The Boys’ Brigade and dissident republicans – an unusual recipe for lasting reconciliation?

The time has now come to bring dissident republicans in from the cold in the same way as mainstream republicans and loyalists were involved, leading ultimately to the Good Friday Agreement.
The initial question must be – who should approach the dissidents and facilitate talks aimed at bringing about a permanent cessation of dissident republican violence?
To point the finger initially at the British and Irish governments may be bordering on the naïve. A credible facilitator will be required who can instil trust among the dissidents, London, Dublin and Belfast.
The storm over a comparison between dissident republicans on parade and the Christian Boys’ Brigade movement has planted the seed if the Christian Churches could be that facilitator?
Before I justify why the Churches must step up to the mark in the dissident debate, let me stress I am an evangelical Christian who has had a terrific experience with the Boys’ Brigade movement.
As a journalist, too, I am passionately committed to the concept of expression of honestly held opinion. But to draw any comparison between masked dissident republican terrorist supporters and the Christian BB is so far off the scale, it borders on totally ridiculous Monty Python-style commentating.
I could well imagine the justifiable outcry calling for my journalistic head if I dared to draw a comparison between the excellent work of the Catholic Boys Scouts of Ireland and the perceived junior wing of the IRA, the Na Fianna Eireann. My honestly held opinion is that there is NO comparison between these two youth movements.
I had a fantastic Christian experience with the BB, and had the honour of being a member of the First Clough (Co Antrim) and First Ballymena companies. My initial journalist experience was writing the BB notes for the Ballymena Guardian and Ballymena Times weekly newspapers in the late 1970s.
I later served as Press Officer for the BB’s Northern Ireland District in the 1990s and can fully testify to the organisation’s Christian ethos. Drill was a major part, too, of my BB experience as it helped with the concept of discipline, team work and pride in appearance.
The only comparison between the BB and dissident republicans is in the area of drill – the BB knows how to march properly, while dissident republicans stomp about the place as if they are auditioning for a role in the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s so-called republican guard (no pun intended!).
I have emphasised the need for the Christian Churches across this island of Ireland to step out of the pulpits and pews and get church goers registered to vote, and actually get into the polling booths.
Church leaders did play an important behind the scenes role in getting the loyalist and republican ceasefires of 1994. In spite of the increasingly secular society developing in what was previously the Bible Belt of Ireland, we need Christian leaders – many of whom may have had an experience within the BB – to have the courage to meet with the dissident republican terror gangs.
Peddling the excuse that there will always be an element in republicanism which relies solely on so-called armed struggle is a defeatist attitude. Republican terrorists are not purist republicans.
The ethos of ‘kill first, talk later’ is not the true heritage of Connolly and Pearse. In conflicts across the globe, at some point the forces of the state will have to talk to forces of those opposed to the state.
Likewise, while the BB is seen as staunchly evangelical Christian and non-sectarian, many of its companies are based in Protestant Churches. Could the BB become a vehicle to reach out to the dissident republican community to bring it in from the political cold?
The essential problem which dissident republicans face is that politically, they are totally overshadowed by the mainstream republican movement represented by Provisional Sinn Fein.
There are so many dissident republican factions and groups, perhaps the first task of any facilitator will be is to bring them all together under one banner. That was attempted politically in 2003 when republicans who did not agree with the Sinn Fein agenda ran under the banner of Concerned Republicans.
The UUP clearly outmanoeuvred the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition over the official Stormont Opposition tactic. But is there a possibility that the party could go a step further and open up informal talks with the various dissident republican groups to at least bring about a cessation of all terrorist attacks?
Not feasible you may say? But if the DUP and Sinn Fein can run the power-sharing Executive, surely the UUP could hold out an olive branch to dissident republicans?
If the Protestant Loyal Orders have finally reached the conclusion that direct dialogue with nationalist residents groups is the only way to solve the parading crisis, then the Churches must have the courage to grasp the very stinging nettle of persuading dissident republicans to engage in the political process.
Perhaps BB men with such conviction could hold the key to this? Would that not make an interesting political partnership?
Dr John Coulter is himself a Queen’s Man – a holder of the BB’s top award, the Queen’s Badge. Follow Dr Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

, ,

  • Brendan Heading

    Reading this article I’m reminded of the tendency among conflict resolution academia to get ahead of themselves.

