Republican activist Des Dalton recently drew both praise and ire from active Republicans for his statement regarding the continuing armed campaign by various groups. And while there has been some discussion on the topic of the justification (or lack thereof) of the campaign, the analyses are incomplete. This piece will not be suggesting that an armed campaign is or is not justifiable, or viable, but rather will highlight that the conditions (vis-à-vis previous campaigns) have changed, and investigate what a new campaign might look like.
Dalton is the latest in a line of active Republicans that have moved to the belief that the current climate is not conducive to armed campaign, and who have paid the price of social expulsion from the more militant-minded. In 2018 the armed wing of the Republican Network for Unity, self-styled “Óglaigh na hÉireann”, suffered a similarly acrimonious break-up, where the armed wing declared a ceasefire, but was disavowed by its political wing, which rejected a ceasefire. A second militant-wing subsequently emerged. Following Dalton’s comments, Republican Sinn Féin in a Facebook post, reiterated the traditional Republican position which reserved the right to use force in pursuit of national sovereignty.
Some back-and-forth has occurred on social media accounts oriented around republicanism, with some stating the atmosphere at present is not conducive to armed actions, and others retorting that such an atmosphere can only be attained through the regularisation of an armed campaign in the first instance, a question of “who fires the first shot if not the person who fires the first shot?”.
Whomever is correct, both sides (the more militant-minded moreso) are making a critical error of analysis, and presume that the choice to enter into campaign will be decided by the Ardcomhairle of one or more Republican groups. However the emergence of such conditions or campaigns rely more on unaffiliated individuals with their own agency than simply the internal machinations of Republican politics.
In the late 1960s the Republican Movement was largely caught off-guard by the sudden and violent rioting and anti-Irish pogroms. This was owing to the belief that agitation through groups like NICRA would succeed in advancing the cause of Republicanism and undermine the Orange state. It was not the policy of the Republican Movement to bring about an armed campaign that started the Troubles (regardless of the motivations of some members of the Army Council, and half-hearted military strategies being developed concurrent with the NICRA strategy), but was instead bounced into it by external factors outside of its control. In the immediate outbreak, the Republican Movement’s defence of Catholic areas was haphazard at best.
It is the belief of this author that any large-scale violence (if such is to be considered inevitable given the intransigence of both Republicans and Loyalists) will be initiated not by Republican groups, but by Loyalist ones. Already we have seen serious attempts at intimidation of port staff, an attack on a West Belfast lorry driver, and the withdrawal of support for the Belfast Agreement by Loyalist gangs.
As the demographic war in the North tilts towards the Nationalists for the first time since Partition, and pressure for a border poll mounts, the pressure will be felt less on Republicans and more on Loyalists. As Loyalists have be wont to warn before: if there is a United Ireland, they fully intend on being an “IRA in reverse.”
The politics of Republicanism will permutate and change with the conditions of Northern society, but so too must it change with the recognition that the next conflict in the North won’t be a rerun of the Troubles.
Republicanism has a clear and definite advantage over Loyalism in terms of ideological underpinning: Republicanism has an end-goal to work towards (a United Ireland) and a sense of inevitability. For Loyalism, its raison d’etre is nothing more than the status quo, a status quo that no longer exists. Britain is riven by a multicultural ethos anathema to Loyalism, and the Union itself is being pushed apart by English nationalism and Scottish separatism. The southern State in Ireland will also suffer ethnic tensions in the coming decades (and already has in places like Balbriggan and Blanchardstown), but the State itself is not under extreme internal pressures to separate in the same way the UK is. There is no “tíocfaidh ár lá” for Unionism, but just a rearguard action for something that no longer exists.
It is this mentality, and an understanding that intellectual debate favours Republicanism, which enables Loyalism to manifest its opposition through violence in ways acceptable to Unionism, but which isn’t acceptable to constitutional Nationalism vis-à-vis Republicanism.
There is, then, a certain onus on those of us with a forward-looking mindset, to consider what that new conflict may look like, so that we can consider the policy implications before such become necessary, rather than policy developing in a reactionary mode.
First we should state why such a conflict will not simply be Troubles 2: Unionist Boogaloo. The modern security State, its surveillance capacity and spyware, make the penetration of active units an almost inevitability. So too does the political atmosphere: neither community will see the initial spurt of growth in activists as was brought on by the mass mobilisation of communities by or in response to NICRA, the pogroms, and violent purges.
