Dissident Irish republicans have used Brexit to boost their profiles, promising they will be the ones to attack any new border controls. After years out in the cold men of violence feel people are paying attention to them again.
Brexit cast a spotlight on a region that has been broadly ignored for a decade by the British and international media – now politicians who have never visited the region warn the area is at risk of returning to all out violence.
A recently released dissident who served many years for possession of weapons and bomb components explained, “We are very happy about Brexit. People are talking about a united Ireland.”
When a young New IRA volunteer fired wildly into police lines to impress foreign TV cameras last April, the brilliant young journalist Lyra McKee was killed. The tragedy made clear that the military capabilities of these republicans fall far behind previous generations operating under the name of the IRA.
Their intent however remains unshaken – to destabilise the region with a low level insurgency targeting the PSNI, and bring an end to what they see as “normalisation” of British rule.
At present the New IRA dominates as the most aggressive armed organisation, supported by their political wing Saoradh. The former numbers in the low hundreds with a broader support network suggested to be close to 1000 people.
Saoradh, which follows the tradition of denying its links to an armed wing, is made up of a number of well known republican activists and former prisoners. The group replaced the 32 County Sovereignty Movement for ownership of the main IRA franchise, in a bid to encourage more street level activism.
“Republicanism is rebuilding, Brexit by all accounts has been and continues to be a great difficulty for Britain,” a Saoradh activist explained.
“That’s an opportunity for the Irish people. Journalists wouldn’t be talking about IRA attacks without Brexit, it plays a minor role in the tactics of the IRA, they existed before and they’ll exist after brexit.”
Recent posters erected around Dublin stated “Revolution is the only solution” to homelessness, corruption and other social ills, continuing the trend of political wings veering towards a modern socialism and away from traditional nationalism.
Saoradh can draw hundreds of participants to their commemoration marches across Ireland, which regularly feature paramilitary style displays.
The New IRA was formed in 2012 from the merger of the Real IRA with smaller groups like Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD). Brexit may be the current accelerant but economic stagnation in the region helps them recruit from a young generation of post-Good Friday Agreement republicans.
There are other groups active, but none operating at the same level.
The Continuity IRA have made a resurgence and remain the largest runner up group behind the New IRA, with less than 100 members. They have suffered from serious internal disputes over the last decade and lost many activists through splits and violent feuds.
Their political wing, Republican Sinn Fein is now under the leadership of Seosamh Ó Mhaoileoin (Joseph Malone), a former provisional IRA prisoner and founding member of RSF, though it seems unlikely he can halt a decade of decline within the group.
Another group called the Republican Network for Unity has essentially collapsed and their paramilitary wing, Óglaigh na hÉireann, called a ceasefire in 2018. This removed the third largest organisation from the field of combat.
There has been much speculation by security services as to where disgruntled members of ONH moved to, republicans say it is unlikely they joined the New IRA. Smaller organisations believed to be linked to the collapse have made themselves known but currently are yet to prove any serious military capability.
Despite major headlines warning of the possibility of renewed violence 2019 has once again seen a series of botched operations and failed attempts to kill members of the security services.
Republicans are highly monitored both sides of the border and the names of the leadership of both the NIRA and CIRA are widely known, young activists say they receive constant police attention.
“There is stop and search, house raids, community profiling. This type of policing, you would think it would deter people,” a Saoradh activist complains.
They claim that harassment does not deter them, though it is likely to alienate them from the general public.
“It has the opposite effect, that type of behaviour spurs people on…It’s what’s happening to them, making them join a republican party or an armed grouping.”
The most high-profile republican attack this year was the killing of progressive journalist Lyra McKee in Creggan, Derry, during a night of rioting which the New IRA hoped would show their ability to take on the PSNI.
A young gunman, whose identity is well known in the community, fired directly towards police lines, despite known republicans and the young journalist being stood in the line of fire. A second volunteer collected the bullet casings. They were following a direct order issued by IRA leaders.
Creggan has long been a stronghold for dissident militants, proving a difficult place for the PSNI to even enter without coming under attack, but one disillusioned dissident described the situation as “republicanism in one street” allowing the PSNI to focus heavily on the stronghold.
The attack had been planned as a show of strength to generate headlines off the back of Brexit fears and provide a nearby camera crew with shocking images, instead it revealed the lack of experience of young recruits to carry out even the most basic armed actions.
Despite overwhelming disgust from the public and even protest by the friends and family of Lyra, the New IRA has not struggled to retain or recruit young republicans in the aftermath. A march organised by Saoradh in Dublin just days after the killing saw a few hundred people march in paramilitary style dress through O’Connell street.