    The peace process happened not because of the efforts of academics or clergymen, but because key figures in the IRA realised that they were defeated, that they had to turn their struggle into a political one, and that they needed help to do this. This transition happened because they wanted it to.

    The residual paramilitary organisations that still exist do not want a transition. They are ideologically and completely wedded to violence, as well as criminality. They refuse to accept that they have lost, and they cannot accept that it is time for them to leave the stage. People like this, will in all probability, always exist; they can never be completely eradicated, just as crime itself can never be completely eliminated. This is why they exist in numbers in places like Dublin, where there is no conflict – just an economy from which wealth can be extracted by criminals with access to weapons and training.

    If John Coulter believes that this sort of thing works, maybe he should go and have a word with the residents of the Clandeboye estate who are, according to the Spotlight programme, being intimidated by a UDA gang which is receiving not only public money but favourable references from politicians and police inspectors.

  • Declan Doyle

    It is interesting you push the IRA were defeated narrative when all the evidence to the contrary exists. At the very least, even if they were defeated, they certainly didn’t think so. Their attacks in the early nineties including landing mortars in downing street and blowing the heart out of London’s financial district suggests they were on their game and focusing the minds of Westminster. Unless of course British security services were so far planted within the IRA that they were aware the attacks were coming and let them carry on anyway. In a word ‘unlikely’.

    Far more rational to accept the British military assessment that a stalemate had developed where neither side could out do the other.

    Dissident Republicans would agree with your assessment no doubt, or at the very least they would assert that the IRA ‘cowardly’ withdrew. But feeding that mindset will certainly assist nobody who is concerned with agreed settlement over outright defeat. ‘Sack cloth and ashes’ never came about no matter how much one tries to spin the ceasefire.

    Britain’s financial and economic heart was being blown apart to the point that Lloyd struggled to breathe. The IRA brought the fight right up the ass of the British establishment and they were not willing to allow London blood to take the place of Ulster blood.

    You are right regarding dissidents, Alas they are republican ‘purists’ when it suits them and are most likely in no mood to entertain the pleas of priest or pastor.

  • Brendan Heading

    were defeated narrative when all the evidence to the contrary exists

    They handed over all their weapons and disbanded without achieving their aims. That’s a defeat.

    At the very least, even if they were defeated, they certainly didn’t think so.

    The major success of the peace process has been SF presenting their defeat as a victory.

    Their attacks in the early nineties including landing mortars in downing street and blowing the heart out of London’s financial district suggests they were on their game and focusing the minds of Westminster.

    If this was the case, then why did they stop ?

  • Declan Doyle

    “They handed over all their weapons and disbanded without achieving their aims. That’s a defeat”

    They Willingly destroyed their arms whilst the opponent removed their military structures.

    “The major success of the peace process has been SF presenting their defeat as a victory”

    SF have never declared ‘victory’ for either side.

    “If this was the case, then why did they stop ?”

    The British all but begged them.

  • Gopher

    In revolutionary warfare what one would call military victory or defeat is relatively unimportant it comes down to political victory or defeat.(Blindingly obvious example is Tet) The question is were the IRA politically defeated? I notice the narrative has changed to we were fighting for human rights.

  • ted hagan

    I’m afraid this is like a Russian doll. Compromise and negotiate and bring in the dissidents and hey presto, a new group of ‘dissident’ dissidents pops out. The Belfast Agreement was a one-off. You can’t stretch its credibility any further. Enough.

  • Brendan Heading

    Declan,

    If the “armed struggle” was working why did the IRA abandon it without there being a united Ireland ?

    The IRA’s objectives in 1970 were the dismantling of the government at Stormont and the complete withdrawal of the British. The IRA accomplished neither of these aims. That means they were defeated. If you think otherwise then you have bought into the myth. The people who sold that myth are the same people who told their supporters that the Good Friday Agreement was a peaceful path to Irish reunification. Those chickens are beginning to come home to roost.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite glad that SF were able to divert the IRA away from pointless violence and channel their energies into substantial support for a peaceful political project. But let’s not kid ourselves that they did this because they were winning.

