Inside dissident republican groups: A new book throws light on their thinking
Paramilitary organisations see opportunity in Brexit – the harder Brexit the better
Forensic officers inspect the remains of the vehicle used as a car bomb outside Derry courthouse on January 20th, 2019. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Historian Marisa McGlinchey found herself being assailed for comment and explanation from a number of journalistic quarters following the “New IRA” car-bomb explosion outside Derry courthouse last Saturday.
Her first book, Unfinished Business – The Politics of ‘Dissident’ Irish Republicanism will be launched on Friday (February 1st) in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast by her former academic mentor, Lord (Paul) Bew of Queen’s University, with subsequent launches in Dublin and London.
The work is rather amazing in that she managed to persuade 90 members of the secretive and suspicious dissident groups to provide her with revealing interviews for her 231-page book published by Manchester University Press.
So, she was the new go-to person for reporters seeking an insight into that paramilitary and political underworld.
Her analysis was basic enough because the attack didn’t require a huge amount of examination. “It was a strike to let their presence be known, that they are still there and that they are not going anywhere, that they are still capable of striking when they choose to,” she says in this interview in the Linen Hall Library.
McGlinchey believes the courthouse target was deliberately selected as an edifice, as they would see it, to British injustice and imperialism and that the timing close to the centenary of the outbreak of the War of Independence also was deliberate.
McGlinchey says while there is a lull in dissident activity generally, the paramilitary organisations see opportunity with Brexit, notwithstanding Leavers’ criticism of anyone who suggests the UK quitting the EU would benefit the dissidents.
“Brexit has changed the landscape in which they are operating,” she explains. “In 2017 the then chairman of Saoradh (which reflects New IRA thinking) Davy Jordan said he hoped Brexit would be as hard as hell . . . He said, this is an opportunity which we should exploit.”
She adds that Peig King, the patron of Republican Sinn Féin, political wing of the Continuity IRA, said “this is the biggest opportunity that we’ve had since 1916”.
McGlinchey, from Poleglass in west Belfast is 34 and now has a full-time research and writing post as assistant professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.
She put herself through Queen’s University with the help of her mother and by working at Tesco in Royal Avenue in Belfast – sometimes, under pressure, turning up for lectures in her Tesco uniform.
If they were out for civil rights they got it in 1973. So what the f**king hell was the other 30 years of war for?
Getting access to her interviewees involved years of hard work travelling around Ireland attending dissident republican commemorations and events, introducing herself to the various personnel of the various groups, and using “gatekeepers” to provide additional entrée to those reluctant to speak to her.
Last year, after observing and photographing a dissident Easter parade in Lurgan, Co Armagh, the PSNI informed her that if she did not present herself to the barracks in Banbridge, Co Down she would be liable to arrest.
“It did bother me. It caused upset. I wasn’t sure how this was going to be received,” she says. Some of the interviewees thought it funny though, saying they would take her on their wing in Maghaberry if she ended up in prison.
She dutifully attended for interview where her solicitor conveyed to the police she was engaged in legitimate academic business. McGlinchey says a frequent question she is asked is if she is related to the Irish National Liberation Army leader Dominic McGlinchey, murdered in an internal INLA feud in 1994.
She isn’t, although her mother Kathleen used to claim a relationship to prevent bullying at school. In fact, Marisa McGlinchey comes from a family with quite a strong SDLP background. Her Queen’s PhD, under Lord Bew, was on the decline of the SDLP. She has to have a book on the party with Manchester University Press by the summer, so that also is keeping her busy.
She officially started work on Unfinished Business in 2012, even though before that she was informally gathering material. One of the first people she consulted was an independent sort of a dissident, although he might not like that label, Anthony McIntyre.
With Ed Moloney he was involved in the oral history of the Troubles, where interviews conducted with former republican and loyalist paramilitaries – deposited with Boston College and due never to be released until their deaths – were sought and in a number of cases seized as evidence by the PSNI.
McIntyre advised her, “Don’t let anyone disclose anything illegal, and hold on to your recordings as possession is nine-tenths of the law.” She stuck to this advice rigidly, thus avoiding the catastrophe of the Boston tapes.
“It is a very difficult community to reach,” says McGlinchey. “My whole rationale was to get to the psyche of what people call dissident republicans and to me the biggest selling point of this book are the voices that comes through.”
'Purist form of republicanism'
And there are many voices, which is what is so striking about the book. New insights are provided. Those people she spoke to from the New IRA, the Continuity IRA, and the Real IRA and their political representatives hold to a very basic Brits Out creed.
“It is an absolutist, purist form of republicanism,” says McGlinchey. She adds that up until the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, provisional republicanism adopted the same fundamentalist philosophy, but that “in recent years we have seen a shift in emphasis from freedom to equality”.
Such perceived Sinn Féin rewriting of history infuriated some of her subjects. For instance one of them is 70-year-old Kevin Hannaway, a first cousin of Gerry Adams and one of the “hooded men” who was subjected to “inhumane and degrading treatment” by the British army in Derry in 1971, as adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights.
Last year he was imprisoned in the South for three years and nine months by the Special Criminal Court for assisting with dissident interrogations in Castleknock in Dublin.
Interviewed before being jailed he alluded to how key civil rights demands were conceded by the British government in the early 1970s. He said, “The present leadership of Sinn Féin – if they were out for an Irish Republic they failed. If they were out for civil rights they got it in 1973. So what the f**king hell was the other 30 years of war for?”