Rather the conflict will be fought by a very small number of active members, and primarily through propaganda dissemination. Even fewer active members will be involved in operations, possibly no more than two or three on each operation, and fewer than a hundred or two hundred at any given time across the country.
For Republicans, any return to violence will see them running up against their former comrades who are now the upholders of the statelet’s stability and existence. For Loyalists, they are short on international friends and may in the end be fighting to uphold a status quo that the British State itself is trying to change (if a border poll carries, for instance).
There are two scenarios which are possible: the first is a “flash” war and the second a “slow boil.” The “flash” could be sparked by anything, but the most likely would be a successful border poll, while a “slow boil” could be the gradual ratcheting up of tensions by cyclical inter-communal violence and retaliation. It is my humble opinion that the latter is the more likely until such a point as the slow boil becomes the flash, such as a clash between rival teenagers resulting in a fatality.
Such violence is likely to escalate much faster than it may have historically, and may draw parallels from how rival criminals taunt each other — a video of Loyalists beating an innocent Catholic, or of Republicans beating an innocent Protestant, could spread across social media like wildfire and inflame tensions in a matter of hours. Such taunts would only be likely to get more and more frequent as the conflict heats up and each side seeks to make a mockery of the other (both to demoralise its enemy and mobilise its own community).
In trying to “war-game” the scenario we must consider both sides to be at their most capable, what strategies they would use, what strengths they have, and how they might mitigate their weaknesses.
Geographically such a conflict is unlikely to be as contained within the north-east as the previous conflict: Loyalists may undertake an aggressive campaign to undermine the South’s institutional capacity to govern the North, whilst Republicans may seek to resurrect their effective strategy of targeting economic and industrial centres in England.
Republicans are likely to have the advantage of geography, given the porous nature of the border and their dominance over rural Ulster. Loyalists, pinned overwhelmingly against the sea and in urban areas (save for enclaves in Fermanagh and North Armagh) would find it much harder to flee the jurisdiction, even with sympathetic elements within the British State enabling such strategic or tactical withdrawals.
In terms of communal cohesion, Loyalists are likely to have the advantage over Republicans. Loyalists are simply the more extreme manifestation of Unionism, and Unionism is careful to not disavow its extremists in the same castigating manner which “establishment” “Constitutional Nationalists” will condemn active Republicans. The ethno-centric view of Loyalists would also give them an edge in maintaining tribal loyalty. Whilst Republicans are largely split between “left-republicans” which deny the ethnic component of identity entirely, and an older cadre of “ethno-nationalists” that would recognise such, neither could necessarily countenance sectarian targeting in the same way Loyalism can.
In terms of outside support, the edge is more finely balanced but may tilt towards Loyalists if one supposes that rogue elements of the British security state will back them again. Republicans’ traditional sources of weaponry are largely dried up and sourcing new ones may take time, with rogue elements of the southern military being less likely to provide (or incapable of providing) material aid to Republicans than their British counterparts in the eyes of this author.
The “climate of collapse” (where paramilitary groups need the State’s authority to collapse) and the target of their campaigns differ for both groups, and Loyalism has an edge here. It is unlikely to be Republicans seeking a collapse of State authority this time (even if acknowledging such authority contravenes Republican doctrine), but rather it will be Loyalists seeking to obstruct State-building. Republicans will be largely constrained to targeting Loyalist militants in retaliations, while the Loyalists could conceivably begin an indiscriminate bombing campaign or, worse yet, deliberately target civilians.
Deciding upon targets will largely depend on how the Irish and British governments decide to proceed: if Britain and Ireland jointly enforce the outcome of a border poll, Loyalists may target both. If Britain or Ireland backs out under the threat of violence, Republicans would argue that the resumption of violence on their part to be entirely legitimate, if targeting British forces.
A joint policing operation may seem the most alluring way to defuse both Republican and Loyalist tensions, but this would only be a stop-gap — the core issues of sovereignty would remain unresolved, and would eventually result in one side or the other resuming a campaign.
While it may be plain for all to see the most practical settlement (a federal Ireland with Stormont maintaining significant devolved powers), getting there will still require going through the upheaval, as parties to a conflict will only settle down when they have exhausted each other or achieved supremacy over the other. As neither Loyalism nor Republicanism is likely to become supreme in the North within the next few decades, the path to peace lies through exhaustion.
Just as the Good Friday Agreement was called Sunningdale for Slow Learners, so too will a Federal Ireland need to go through the unfortunate and bloody rigmarole of internecine violence before it can be accepted as a settlement.
One can simply hope that it doesn’t take another thirty years.