  • Declan Doyle

    Because it wasn’t working. It couldn’t deliver unity. Once the IRA had forced the collapse of Stormont and delivered equality, Irish Unity was no longer something to fight for. The circumstances on the ground in terms of equality, employment, housing and opportunities in 1994 were transformed in comparison to the late sixties.

    If the IRA were truly defeated, why didn’t the British push on? Really, it makes no sense to believe that the brits, on the edge of victory would simply capitulate to the peace process if they really believed the IRA could be wiped out.

    And why fight on with all the accompanying anguish when demographics would clearly deliver a little Ireland alongside the free stat?. Why fight against a North slowly turning green with the added comfort of knowing that English tax payers were, are and will continue to pay for it?

    When people do not agree with you, do not assume they have been hoodwinked or myth converted. Sometimes it is far more simple, sometimes it is nothing more than seeing it differently, studying and coming to different conclusions.

    Smash Sinn Fein? No Dublin involvement in the North? Save the RUC? Etc. Etc. Does this mean Unionism has been defeated? No, of course not. But those who sneer at Unionism on these points claiming the higher moral ground do nothing but expose their own insecurities.

    Defeat, Surrender and such terms are only employed in the modern age by those who have a need to reassure themselves they are part of the dominant force. It is a self gratifying compulsion used to cloak an overall disappointment in how circumstances have turned to transpired. It is empty, vacuous and most often inaccurate.

  • mac tire

    “If the “armed struggle” was working why did the IRA abandon it without there being a united Ireland ?”

    They realised they couldn’t militarily win and that a compromise was required. The British had come to the same conclusions – that they couldn’t militarily win and that a compromise was needed. It was why they and others came to an agreement.

    General Mike Jackson’s internal British Army report says it didn’t defeat the IRA. And this holds true – otherwise why would they have negotiated with and obliged a defeated group?

  • Declan Doyle

    The joint first minister might indicate a political victory.

  • Jollyraj

    More accurately, one might say “Once the IRA had forced Sinn Fein into a position where they could turn a huge profit, Irish Unity was no longer something to fight for.”

  • Gopher

    Killing all those people so Marty could share power?

  • chrisjones2

    Smell the Coffee.

    They settled for seats in a BRITISH Regional Assembly in a UNITED KINGDOM where all the legislation their 25% of seats contributes to is signed by the QUEEN before it becomes BRITISH law

    Now what were their aims again?

    No matter how you spin it, they lost

  • chrisjones2

    But all that was achieved by the mid 70s …so why carry on murdering?

  • chrisjones2

    “If the IRA were truly defeated, why didn’t the British push on? ”

    Doh because they wanted a stable peace. Military Victory was 50 % of the objectievs

    “would simply capitulate to the peace process”

    Do get real. It was the Brits Process. They wrote it. They were writing it from the late 1980s. At the end they were even writing bits of Gerrys Speeches for him when he needed help

    “Why fight against a North slowly turning green”

    Except it isnt as the polls clearly show. SF lost the battle for Catholic minds and many feel happy in the UK.

    I suggest you read more widely than Slugger and An Phoblacht on this

  • chrisjones2

    No no no ….its all for the Cause …honest gov ……now where is my morning Frappuccino with Chocolate Marshmallows

    I always get it from Starbucks ’cause their logo is green you know!

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely at least two narratives to justify their tactics are employed – depending on the audience – one that it was because of discrimination etc, two that it was to get to a UI?

  • Declan Doyle

    Not sure they would see it all as nothing but murder.

  • Declan Doyle

    Personalised digs are usually an indication that you have lost the argument.

  • Gingray

    Perhaps a third GT – at the start of the troubles, the IRA was less about getting a UI or ending discrimination, and more about protecting Catholic/Nationalist areas.

    As you well know, that changed in a short space of time, but that initial action had a lot of support.

    IMO the IRA had little to do with discrimination, the SDLP and Alliance get the credit for that, and they failed in their goal of getting a UI.

    On the other hand, they are now in power in Northern Ireland, something unthinkable 50 years ago.

  • Gingray

    So, in your world all wars are won are lost?

