Legion of the Rearguard – Dissident Irish Republicanism by Martyn Frampton, Book Review

imageAre you confused about ‘dissident’ Irish Republicanism? Anxious about its existence and its seemingly increasingly deadly capabilities?

Martyn Frampton’s new book, Legion of the Rearguard: Dissident Irish Republicanism (Irish Academic Press, 2011) serves both as a primer on active dissident groups and a timely analysis of their historic significance and contemporary capabilities.

This book clears up much of the confusion about contemporary groups, but offers little by way of consolation regarding their continued resiliency and willingness to resort to violent action.

Frampton is Lecturer in Modern/Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London. Legion of the Rearguard is the most ambitious academic research thus far published on contemporary dissidents.

Frampton draws on his own interviews with prominent dissidents, existing research on dissidents (which he acknowledges has so far mostly ‘been done in the field of journalism’, p. 9), the speeches, documents, websites and publications of dissidents, and official sources such as the reports of the Independent Monitoring Commission.

As a  guidebook on dissident groups, the book is clear and informative.

The work considers the origins, current activities, and the personalities associated with groups such as Republican Sinn Féin, the Continuity IRA, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, the Real IRA, the Republican Network for Unity, and éirígí, among others.

Frampton also highlights the overlapping membership in such groups. Though personalities and some ideological differences keep the groups from cooperating fully, they are all critical of the Adams-McGuinness leadership of Sinn Féin. They see the Good Friday Agreement as a defeat for republicanism and a betrayal of what they thought the Provisional IRA stood for.

Frampton spends a good deal of time considering the ideologies of the dissidents, which he situates in a longer historical context.

The first chapter of the book is on the origins of republicanism. His treatment of the 1916 Rising, including the perspectives of Padraig Pearse and Eamonn de Valera, demonstrates that the dissidents’ hardline stance and uncompromising rhetoric have clear historical antecedents among the founders of the Republic of Ireland.

This is an Irish republican tradition that often has had little respect for democracy, if democracy means respecting what the majority of Irish people want in terms of their political arrangements or the methods they want to use to achieve political change.

Here Frampton builds on the work of ‘revisionist’ historians and political scientists like Tom Garvin at UCD, detailing how men like Pearse felt that their small ‘elite’ understood what the ‘true’ will of the Irish people was – and that it was their duty to act (violently, as it turns out) to achieve it. This rather skewed conception of democracy goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of history as an almost autonomous and inevitable force, which will in the end vindicate the (violent) actions of republicans.

If one takes this longer historical perspective on Irish republicanism, it is not much of a surprise that there are still republicans who think in these terms. Fianna Fail in the Republic and, increasingly, Sinn Féin, have moved away from this version of republicanism – although on occasion they continue to claim and celebrate the heroes of 1916 in a rather uncritical (and, in my view, therefore problematic) way.

Frampton also notes that since the foundation of the Irish Free State there has never been a time when groups espousing this version of republicanism have disappeared entirely.

So, the historical significance of contemporary dissident groups is that they exist. And because they exist, they may in future serve as a resource for violent rebellion against political arrangements on the island of Ireland. This, after all, is the story of the Provisional IRA – a story that is not yet so far buried in the past that we should have forgotten it already.

Finally, Frampton’s evaluation of dissidents’ contemporary capabilities includes a forensic analysis of all of their attacks, which have increased in recent years.

In a valuable appendix titled ‘Timeline of Violent Dissident Republican Activity,’ he charts key events between 1986 and when the book went to press, April 2010.

Through this index, and the main text of the book, Frampton argues that the activities of dissident republicans owe more to the ‘internal dynamics of republicanism’ than to any gains or losses associated with the peace process.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that political stability, in the form of a workable power-sharing executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly, would be the death knell of dissident republicanism – their violent activities have actually increased during times of relative stability.

This seems to be in large part because Sinn Féin’s participation in the Assembly gives dissidents something tangible to rail against – serving as a constant reminder that seats in Stormont is not what republicans fought for during the Troubles.

To conclude, I think this book offers considerable insights on contemporary dissident republicanism. But I was disappointed that Frampton did not spend more time analysing the extent of criminality within dissident republicanism. He considers criminality only briefly, which perhaps skews his analysis of dissident republicanism in favour of their fidelity to ideology.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com

  • AGlassOfHine

    A Notion Once Again for very slow learners !

  • Abu Mikhail74

    Odd that a line from deValera should be used to describe them.

    ‘The historical significance of dissident groups is that they exist’, hmmm, yes…existence, well, that’s the historical significance of Lady Gaga as well, far as I’m aware. I’m nearly sure she exists.

