Shock at 'dissident' support

Public support for so-called ‘dissident’ republican groups has been significantly underestimated by the Irish political and media establishment, according to academic research published on Thursday.

One in six nationalists sympathise with the armed campaigns of the breakaway IRA groups, the new survey concludes.

Prof Jonathan Tonge of Liverpool, an established author on Irish affairs, presented his findings in a paper at Queen’s University in Belfast on Thursday morning.

The research was carried out across all 18 constituencies in the Six Counties in the wake of the Westminster election in May.

Respondents were asked: “Do you have sympathy for the reasons why some republican groups (such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA) continue to use violence?”

Roughly one in twelve of all respondents said they did have sympathy, which equates to about one in six of the nationalist community.

Of all respondents, 7.8 per cent said they either liked or strongly liked Republican Sinn Fein while 3.8 per cent liked or strongly liked the 32-County Sovereignty Movement.

Both organisations oppose the new political and policing institutions. Neither currently has political representation in the North.

Most of the northern media organisations have avoided reporting the survey, which has sharply challenged their editorial lines.

“When you break it down, this support is coming from young males under 35 - it quite clearly comes out in the data,” said Prof. Tonge.

Prof Tonge’s research also found that one in four nationalists either opposed the PSNI outright, or found little difference between the new police force and the former RUC from which it was formed in 2001.

“The starkest finding was that Catholics do not see the dissidents as a threat,” he said.

“Only 14 per cent of them see them as a major threat, whereas 53 per cent of Protestants do see dissidents as a major threat.”

He said he would have expected dissident support levels of 2 or 3 per cent among respondents.

“They were distinctly asked this in face-to-face interviews,” he said. “It is one thing having bravado in an anonymous questionnaire survey, but these were face-to-face.”

He said the survey was designed to test the commonly expressed declaration by the mainstream media that 99.9 per cent of people did not support dissident republican opposition to the new Stormont institutions and the PSNI.

“That is why we put the questions in. We were surprised [at the results]”, said Prof. Tonge.

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