Perilous crisis facing 32-county group is of its own making


It was, ironically, the Omagh cumann of Sinn Fein which expressed the position of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement most clearly in a motion to the Sinn Fein ardfheis last April.

The motion sought to reaffirm "the republican position as established in the Declaration of Independence of 1919 and that no member of Sinn Fein takes part in any process which dilutes that position".

Or as Bernadette Sands McKevitt said in an interview in this newspaper in May: "Peace is not what our people fought for, they fought for independence."

Those members of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement in Omagh who wrote that motion have since been expelled from Sinn Fein. As has happened each time the republican movement seeks to move away from a position adopted 80 years ago by people long dead, a grouping has emerged seeking to keep those ideals alive.

This grouping has Sands McKevitt as a leading figure, and so has a powerful symbolic appeal. As a sister of the dead hungerstriker, Bobby Sands, Ms Sands McKevitt personifies the tradition of great sacrifice for and unbending adherence to republican demands. Her presence among the leadership emphasises the contrast between the 32County Sovereignty Movement and the political deal-making, compromising Sinn Fein. The group believes republican principles and Ms Sands McKevitt's brother's memory have been betrayed by the Sinn Fein/IRA participation in the peace process. She expressed this position clearly in an interview in Magill magazine last January.

"Throughout this conflict men did not give up their lives and liberty, families did not suffer terribly, and there was not all this heartbreak and sacrifice for what is on the table now. The campaign is for an end to British rule, not a rejuvenated partition."

Last year as the republican movement became more and more engaged in the peace process, it was clear that any deal would involve a major compromise on the traditional aim of Irish unity and an end to British rule. In December last 150 republican activists unhappy with the apparent drift to compromise met in Dublin, and the 32-County Sovereignty Movement was formed shortly afterwards.

The founding of the group coincided with the resignation of some key figures, notably the IRA's Dundalk-based quartermaster, from the IRA and their formation of a new grouping now calling itself the Real IRA.

Both the `Real IRA' and the Sovereignty Movement maintain that the Belfast Agreement is unjust. Their analysis, however, is not based on conventional democratic arguments. Indeed the group does not recognise the result of June's simultaneous referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic, which overwhelmingly endorsed the agreement.

This rejection of the referendum result is the key to the dissidents' claim to have a mandate to continue supporting violent action in pursuit of republican demands. The rejection is based on two procedural points:

There were separate votes, North and South, rather than one all-Ireland poll.

The poll in the North was organised by the British government on the basis that British sovereignty in the North would continue.

ail Declaration of Independence. This is because the Dail which made that declaration was elected in 1918 in the only all-island election to a representative body ever held. That Dail had a Sinn Fein majority. Last March the group lodged a case with the United Nations challenging Britain's right to organise a referendum in Northern Ireland because of its "denial of sovereignty to the six counties".

It is not the case, says press officer Joe Dillon, that the group believes "the people have no right to be wrong" in the recent referendums. Rather "they have not been given the opportunity to make their choice without interference".

The group's analysis is straightforward: the agreement recognises British sovereignty over the North and therefore contains a denial of the most fundamental republican principle, that British rule in any part of Ireland must end. The agreement is "fundamentally undemocratic, anti-republican and unacceptable", a spokesman claimed in April.

The agreement upholds the so-called unionist veto on Irish unity, the group believes. In signing the agreement, Sinn Fein had signed up to what a 32-County Sovereignty Movement spokesman called in May "the denial of Irish national sovereignty by the British government".

The intentions of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement are those of the `Real IRA': to destabilise the peace process and to win support from those who traditionally supported Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Its evolution is also intertwined with that of the `Real IRA'. The resignation of a number of the members of the IRA's 12-member army executive late last year coincided with the formation of the Sovereignty Movement.

The Sovereignty Movement aims to supplant Sinn Fein in giving political expression to militant republicanism. Of course Bernadette Sands McKevitt says her group does not have a military wing, and "prefers" peaceful means. "But we are a republican committee in that we uphold the declaration to achieve our objectives by whatever means are necessary."

Another spokesman who denied the existence of a military wing is more direct. The group upholds "the Irish people's right to use physical force in pursuit of national sovereignty".

Ms Sands McKevitt began a tour of the country last January, trying to build support for the new group. Initially the 32-County Sovereignty Movement attempted to operate within Sinn Fein, but that party quickly decided dual membership was unacceptable.

In April nine members in Balbriggan and others in Omagh including Councillor Francie Mackey were suspended for six months and barred from the Sinn Fein ardfheis that month. While the political wing of dissident republicanism was making a steady start, the military wing suffered a series of reverses. Two attempts to start a bombing campaign in Britain were prevented by police action. Four mortar attacks on Northern security force bases missed their targets.

One of its members, Ronan Mac Lochlainn, was shot dead during an attempted armed robbery in Ashford, Co Wicklow, in May. About a half-dozen bomb attacks were foiled by gardai, the RUC and London police. In several cases explosives were seized and arrests made.

Overall, the group has caused six explosions in the North, starting with the attack on the mainly Protestant village of Markethill, Co Armagh, last September. Attacks on Newtownhamilton, Moira and Banbridge followed, before last weekend's Omagh blast.

It was some months, however, before the finger was pointed at this new group, calling itself the `Real IRA'. Security sources appeared less than fully informed of the development of this group centred on the former IRA quartermaster based in Dundalk. Instead, they believed another faction, the Continuity IRA, was responsible.

The Sovereignty Movement has linked up with Irish-Americans who disagree with the peace process, notably the former Noraid publicity director, Martin Galvin. Galvin, a New York lawyer, opposed the peace process and resigned from Noraid in 1995. He has set up a support group for the splinter group.

In April he organised a 10-day tour of the US by Sands McKevitt and Francie Mackey. Last month he said the Irish people had the right of "physical force resistance" while Britain remained in Ireland. This week he said he was "deeply saddened and stunned" to learn of the Omagh bombing. The group would have seen this autumn as a major political opportunity. As the Sinn Fein leadership sought means to take their seats in a new Northern Ireland executive, the dissidents would watch for any signs of further compromise of republican principles.

Any concession to unionist demands for the decommissioning of weapons and for a declaration that their "war" was over would be denounced as a further sell-out of republican principles.

Instead, they find themselves facing a serious crisis, their military wing apparently set to call a ceasefire, their political representatives being treated as pariahs in their home towns. The latest attempt to expand a militant movement to replace a deal-making republican leadership has been shaken by a disaster of its own making.