It’s a recurring theme from her interviewees. Says McGlinchey, “They came out very strongly that the campaign was not for anything less than Irish sovereignty.”
McGlinchey prefers the terms “radical republicans” or “non-mainstream republicans” for the dissidents because as they see it they are not dissenting from anything but following a diktat laid down from the 1918 and 1919 general elections. It is Sinn Féin which has strayed.
She met members of the Continuity IRA leadership in north Armagh who, citing the so-called IRA Green Book, asserted that the IRA is “the direct representative of the 1919 Dáil Éireann parliament, and that as such they are the legal and lawful government of the Irish Republic” and that they are “morally justified in carrying out a campaign of resistance against foreign occupation”.
I think the British government bought a lot of people and put them into Sinn Féin
McGlinchey says they truly believe that is their justification and mission. The murders of police officers Ronan Kerr and Stephen Carroll and prison officers David Black and Adrian Ismay, and of some of their own members, were morally warranted as far as fundamentalist republicans were concerned.
And neither did the possibility of demographic changes and constitutional movement eventually leading to Irish unity deflect them. The principle of consent was anathema – the onus remained on dissidents achieving unity by the Armalite (or Kalashnikov) rather than the ballot box.
In this regard, McGlinchey obtained one chilling quote from Republican Sinn Féin member Brendan Madden from Galway, who was a member of the republican movement from the late 1950s until his death in 2015.
Reflecting on the morality of the armed campaign, he told her: “I wouldn’t kill a bird there on the road but I mean I see no harm in using force to get the British out of our country, out of the six counties and anybody else that invades our country . . . I’ve nothing whatsoever against the English people. I have nothing whatsoever against an English soldier but when he’s here it’s a different story . . .”
And where there was some moral doubt there would be others to blame. Another veteran republican is Phil O’Donoghue from Kilkenny who is honorary president of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement which reflects the ideology of the Real IRA.
He told McGlinchey that the 1998 Real IRA Omagh bomb, which killed 29 people including a woman pregnant with twin girls, should never have happened. But he suspected British state involvement. “I strongly believe that they deliberately allowed that bomb to go off.”
The oldest interviewee is 97-year-old Belfast republican Billy McKee whose involvement with the IRA goes back to the 1930s and who was party to setting up the Provisional IRA in 1969. He reflected on his formative years and all the rebel songs he heard from his grandmother as a child.
He recalled visiting a local park and people pointing out the chestnut tree and the birch tree, and he asked, “But where’s the gallows tree?” prompting hilarity from his friends. His frequent hearing of the phrase “high upon a gallows tree” in the song Kevin Barry persuaded him there was such a thing to be found in the woods.
McKee provided an illustration of what McGlinchey says is a high level of distrust between the various dissident groups. “I don’t trust the way it’s working now,” he told her. “The Special Branch seem to be able to tell you who you were talking to yesterday and so forth. I don’t mind talking to people I know, but people I don’t know – I steer clear of them.”
McGlinchey says that regardless of the apparently high level of infiltration diehard republicans aren’t put off from joining the paramilitary groups.
She adds that dissidents don’t accept the argument that the IRA could never have succeeded in its aim to achieve a united Ireland by violence. “They will say it could have succeeded if it were not for decisions taken by the leadership.”
Deep, bitter antipathy
Her book reveals a deep and bitter antipathy to Sinn Féin and its leadership. A number of interviewees told her that “infiltration at multiple levels within the Provisional movement must extend to the leadership and have suggested that it is likely that a high-level informer/agent within Provisional Sinn Féin may still be in leadership in the party today”.
Or as Jim McCrystal, a prominent radical republican in Lurgan and a former IRA prisoner, said, “I think the British government bought a lot of people and put them into Sinn Féin.”
The dissidents, those who choose to stand, have had little success electorally, although she refers to one 2010 study that estimated “14 per cent of those who identified with nationalism had sympathy with why they were doing what they were doing”.
The dissidents are not going away
He too was critical of Sinn Féin. He told her, “Within the Provisional movement there is no room for dissent. You speak out, you question decisions, you suddenly become a British agent, you become blackened, you become demonised, marginalised.”
Sinn Féin did not talk to her for the book so she engaged in a lengthy interview with writer and former Sinn Féin head of publicity Danny Morrison to provide some counterweight to all those dissident voices. “That was not an interview,” Morrison told her, “That was an interrogation.”
He challenged her to challenge the dissidents to outline an alternative strategy to Sinn Féin’s. “I only respect them if they propose alternatives,” he said.
McGlinchey acknowledges that apart from the old Ruairí Ó Brádaigh Republican Sinn Féin Eire Nua proposal of a federalist Ireland with parliaments in each of the four provinces and a central parliament in Athlone, the dissidents have not risen to that challenge.
“We have not seen any coherent analysis of a strategy forward,” she agrees. “They come in for criticism as well for not having a coherent strategy about what to do with a million unionists who will never go into a united Ireland. There does not appear to be any engagement there,” she adds.
The dissidents are not going away, McGlinchey is sure. “What struck me was that if you were standing at [dissident] republican commemorations throughout Ireland today you would hear the same message that you would have heard standing at a Provisional Sinn Féin commemoration back in the 1970s. It is the exact same traditional republican message.”