The lurking dissident danger
Published Wednesday, March 18, 2009, 6:57 PM
Updated Thursday, June 27, 2013, 8:11 PM
Youths in hoodies, with covered faces, hurling rocks at the security forces. It must be Gaza or somewhere similar.
But no, it’s Northern Ireland.
Yes, we’re back to that again. It’s not widespread, of course. In fact it’s just an isolated incident.
But it’s an ominous reminder of the way things used to be, and could be again if we don’t wake up to the danger. The picture you see here — which is like a flashback to 30 years ago — was taken a week ago as youths in the Northern Ireland town of Lurgan rioted.
The young thugs threw rocks and petrol bombs at the police, and even blocked the railway line after houses in the area were raided by Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers investigating the murder of the two British soldiers in the pizza delivery ambush at Craigavon.
Nine or ten people have now been picked up and questioned by the police about the murders of the two soldiers, and of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll. Among those arrested in Lurgan was former IRA prisoner Colin Duffy, 41, a local hard man with sufficient street cred with the youth in the area to provoke the mini riot that ensued.
Another notable name arrested was Declan McGlinchey, 32, the son of the murdered INLA leader Dominic “Mad Dog” McGlinchey.
All those arrested were known dissident Republicans, including one former Sinn Fein councilor.
The shock of the murders had been so great that it brought a wave of revulsion from people across all of Ireland, north and south. You will have seen the extraordinary pictures of the thousands who took part in the silent protests. Many people at the vigils were in tears, inconsolable at the thought that such horror could have come back again.
But we should not have been so surprised.
Trouble has been brewing in some Republican areas for over a year, with several attacks on the police. Because none of them proved fatal we have been able to ignore them, to pretend that everything was okay.
We have been misled by the peace, by the sight of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson laughing and joking together as they got on with sharing power in the north. We have been too eager to believe all the talk of new beginnings, of full cooperation, of no going back.
It would be lovely if it was that simple. But it’s not. It never was, not when the impossible happened and the deal was done between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Not then, and not now.
The reality has always been more complicated. Festering away beneath the euphoria on the surface, there has always been a problem. And now it’s broken through.
There are two elements to this. First is the significant number of Republicans who have never accepted the Belfast Agreement, who see the Sinn Fein deal with the DUP as a sell-out and who in particular cannot stomach the Sinn Fein decision to support the police.
Sinn Fein and the PSNI chief put the number of dissidents at a few hundred, split between the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, other minority groups and individuals.
It does not sound like much, but then you don’t need big numbers to cause major trouble.
Sinn Fein and the PSNI chief say that the dissidents are disorganized, incapable of posing a real threat and going nowhere. All of which may be true.
But again, although they may never get anywhere, they can cause a lot of pain and suffering on the way as they pursue their impossible dream. Scratch a dissident and you find a republican fundamentalist.
They believe in Brits out and a united Ireland with or without Unionist consent. They believe that the historic right to a united Ireland supersedes any need for democratic consent by the Irish people either north or south.
So whether the public approves of their actions is beside the point. Mass demonstrations of disapproval like we saw last week do not matter. The public will eventually come around, they believe, a line of argument that goes back to 1916.
There is more to it than purist Republican analysis, however. As well as the high minded guff, there is a lot of low minded stuff like jealousy and resentment going on. Many of the dissidents are angry at Adams and McGuinness because they have been made irrelevant and powerless, sidelined by the sophisticated Sinn Fein machine.
I remember writing here years ago about the barstool generals, or the corner boy colonels, as Father Denis Faul used to call them. These were the Republican toughs who ruled their housing estates, guys who had not worked in years, who used extortion and rackets to raise funds for the cause (including themselves), who had real status in their areas founded on fear.
These guys don’t like the way the new peaceful society forces them into “normality,” into being ordinary, into getting a job and being like anyone else. It’s beneath them. It’s just not who they are.
So they prefer to carry on the old fight, which gives them more reason to think they are still important. That’s a large part of what some of the senior dissidents are about.
The younger ones are not that different from young thugs anywhere else, idle, aimless, resentful against the police, against authority. The difference is they have a cause they can wrap around their hatred, a mindset inherited from parents or learned from the local senior dissident.
Most of the teenagers throwing rocks in Lurgan last week have grown up in a peaceful Northern Ireland. Yet, given the chance, they behave like they are in a war zone, as though they are part of an unfinished conflict.
We need to ask ourselves why. Although it tends to be forgotten in the new era of peace, the North is still a divided society in which kids from Nationalist areas rarely if ever mix with kids from Loyalist areas, where most schools have kids from only one community, where intermarriage is still unusual.
The wall is gone in Berlin, but there are still areas in the North where walls divide the two sides and are still needed. That is the root of where we are at right now in the North.
Yes, we have peace. Fragile though it is, it is supported by the vast majority of people from both sides.
But that has tended to obscure just how little has changed in the North. Which is why the North is so vulnerable to sliding back into chaos again.
So what needs to happen? Well, we could start with integrated schooling. We could have massive intervention in deprived areas, especially in Nationalist areas, to give young people confidence and hope.
We could have a lot less pontificating about peace and a lot more practical action on the ground in communities in need of help, more in need than ever now thanks to the downturn.
Those things are the carrots. But we will need the stick as well.
The senior dissidents need to be confronted on a regular basis so that they are forced out of their dreamland. The south has a particular role to play in this because many of the senior dissidents are based here and, as with the Omagh bomb, operations may start from here. Gardai (police) now believe that the guns used in the murders of the two soldiers and the PSNI man came via the criminal underworld in Dublin, with which some of the dissidents have close connections.
Sorting this out would have been a lot easier in Stalinist Russia. Or it would be in today’s China. You would just haul them in and re-educate them or shoot them. But we don’t do that these days. On the other hand, you do remember the way de Valera dealt with Republican dissidents when he was in power, don’t you?