No matter how repulsive you might find his response to what could have been a double-murder of a woman and a child, Connolly’s position reflects traditional republicanism and its attitude towards the security forces. It also, paradoxically, illuminates the central problem facing mainstream republicans, particularly Sinn Fein: the durability of ideology.
Last Tuesday evening, the other leader of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness, dismissed the republican dissidents as either a collection of criminals, MI5 agents, or simply the deluded.
McGuinness painted this picture of the Real IRA, Oghlaigh na hEireann, or Continuity IRA after a third botched booby-trap bomb attack, this time against a former policeman in Cookstown.
It is undoubtedly true that some dissidents fund their activities via criminality (for all republican movements it was ever thus); there is no doubt that the security services must have penetrated these anti-ceasefire groups at some level and, as history shows, any ‘armed struggle’ is in the long run doomed to failure, with those that prosecute it either leading to Maghaberry prison or possibly even Milltown cemetery.
However, it is an uncomfortable fact that many of those signing up to join these organisations are volunteers driven by a sense of ideological commitment to the cause of a united Ireland, rather than any personal gain.
They have been reared in a culture where the memory of men in masks brandishing guns to advance political causes is still revered. They were told from the time some of them were on their mother’s knees about ‘freedom’s sons’, the ‘glorious dead’, the recalcitrant minorities, those still attached to he ‘legion of the rearguard’, who kept the flame of armed republicanism alive even in times when Ireland seemed to be leaving its violent past behind.
There was also an interesting CommentisFree post recently on Sinn Féin’s criticism of “disillusioned” republicans.
Those who negotiated the Stormont agreement, and whose reputations and endorsements insured its public support, claimed that their deal would be a stepping stone or transition to a united Ireland. They claimed that by accepting British rule and the unionist veto, by joining the British Stormont assembly, and forming a partnership with the unionist bloc, they would bargain away the sectarian injustices underpinning British rule. Republicans would march to a united Ireland through Stormont. Predictions were made as to the date of this historic achievement, from Joe Cahill‘s claim of 2003, to the less ambitious, but wildly unrealistic, claims of 2016.
The term dissident was applied in general parlance to encompass, in broad terms, those Republicans who did not accept this analysis and advanced a Republican alternative to this strategy. The dissidents believed that the agreement would not lead to a united Ireland but was actually designed to consolidate British rule. Their numbers included many veteran Republicans and ex-prisoners who had risked much and suffered much in the struggle, and for whom it was heartbreaking to walk away at a time when it was becoming easy, and for some financially beneficial, to be a Republican.
There’s more than one flavour of dissenter, of course.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are disillusioned, and dissenting, republicans out there.
A couple of days ago I uncovered a lengthy New York Times article by John Lloyd from 1999 which includes the arguments being made then by non-dissenting republicans.
The most important of [then Sinn Féin chairman Mitchell] McLaughlin’s hard facts, and the main cause of Sinn Fein self-confidence, is what he believes to be a reversal of the Protestant majority. ”The dynamic in the political process is the demography of this place. The unionist community is weakening. The demographics favor the nationalist community.”
There is some debate on this, but trends do seem to point his way: many students at Queens University, Northern Ireland’s oldest, are now Catholic, and student politics are dominated by an abrasive republicanism. It is widely assumed that the Catholic birth rate remains higher (though it has dropped sharply in the South), and it may be that there are already as many Catholic teenagers as Protestant ones. Young Protestants seem to emigrate in greater numbers than Catholics. The signs look good for Sinn Fein — if, as McLaughlin does, you equate Catholicism with a vote for parties that aspire, sooner or later, to Irish unity.
McLaughlin presented Sinn Fein as an indefatigable advocate for peace: ”We want to show all those who use arms that we can achieve our aims through political methods. We need to demonstrate to the I.R.A. that the peace process is bringing forward change. If it is not through an assembly, then the British and Irish governments must do it. But it must come.”
The Sinn Fein position is thus clear. It is not embracing political methods for themselves, but insofar as they deliver a united Ireland. Since the Catholic population is expanding faster than the Protestant-Unionists’, Sinn Fein eventually will triumph simply through the ballot box.
And, from the same article
The Catholic community’s natural leader is Breandan MacCionnaith (pronounced McKenna), who served time in jail in the 1980’s for firearms possession and auto theft and who is now chairman of the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Committee. This is the central civic organization in an area of new houses built in the 1970’s, largely to accommodate people from Belfast, many of whom had been burned out of mixed areas by loyalist gangs. In his little office in a community center, surrounded by an imposing metal fence, MacCionnaith radiates a similar self-confidence to [McLaughlin’s], for similar reasons: “‘Nationalists are now 42-43 percent of the community; people say it will be 50-50 in the next 10 years. The unionist people must prepare themselves for that.”
“…the straight-talking statisticians at the census office metaphorically ripped off Santa’s beard last Thursday and exposed the ‘Count the Catholics’ theory as a fake.”
Whilst Mitchell McLaughlin remains within Sinn Féin, as an MLA, Breandan MacCionnaith resigned as a Sinn Féin adviser in April 2007, and he’s now the general secretary of the dissenting republican group éirígí.