As noted, the proposed (but postponed) meeting in Toome has sparked off some debate, both about republicans and between republicans. It has also sparked some dialogue between unionists and republicans. Dr. John Coulter has interviewed republicans who are interested in pursuing a “Pan Republican Front”.
Items on the agenda for the Pan Republican Front (PRF) are: organising to oppose Sinn Fein candidates in local elections, in order to give Republicans a choice. As it stands, the electoral choices for Republican voters are limited, to say the least. It is either SF or some form of protest vote, voting for another party to deny SF, or not voting at all. It is suggested the PRF would negotiate directly with unionists. Michael Donnelly, one of the republicans interviewed, elaborates:
“We will not be taking seats in Westminster or in a puppet regime in Stormont, but we would take council seats and that is very likely to happen in Derry. We have supporters from Tyrone, Belfast and Derry who no longer support the Stormont Shinners.
“We hope a separate republican party will emerge after the next council elections. We would negotiate directly with the Unionist community rather than waste time with the British.
“There is no value in talking to the British and there is little reason for this. We want to build an electoral power base to defeat the MI5 led Sinn Fein in the polls and dilute their power base.
“The Pan Republican Front would be a description of what we want to achieve. Three or four years ago, we had an Anti Partition League, but it didn’t take off. If we were to have electoral success, we would take it from there.
“We have never had a problem dealing with Unionists. I came from the era of the civil rights movement and Protestants were involved in that, as well as the housing action campaign in 1968 and ’69. The British deliberately put a wedge between the Protestant and Catholic community.”
The other republican Coulter spoke with continues,
“If we win seats on an abstentionist ticket, we will have public support for a united Ireland and we don’t have to go to Stormont for this. People voted for the SDLP to harm Sinn Fein; now we can encourage them to vote for independent Republicans.
“We want a republicanism which is open, democratic and peaceful. I realise it may take several elections before we achieve this. We want to discuss a strategy of getting into elections and to find people who can negotiate properly with the British. There are people there who don’t know what they are talking about.”
So it seems, contrary to their detractors, those republicans outside of SF do have ideas of alternatives and strategies, where they want to go and how they may get there, and they are willing to work together to hammer them out. They are aware that things won’t happen overnight, and appear to be looking at things in a medium to long term manner. Perhaps the “dissident republican” picture is not as dreary as some would paint it?
“The emergence of the Front represents the most significant political development in republicanism since the formation of Provisional Sinn Fein in the early Seventies.
The Pan Republican Front wants an agenda of talking to Northern Unionists rather than the British Government. The trouble is, while you have active dissidents around your ranks, Unionists will not touch you with their traditional 40-foot barge pole.
Then again, the Front could rightly ask – what is the point in holding out any hand of friendship to Unionists when the DUP won’t do a deal with what the Front has branded the ‘Stormont Shinners’?”
This interview is encouraging on a number of levels. We are seeing dissident republicans articulate alternative strategies to the one promoted by Sinn Fein, albeit in early stages; ‘dissident’ republicans are not reliant on the armed struggle as their defining characteristic or only alternative, and the alternatives emerging from them are taking a non-violent form; it was a Unionist who conducted this interview, which surely is fairly unprecendented? It shows a willingness on the part of Unionists and Republicans to break the mould and engage directly with each other, publicly as well, instead of at each other.
If that spirit continues, it may be the sort of thing that can break the deadlock Coulter touches on above.