The murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in Omagh by dissident republicans at the beginning of April was just the latest deadly instalment in their increasingly dangerous campaign.
The Continuity IRA, with roots in a 1986 split in the Provisional movement, was the first major group to challenge Sinn Féin’s gradual abandonment of armed struggle. The most “traditional” of the armed groups, it claims the direct lineage of the Provisional Government of 1916. In the past it has dabbled with pan-Celtic nationalism and “third way” distributist theories derived from Catholic social teachings.
However, by all accounts it is newer groups spearheading the latest upsurge in violence.
The Real IRA emerged in the months leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, and although it was once debilitated by arrests and informers, it claimed the Massereene Barracks shootings (March 2009) and is believed to be behind a spate of disruptive car bombs in Derry.
Since 2009 a group called Óglaigh na hÉireann, a splinter from the RIRA, has been responsible for critically injuring another Catholic police officer and the scale of its operations indicate a level of expertise probably attributable to the presence of former Provisional IRA members in its ranks.
The Kerr murder was claimed by a “new” IRA also believed to be comprised of former Provisionals.
These defections and regroupings reflect a growing awareness that the Sinn Féin political strategy is unlikely to lead to a United Ireland.
In the last decade, Sinn Féin has subtly managed to shift its emphasis from “Brits Out” to the more reformist demand of equality for Catholics within Northern Ireland.
Although the flagrant civil injustices of the old Stormont state have been redressed and, as Sinn Féin spokespersons are keen to point out, the “Orange State” is gone, the pursuit of the civil rights agenda was never really what motivated the Provisional IRA or its volunteers. A shift in emphasis poses little or no problem for Sinn Féin in terms of building electoral support. Indeed, in abandoning many republican ideological positions (especially regarding the police) in pursuit of the equality agenda, Sinn Féin has reaped electoral dividends. But it has also led to defections to rival groups advocating armed struggle.
Although Martin McGuinness can point to the large trade union demonstrations against the latest murder as evidence that the dissidents have little mass support, he is well aware that physical force republicanism has never sought a democratic mandate. It derives its legitimacy from elsewhere — from a particular reading of the 1916 Easter Rising and a one-sided narrative of Irish history. Talk of democratic mandates or mass support misses the point when we are dealing with what amounts to a modern-day carbonarism.
Despite some political nuances, the dissident groups all share a fetishism of physical force and stale mid-70s Provisional rhetoric. As such, their similarities outweigh their differences and geographical rather than ideological factors are probably more important in distinguishing them.
They are characterised either by ideological eclecticism or an almost apolitical militarism.
When in the summer of 2010 the RIRA opportunistically adopted a radical posture on the Irish financial crisis, their solution — damaging a branch of Ulster Bank in Derry — was indicative of a lack of any wider political perspective.
It is probably true to say you can fill the vessel of physical force republicanism with any social programme, and even radical or “socialist” proposals are conceived as instruments to build support for the national struggle rather than using elements of the national struggle to build for socialism.
Nevertheless, these groups are dangerous and they show little sign of abandoning their futile campaign.