A greater risk arises from the ability of the New IRA to carry out bomb attacks, the most significant being the bomb that exploded in a car outside Derry City Courthouse in January. Saoradh revealed it to have been a “large mine attack” but the PSNI called it a “crude and unstable device”, nobody was injured.
One republican activist warns; “On the border roads in Derry there’s cameras that tracks movement and registrations, as recent as 2013 and 14 they were attacked cut down and destroyed simultaneously.”
“If you look at border infrastructure being attacked…any manned installation there would come under attack.”
A viable bomb found in New IRA stronghold Creggan last month shows that despite arrests, infiltration and heavy police surveillance the organisation remains determined to kill police officers. Their ability to acquire new bomb materials is a major barrier to their goals, relying on ageing Provisional IRA dumps.
The Continuity IRA also made a serious attempt to kill police officers at Wattle Bridge in county Fermanagh in August. While PSNI officers and army bomb experts worked to defuse a hoax device – a real bomb exploded nearby. There were no injuries.
They are now claiming to have been behind a failed attempt on the lives of PSNI members in Dunmurry last year and a handful of other attacks using improvised devices, none were successful. The organisation confirmed their list of attempted attacks during a statement to clarify that they were not linked to ongoing criminal activity around Fermanagh.
Both organisations have struggled to maintain internal discipline over the last decade – deadly feuds with criminal gangs and shooting their own members has used up a considerable amount of time and resources as well as damaging their public image.
Dissidents admit privately that the abilities of groups calling themselves the IRA to return Northern Ireland to a state of sustained conflict remains very low.
Threats to destroy outposts would obviously find a higher level of support than shooting journalists or blowing up cars on city centre streets – but the ability of any existing group to carry them through properly should be heavily questioned.
It’s important to remember the Border Campaign (1956 – 62) – an often overlooked part of the IRA’s history. Heavily weakened by security services both sides of the border in the aftermath of WW2, the IRA had found itself reduced to just a few hundred members.
Republicans carried out hundreds of attacks on British infrastructure over the six years but what they called “Operation Harvest” was broadly considered a total failure – with eight republicans killed, six RUC constables dead and hundreds of republicans interned across the island.
Some militarists see this period as vital to keeping the organisation active until the eruption of sectarian and state violence in the late 1960s. However, the same conditions no longer exist, the “Orange State” is gone.
Asked about previous failure to build support through border attacks, dissidents pin their hopes that a strong reaction from British armed forces will provoke a broader conflict.
The dissident paramilitaries take their mandate not from the will of the Irish people, but rather from the long tradition of small groups taking up arms to fight Britain and building support as they go. In the case of the CIRA, they still claim to be the sole legitimate successor of the 1938 army council.
This is convenient because the majority of Irish people still endorse peace in Northern Ireland, and many respected former republican prisoners outside of Sinn Fein also insist that the conditions for armed struggle no longer exist.
Brexit has seriously increased the level of support for a United Ireland at all levels of society and on both sides of the border. In NI the polling stands around 51 to 49 in favour.
Recently Belfast rap group Kneecap made headlines for getting their audiences chanting “Get the Brits out now”. Elsewhere the huge viral Facebook community Ireland Simpsons Fans has become a hotbed of pro-IRA jokes and memes, with English users deridingly referred to as “Tans” (Black and Tans). On Instagram accounts like @Nistagrammed post stylish pictures of paramilitaries from the 80s and 90s, terrorist chic.
This mix of Generation Z nostalgia for an era they never lived through, detached from the horrific consequences of an active conflict, mixed with Britain’s reckless attitude towards the border has certainly re-ingnited a type of republicanism in a new generation, it has not yet been shown if the dissident groups are able to capitalise on this outside of their limited strongholds.
The likelihood of this generation turning to physical force in any serious numbers is extremely low – in Eire they have seen through the gay rights and abortion referendums how to create mass democratic campaigns that can change the entire nature of their society without a single shot being fired. The pro-choice Repeal campaign built strong links across the border to help change the laws in the six counties.
A post-Brexit border poll, which increasingly seems inevitable, if run by this generation could pose a greater risk to the status of Northern Ireland than any armed campaign dissidents could mount.
The question they must solve remains – how to accommodate the rights of Unionists and British people in a United Ireland without repeating the mistakes Britain made in the north.
For dissidents, its a problem they want to avoid; “If loyalists wish to engage in an armed campaign or a sectarian war, we will respond to that in due course. It’s a hypothetical scenario at this stage.”
“The fact is Ireland is changing, multicultural society not just Irish and british, fact is as republicans we strive for a new socialist republic with a working class heart. It doesn’t matter if you identify as Irish or British.”
Brian Whelan is an Irish journalist working in the UK. He has worked across TV, web and print documenting the people drawn into extremist politics.