    In reality thinks are a lot more complicated, but we both know you only throw in the phrase about defeating the IRA so you can repeat the same old arguments, with the same counter cases in return.

    BTW Brendan, I note you always fail to mention the IRAs actions at the start of the troubles, did they fail or succeed in those?

  • Granni Trixie

    Certainly places such as Bombay street were crying out for protection which was not forthcoming certainly not from the IRA because it was virtually nonexistant. However further up the road (Suffolk,Lenadoon etc) residents formed roadblocks. . Myself and my neighbours did not turn to the IRA for ‘protection’ but I surmise that internment did more to turn families to support a revived IRA than anything.

  • Gingray

    GT
    Hard to know for sure, my own view is different around those first couple of years, and while internment provided a massive boost, the initial success in stopping the attacks on Catholics and the actions of older IRA was recognised as important.
    But we all have our own opinions.

  • Granni Trixie

    Its not so much opinion as that my memory is vague! Am I wrong in thinking ‘old’ IRA was ineffective in protecting which is why it was called “rusty guns”?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    You seem to be overlooking the penetration of the Belfast & Derrry IRA brigades by MI5 and what the SAS managed in East Tyrone. I’m not positioning myself anywhere in particular just pointing out overlooked elements of the complex mix.

  • Brendan Heading

    They realised they couldn’t militarily win

    This is another way of saying they were defeated.

    The British had come to the same conclusions – that they couldn’t militarily win and that a compromise was needed

    The British put no more compromises on the table than they had offered the IRA in 1972.

    General Mike Jackson’s internal British Army report says it didn’t defeat the IRA

    It doesn’t matter what he said. It matters what happened. The (P)IRA were established in 1969/70 to use force to secure the end of Stormont and British withdrawal. It disbanded and disarmed having secured neither. That is the dictionary definition of defeat.

  • Brendan Heading

    Because it wasn’t working. It couldn’t deliver unity.

    Yes. In other words, the IRA were defeated.

    If the IRA were truly defeated, why didn’t the British push on?

    The British had no need to push on because their opponent surrendered and agreed to, essentially, the terms that the British had offered in the early 1970s.

    When people do not agree with you, do not assume they have been hoodwinked or myth converted.

    It’s not a matter of disagreeing. It is a matter of understanding the facts. Which are that the IRA resorted to violence to secure a total British withdrawal, and then surrendered and disarmed without having achieved this. The desperate attempts to try to spin this as anything other than a defeat are just sad.

    Does this mean Unionism has been defeated? No, of course not.

    From where I’m standing right now it looks as if Unionism got most of what it wanted, specifically the security of partition.

    Defeat, Surrender and such terms are only employed in the modern age by those who have a need to reassure themselves they are part of the dominant force.

    What absolute nonsense.

  • Reader

    Declan Doyle: Really, it makes no sense to believe that the brits, on the edge of victory would simply capitulate to the peace process if they really believed the IRA could be wiped out.
    What do you think were the British “war aims”? Unless you think that the British war aims included heaps of IRA bodies, the Brits got what they wanted. That’s not capitulation.
    The IRA war aims were a United Ireland, and, as Morrison put it, to “take Power in Ireland”. The IRA did not achieve their war aims.

  • Declan Doyle

    So when exactly did the British realise the IRA had surrendered? Was it before or after the string of bombing ms which tore the heart out of English cities? And why do the British military insist that they could not in fact defeat the IRA? Seems an odd admission considering they had secured a surrender. The IRA blew the British to the negotiating table and any attempt to spin that fact is much sadder. Continued Partition rests firmly upon the principle of consent, 50 plus one and its all over ,hardly secure. Dismissing something as nonsense is nothing more than a cover for not being able to credibly reject the assertion.

  • Declan Doyle

    Not overlooking at all. Maybe you are correct. My point is despite such penetrations the RA still managed some sensational bombings, suggesting they were anything but defeated.

  • Declan Doyle

    The fight is far from over. The IRA got republicans into the heart of government in Stormont. Maybe the rest is simply no more than waiting for politics to do its thing. If unity occurs in twenty years, can republicans claim that the IRA laid the ground for it? Indeed they can? There are only two groups of people who enjoy the sense that the IRA were defeated; Unionists who need to feel consoled that they were forced to negotiate with the IRA and dissident Republicans who use such assertions to justify continuing the campaign.