    As for ‘overlapping membership’, d’you mean to say that it’s the same two hundred mad-as-badgers, gimme-back-my-good-field-ya-horrible-orangies Tyrone Jacobites as ten (or twenty) years ago?

    No disrespect to the PSNI lads that have to be up early to check under the car of a morning, but not sure if the People’s Front of Judea should be getting all this attention, really.

  • AGlassOfHine

    I think ‘overlapping membership’ covers the whole alphabet of ira’s.
    Of course the shinners couldn’t possibly comment……

  • Dec

    ‘ I think ‘overlapping membership’ covers the whole alphabet of ira’s.
    Of course the shinners couldn’t possibly comment……’

    I think, therefore I troll.

  • Abu Mikhail74

    Dec, cogito ergo trolli?

  • Neil

    This is an Irish republican tradition that often has had little respect for democracy

    Unlike the British and their planter chums who when they arrived thoroughly respected the democratic wishes of the population.

  • Rory Carr


    You appear to have linked the image of a book different from the one under discussion and may wish to correct your mistake.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Frampton’s folly by Tommy McKearney.

    McKearney’s piece is directed at Frampton’s The Return of the Militants report, but both that piece (available here) and the book are cut from the same cloth (they were released around the same time last year), and McKearney’s criticism is equally as relevant to both.

  • Seems to be the season:
    Inside the IRA, Dissident Republicans and the War for Legitimacy, Andrew Sanders, University College Dublin
    Why did the IRA splinter into several Irish
    Republican Army factions?
    Released Edinburgh University Press.

  • Congal Claen

    “Unlike the British and their planter chums who when they arrived thoroughly respected the democratic wishes of the population.”

    We’re all planters here Neil. We’re also all British and have been for millenia. The Errain, who gave Ireland and the Irish their name, being a British tribe from in and around modern day Bristol.

  • Congal Claen,

    A google search turned up nothing about the Errain. Do you have a link?

  • Nunoftheabove


    Leaving aside the whataboutery, that’s just how low a standard you’d have us hold republicanism to, is it ? No aspirations for anything even slightly higher than that ?

    Despite the rhetoric, it’s purely violent extreme nationalism of an undemocratic – indeed, anti-democratic – type. While no public support is sought – and/or little or none offered – they have all their work still ahead of them to earn the right to be regarded as on nodding terms with the concept of democracy in what I would call ‘real life’. As such, they’re just plain odious. A societal verruca.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Joe,

    I’m afraid it’s wikipedia but here ye go…


  • Thanks Congal. Wikipedia isn’t such a bad place to start a bit of personal research.

  • Congal Claen

    Hi Nun,

    As you say, Irish Republicanism is purely extreme nationalism. Otherwise, Cromwell would be a hero. Instead, Irish nationalism carried on the character assassination by the royalists after the monarchy had been reinstalled.

  • South Belfast Hack

    “Unlike the British and their planter chums who when they arrived thoroughly respected the democratic wishes of the population.”

    I’m sure the native Americans felt as thrilled to see the Irish as the Irish did to see the Planters 😉

  • Decimus

    Unlike the British and their planter chums who when they arrived thoroughly respected the democratic wishes of the population.


    Surely the Planters were British, or is the republican habit of denying their descendants that privilege retrospective?

    Was there a lot of democracy kicking about in the north of Ireland at that time?

  • sonofstrongbow

    The so called ‘dissidents’ are of course nothing more than provos continuing the family business. They use provo (supposedly decommissioned) weapons and employ provo tactics (primarily the under-car booby trap).

    Allegedly they are at daggers-drawn with the Shinners yet although living in the same areas they seem to coexist quite comfortably. The armalite ‘big stick’ wing still provide a useful reminder to others to treat the ballot box wing with care or even more bad things might happen.

  • Decimus

    Allegedly they are at daggers-drawn with the Shinners yet although living in the same areas they seem to coexist quite comfortably.


    Any logical reading of the dissident position would lead one to conclude that their biggest enemies are the Provos. This would be on account of the Provos betraying their cause and surrendering their weapons. Both of which ‘crimes’ would be punishable by death under the purist republican rulebook.

    That they are not actively targetting Provos can be put down to a combination of cowardice, for the Provos might surely strike back, and sectarianism, for the Provos come from the same community as them and the Catholic community up with that would not put. Not to mention the fact that it would delight their Protestant enemies. Much easier to target Catholic policemen who find it impossible to live cheek by jowel with republicans in their parochial fiefdoms.

    We should not however make the mistake of thinking that they are on friendly terms.

  • aquifer

    “I was disappointed that Frampton did not spend more time analysing the extent of criminality”

    No exams equality forms to fill no assessment centres no tax to pay, a big cut of the local petrochemical industry, sales of counterfeit computer games and pop CDs, and a growing opportunity to levy protection money from drug dealers. There is money in remaining a sectarian irish separatist. Just nod along with the old revolutionary ditties and keep the fat wad in your back pocket.

