnelly says he knew and liked the murdered man. He makes no criticism of the killing.
So, does people’s opposition to dissident activity mean anything? Donnelly almost snorts: “Two hundred people standing behind a ‘Stop Bombing Londonderry’ banner! . . . We have had all this in the past. We have had 20,000 people march along the Falls Road with the Peace People in the 1970s, and it hasn’t stopped resistance. That is the reality.”
He is equally dismissive of Sinn Féin criticism of dissident violence. “Martin McGuinness and people like that got where they are today on the backs of dead IRA volunteers. They did not achieve a united Ireland but they achieved power . . .”
Donnelly bolts to the door. “Look, a cop car, following us, across the road. It happens all the time.” He, McDaid and Boyle recount the numerous times they’ve been stopped and searched by police officers, and complain of virtually constant “harassment” of them and their families. The police response that they wouldn’t be stopped if they weren’t a threat is dismissed.
Boyle has a partner and two children aged five and two months. He had a good job in Dupont in Derry, but was made redundant two years ago. “It’s hard to live on dole of £45 per week,” he says. Like Donnelly he’s from a republican background, and jumped ship from Sinn Féin in 2005 after decommissioning and the first indications the party would support the police.
“I support the right of the Irish people to use armed struggle,” he says. Dissident republicanism is making progress, he insists. “It has achieved a lot, it is denormalising the Six Counties . . . The police were talking about patrolling on mountain bikes, but they can’t, they have to drive around in convoys; there is talk about Northern Ireland being a normal region of the UK – well, it isn’t.”
Even all the stop-and-searches serve the dissidents’ interests, he adds, because they trigger anger in working-class nationalist areas.
There may be 900,000 unionists in Northern Ireland “but there are “five million nationalists” on the island, and they must have “democratic” precedence, says Boyle.
Nathan Hastings (17), a bright A-level student, later arrives. He was aged one at the time of the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, and five at the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. He can have no gut understanding of 30 years of conflict, of 3,700 killed and perhaps 40,000 maimed and injured, but is infused with the confidence and certainty of youth.
He is studying religion, English literature and politics in St Columb’s College in Derry, and hopes to become a social worker.
“I made a conscious decision to join 32 CSM because what they are doing is excellent work,” he says. “It’s not so much supporting the armed struggle, but realising it is inevitable that after 800 years of British occupation every generation rises up and fights back, no matter how many people have bowed their knee, no matter how many popes or clergy have begged , no matter how many protests; it just happens, it is inevitable.
“I am totally opposed to the use of arms and bullets and hate the idea of people dying,” he adds, nevertheless repeating that as long as there is “British occupation” an armed response is inevitable. “I see the IRA as a continuation of the IRA that surrendered; so I would see them as the legitimate IRA . . .
“I think the bombs, no matter how heinous they are, no matter the harm caused, will never stop as long as British occupation remains here.”
It’s just as black and white from the Continuity IRA/Republican Sinn Féin viewpoint.
Richard Walsh (28) is the former director of publicity for Republican Sinn Féin, viewed as the political wing of the Continuity IRA. That group has recently splintered, and Walsh supports the new self-proclaimed more militant wing of CIRA.
He is of Donegal, Derry, middle-class background.
Walsh says as long as there is a British presence in any part of Ireland – regardless of what the people voted for in the Belfast Agreement – there will be an armed response. “I think Brits Out is quite a radical position to adopt, because it’s the one thing that hasn’t ever been tried,” he says. As for the 900,000 unionists, “They are not British, they are Irish, whether they like to admit it or not.”
These five – Donnelly, McDaid, Boyle, Hastings and Walsh – carry on an argument that is indifferent to the various counter-arguments such as the validity of the principle of consent, the immorality of violence, a complex problem requiring a creative solution, those 900,000 unionists, Good Friday 1998 representing an “agreed Ireland”, and so on.
They are not going away, they insist. Walsh sums it up simply: “The Irish people have a God-given right to determine their own future, and they can’t do that when you have the English claiming that they can govern Ireland.”