How the Irish border between the six counties of the North of Ireland and the twenty-six counties of the Irish republic will operate post-Brexit is not just a sticking point in the current Brexit negotiations, it is an issue, which if not resolved, could be the catalyst to a rise in sectarian violence between republicans and loyalists in the North resulting in new Irish Troubles.
This observation is not one of being alarmist, there is already a rising undercurrent of discontent in the North. This is exemplified in the rise of a relatively new Irish republican party, Saoradh. Formed in September 2016and backed by New IRA (NIRA) prisoners held in Mughaberry and Portlaoise prisons Saoradh held its first ard fheis in Newry that month. Those who gathered at this first ard fheis (and who subsequently became Saoradh’s member’s and supporters) included those who were associated with the Republican Network for Unity, 32 County Sovereignty Movement (closely aligned with the former Real IRA) and the 1916 societies. Saoradh supporters include notorious members of the IRA in its various forms such as Colin and Paul Duffy. Messages of support were read out from the founder of the Provisional IRA, Billy McKee and Saoradh’s first chairman, David Jordan from Tyrone, was a republican dissident and former prisoner.
Saoradh claims to be solely a revolutionary republican party with no connection to republican paramilitary groups, stating its main aim is to introduce a socialist agenda to support the working class by creating an Irish Socialist Republic, not just in the North but in the whole of Ireland. The party’s main issues include:
1. The end of British imperialist rule in the North;
2. The end of power sharing at Stormont and an end to the Good Friday Agreement;
3. The end of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that the party refers to as the Royal Ulster Constabulary/PSNI.
In essence Saoradh supports armed conflict in the North and refers to republican paramilitary prisoners as prisoners of war. David Jordan was charged with the attempted murder of a PSNI officer in Castlederg, Tyrone in 2008, with those charges being dropped by the Public Prosecutors’ Office in October 2016.
While the language Saoradh uses is similar to that used by Sinn Fein during the Troubles, the party is highly critical of Sinn Fein, seeing them as having sold out the republican cause by participating in political institutions such as the Assembly at Stormont (albeit Sinn Fein still maintain an abstentionist stance with Westminster). Saoradh sees the Stormont Assembly as a ‘partitionist assembly’ and does not recognise it, even though the current impasse between Sinn Fein and the DUP has resulted in the Assembly being suspended since 2017!
While no doubt many will see Saoradh as a minor party of little significance, support for the party was seen in the Bogside riots in July 2018, activity in the Creggan, Derry in April 2018 that led to arrests and also in April 2018 Saoradh organised in Belfast an ‘unfinished revolution’ march where many were dressed in republican paramilitary dress.
Returning to Brexit and the Irish border, Saoradh’s leaders told researchers from Queen’s and Ulster University that Brexit was, ‘manna from heaven from our perspective’. Another of Saoradh’s leaders, Patrick Courty, told its supporters at an Easter Rising commemoration in 2018:
‘Brexit has the potential to break up the British state … with the inevitable infrastructure of a hard border imminent, this will drive home to the Irish people the partition of our country … and as history teaches us it wild inevitably stoke the fires of resistance against British rule in Ireland.’
The warning signs are there and although the focus here has been on dissident republicanism, should Saoradh influence republican based violence, such violence will be swiftly reciprocated by Loyalist paramilitary violence. The UK government should be awake to this development as it is too important to marginalise as irrelevant or worse, ignore it. As seen in the UK government’s position regarding the Irish border issue in the Brexit negotiations the signs are not good. A consequence of not having an overall majority in the House of Commons is the UK government in being a minority government it is being held to ransom on this issue by the DUP MP’s in Westminster. The perspective the current UK government’s view has on the North of Ireland is not perceived by its population and some of Britain’s population as being positive and concerned with the issues affecting the Province. This is not helped with the appointment of Karen Bradley as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who on appointment admitted to only having limited knowledge of the North. This ministerial position should be reviewed by the current Prime Minister who should now look for someone who has a good knowledge of Irish history, Northern Irish politics and social issues. This is a country that is suffering the most in the UK especially in the western counties of Derry and Tyrone where there is widespread poverty, high unemployment, poorer standards of social housing and healthcare as well as a lack of investment in the area regarding both its infrastructure and in encouraging new business. A Northern Ireland minister who is aware of these issues could do more to assist in these areas as well as work on breaking the impasse between Sinn Fein and the DUP in the Assembly at Stormont so elected representatives can pass legislation and work towards improving the lives of all Northern Irish people. If this is not done then it simply plays into the hands of the paramilitaries on both sides and their political parties like Saoradh who will spark more widespread paramilitary violence once more.
The lessons of the 1960’s must be learnt to stop the rise of extremist groups and paramilitary support in the North as ambivalence towards the North of Ireland in Westminster could result in the country suffering another period of violence.
Some of these issues are covered in my book ‘Terrorism: Law and Policy’ that was published in March 2018 by Routledge