    This political pyramid selling scheme has a sound cash basis.

    At least the loyalists spare us the political pretentions.

    And now we learn that the Republics tax ‘authorities’ have still not got a grip on the diesel gangsters. Are they having difficulty in disentangling a former state policy on funding violent separatism from current criminality?

  • IrelandNorth

    Am I right in assuming that the term “dissident” was originally coined in a religious context, specifically in relation to dissident Jews in ancient Israel. How do we account for its co-optation to describe essentially political activity, not least repubicanism, which was originally anti-clerical in perspective, at least in the French model. Since when is republicanism a belief system or faith. Moreso, who decides who is dissident and who is not. Republican orthodoxy, or neo-republican/proto-unionism? Or is dissident repubicanism equivalent to dissenting Christianity?

  • IrelandNorth

    Any correlation in the following sequence of events?
    “Unionists would accept a united Ireland if it were under the Crown” (Rev. Dr. Ian Richard Kyle Paisley/-Lord Althurst) – British Exchequer’s parsimonious loan to Government of Ireland – EIIR’s spring visit to southern Ireland – Taoiseach’s spat with The Holy See/Closure of Vatican Embassy – “We should consider [re]joining the [British] Commonwealth [of Nations], if such was the price of a united Ireland.” Dep. Gay Mitchell before Prime Time debate.”

  • IrelandNorth

    Reactionary elements within the southern political establishment (and their press/media collaborators), to paint NI Joint First Minister as some kind of hybrid Genghis Khan/Pol Pot taught me a very bitter lesson. The southern political establishment are probably as unenthusiastic about a United Ireland as 1m Ulster-Scot unionist/loyalist Prods (20% of the islands pop.). As big fish in a small state pond, they’d rather not become even smaller fish in a slightly larger national pond. Neo-parochial cabbage-patch repubicanism.

  • The only dissidents at present in Irish Republicanism are the Provisional Movement who chose to move away from core Socialist-Republican principles towards Constitutional Politics…

    The remainder of Irish Republican groups and Parties who uphold these values cannot be declared as dissident…

  • Skinner

    If by “core Socialist-Republican principles” you mean killing people unnecessarily and ignoring the will of Irish people, then yes, perhaps by moving away from that the Provisional Movement are the dissident republicans. You say that like it’s a bad thing.

  • IrelandNorth

    An Uachtaran Micheal D[aniel] O h’Uiginn’s last speech to Dail Eireann is worth watching on YouTube in the context of socialism vs. nationalism (or proletariat vs bourgeoisie respectively). Didn’t Marx say that “… all struggle is class struggle.” Only trouble was, the Dail chamber was virtually empty, possibly because establishment deputies were away looking after their extensive real estate portfolios. Strip away the veneer of religion and nationality and you are left with material identity – working class or capitalist class.

  • IrelandNorth

    But having said all that, I would go further and say that the purest form of liberation is subjective or existential. If you are not free psychologically (even from the tyranny of ideologies!), you’r e not really free at all. Subjective sovereignty is where the real action is. If you’re free in your heart and your head, you’re totally free. And anti-clericalists please note, there was an original form of generic ‘Christianity’ called gnosticism, before orthodoxy highjacked it for it’s own spiritual imperialist ends. As contemporary English gnostic author quotes: “Religion was the devil’s greatest achievement.” So assume the lotus position, calm the discursive mind, and chant (OM!) you way to existential and subjective oblivion. Jesus would have liked it that way?!

  • IrelandNorth

    Try these epithets for size. Wise man (Buddah) say: “Lisbon is illusion. Vote no to Samsara!”
    Or, 17 th. century persecution escapee, Rosicrucian Angelus Silesius: “Die [subjectively] before you die [physically], so that you do not die [spiritually] when you die [physically], and thus be deprived of eternal life. Amen!” (This original quote has been elsewhere attributed to St. Augustine and/or Sr. Faustina (?)
    “Those who say you will die and reborn are in error. If you do not first receive the resurrection while you live, when you die, you will receive nothing.” Gospel of Philip.

  • Dissidents thrive on the border , it is their raison d’être and will always enhance their capabilities , I voted against the GFA because it did not deal specifically with the border issue , leaving it to a poll that may not occur in my lifetime . I’m not talking about Irish unity here far from it , unionists could have negotiated with the Irish government to make the border more meaningless witHout the involvement of republicans but instead chose the internalized NI solution with SF . All Ireland presidential elections would be a start , I’m sure some Protestants would participate , visible co-operation between health services , fire depts. and farming organisations along the border would go along way to negate the harmful effects that the invisible line perpetrates