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
Have been a journalist in Northern Ireland since 1978. Worked in past for BBC Radio Ulster. Former Education Correspondent at News Letter. Served as local weekly newspaper deputy editor in Larne and editor in Carrickfergus as well as PR director in private health sector. Have been in journalist and media training since 1993 while freelancing with various print, broadcast and online outlets. Have co-written books on media and politics as well as being sole author of ebook on Irish republicanism. Am on Facebook and Twitter @JohnAHCoulter