  • Gingray

    In parts – its what led to the split, with the old IRA staying on ceasefire, and some of the older members, and new recruits, using everything they could find.

    Peter Taylor had some great stuff on it, and how the soldiers initially arrived to protect the catholics as well. Course that changed once the IRA started shooting at them!

  • Brendan Heading

    Declan,

    I’m not sure what other way there is to explain this. The IRA gave up its arms and disbanded without having reached the goals that it committed to in the late 60s/early 70s. That is a surrender.

    The IRA did not “blow the British to the negotiating table”. Firstly, we know that IRA violence did not win the IRA’s objectives – if it did, there would be a united Ireland. And secondly, the British were at the negotiating table in 1972. It was the IRA who walked away, and then finally came back. In the 1990s the IRA were offered the same exact same terms that they were offered in the 1970s.

  • Declan Doyle

    Britain said they would never negotiate with ‘terrorists’, they did. Was that a British surrender? Unionists swore they would never allow Dublin to interfere in Northern affairs, they do. Was that a Unionists surrender? Unionists swore they would never talk to Sinn fein, now they willingly chat and share power. Was that a surrender? I think the problem here is that you have a difficulty distinguishing between defeat and stalemate, surrender and compromise.

  • Brendan Heading

    Declan,

    Let’s come at this another way. If the IRA did surrender, by your definition, what would it look like ?

    I’ll help you out. A British surrender would have been to meet the IRAs demands, ie the end of partition and the annexation of Northern Ireland back into the RoI. What would an IRA surrender be ?

  • Declan Doyle

    A surrender might include an admission of Defeat, a willingness to present combatants to the authorities, an acceptance that their efforts where wrong, handing up weaponry to the state forces, a relinquishing of their prime demand, succumbing to the power of the state forces etc. etc.
    Truce, is probably a better description.

    You remind me in many ways of those who used the term IRA ‘I ran away’, to provoke republicans into defending Catholic areas; ultimately leading to the rise of the provisional IRA. In hindsight most reasonable people will assert that it was a silly thing to do at the time. It is just as silly and reckless today.

  • Brendan Heading

    A surrender might include an admission of Defeat

    The IRA did not do this, so I’ll give you that.

    willingness to present combatants to the authorities

    Several republicans have made themselves available to British-appointed investigations. Gerry Adams himself voluntarily attended a police station to answer questions on the murder of Jean McConville.

    handing up weaponry to the state forces

    The IRA disarmed in front of a joint British-Irish appointed disarmament commission.

    succumbing to the power of the state forces etc. etc

    I was in the New Lodge last week and saw several PSNI landrovers on patrol there.

    As for your second paragraph, no thanks, I’d prefer to call a spade a spade. It is for others if they cannot deal with the consequences of this.

  • Declan Doyle

    There has never been an IRA organised hands up delivery of combatants. Adams volunteering to help police with their enquiries is no different to missus Moffat making a statement on what she saw or didn’t see from her kitchen window.

    The British and Irish governments in agreement with the IRA appointed the commision None of whom were forced on the RA, in fact had the IRA surrendered they would have had no choice on who made up the panel, as it is, they did.

    Dunno what u mean by the new lodge comment

  • Giorria

    dont worry we have 6 billion years left until the sun turns into a red supergiant star and we burn up. Plenty of time to get this sorted.

  • Jollyraj

    “sensational bombings”?

    How sad to see that you enjoyed them so much.

  • Declan Doyle

    You clearly do not understand the meaning of “sensational” in that context. Ask someone.

  • Declan Doyle

    – ‘causing intense interest, curiosity, or emotion’

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    I deprecate modern Republicanism…because of its violence ( in the dissident types)and the fact that all factions have abandoned Catholicism for secularism and unrealistic left wing ideologies. However the dissidents do realise that they have no chance of achieving unity through the ballot box.They see that the Irish Republic endorsed partition by removing its claim to the six counties and they perceive a Unionism more confident than ever operating an Orange veto if not an orange state.