By Bill Delaney
Anyone who is surprised that “the dissidents” are still actively fighting will have had their head in the sand for the past number of years. And, of course, they are certainly not reading this.
But what was surprising about this week’s events was the ambition marked out by the physical-force republicans, particularly in the attack at Massereene.
Once dismissed as an irrelevancy, a footnote in the great British order of things, “the dissidents” have managed to at least change the political context.
If their goal was to restore the primacy of armed struggle, of course, they did not succeed.
But the most striking aspect of the past week was the speed which the old and familiar order reasserted itself. A torrent of anti-republican abuse, unchanged in tone, colour, content or tenor since the seventies, once again filled the media.
The politics of condemnation re-emerged, alive and well, and undoubtedly as useless and counter-productive as it has always been. The anguish over attacks against British forces on Irish soil clashed madly with their apparent acceptability in the Middle East.
The enigmatic, Castro-like figure of Ruairi O Bradaigh kept a low profile -- only to point to the single, irrefutable fact that some people in Ireland will always take up arms against a British force of occupation.
So as the tabloid gurus of the establishment chased around for a hate figure, they found only a slighly bemused Gerry Adams, who was declared to have expressed insufficient public outrage. Take note: thought-crime has returned.
The week was, in many ways, a defining moment for republicans everywhere, and Adams managed to emerge with with a response that was considered and logical.
By contrast, the denunciations of ‘traitors’ by Martin McGuinness -- as he stood at Stormont, surrounded by the symbols and the embodiment of British rule in Ireland -- was over the top.
McGuinness’s comments have probably driven many former supporters into the “dissident” camp.
But all of these events have served to crystallise a quantum shift in Irish politics.
Aspirational republicanism has gradually moved to a new, downsized home in Sinn Fein, now standing with arms linked in opposition to the tradition of physical-force republicanism.
And as Fianna Fail reaps the whirlwind after decades of corruption, mainstream nationalism is increasingly Sinn Fein’s constituency. It is now the party to carry the hopes (but not the expectation) of some future act of British generosity.
Clear blue water has emerged between a significant fraction of the unrepentant republican base and Sinn Fein, which is moving on to fresher pastures. But that party now risks becoming bound up in new contradictions, an ideological medley of socialists and centrists, of “fellow travellers” and “post nationalists”.
But what of “the dissidents”? Where are their spokesmen, so the public at least has someone appropriate to hate?
Readers probably do not require any history lessons. But, at the risk of pedantry, it is worth remembering that Sinn Fein spokesmen arrived on the scene many years later than the Provisional IRA. Back then, the IRA factions -- both of them -- were almost as reviled and marginalised as the “dissidents” are today.
Indeed, well before that, the Border Campaign was carried on in the relative taboo of 1950’s Ireland, after Fianna Fail had abandoned any practical opposition to partition.
So don’t hold your breath. Indeed, spokesmen of any kind are undoubtedly viewed in a poor light by the current crop of “dissidents”.
Which brings me to the ‘d’ word. We may as well enjoy it, for the time we have left of it.
Because if the pattern of Irish history is to be repeated, the “dissidents” may have already begun the journey into the “mainstream”.
Wolfe Tone was a “dissident”, Bobby Sands was a “dissident”, Padraig Pearse was a “dissident”, James Connolly was a “dissident”. And once upon a time, and he must remember this, Martin McGuinness was a “dissident”.
So if the political establishment means to deploy the usual tactics of repression, compromise and assimilation, it had better not waste time and lives.
Let them save their propoganda, security crackdowns, death squads, and the likes of the SAS. We already know how that scenario works out.