By Suzanne Breen (for the Sunday Tribune)
The image of the typical dissident republican protesting against the queen’s visit to Ireland next year is clearcut. It’s either an ex-IRA combatant, too old and too bitter to let go of ancient grievances, or a Celtic-shirted yob with a brick in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other.
A softly-spoken student from a middle-class Co Kerry family, Noirin Nic an Bhaird (21), doesn’t fit the stereotype. But her staunch opposition to the British monarch’s visit is unmistakeable.
“Queen Elizabeth is coming to Ireland as commander-in-chief of the British armed forces who occupy our country,” Nic an Bhaird says. “There are 5,000 British troops and a huge MI5 base in the North mounting big brother-style surveillance on nationalists.
“The queen personally pinned medals on the Paras who murdered 14 unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday. She has never said she was wrong, let alone she was sorry, for that. MI5 is still up to its neck in dirty tricks in the North. Under British law, anyone up North can be detained for 28 days without trial. A state visit by the queen is an attempt to normalise British occupation and partition. No self-respecting country could contemplate this visit.”
Although seven months pregnant and completing an Irish and media studies course at college, Nic an Bhaird is busy organising a poster campaign against the royal visit, a petition, and a series of protests across Kerry - one took place at Listowel races last weekend. “We’re out to make as much noise as possible,” she says.
She is a member of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, which security sources regard as the Real IRA’s political wing, a claim the group denies. “I joined the Sovereignty Movement two years ago. My parents were Sinn Fein voters but I don’t come from a particularly republican family.
“I was interested in Irish history at school but felt the reasons for armed struggle continuing in the North were glided over. I went looking for answers on the internet and found the Sovereignty Movement. We have a large cumann in north Kerry and we’re starting one in south Kerry.”
To the overwhelming majority of Irish youth, joining a dissident republican group is hardly an attractive option. Nic an Bhaird disagrees: “The Sovereignty Movement has strong principles which we won’t compromise. Irish society needs that now more than ever. Of course, you get hassled by the Special Branch. You’re followed in the street and your name and photo is taken by the guards at protests. But it doesn’t put me off.”
Many business leaders are strongly behind the queen’s visit, citing commercial and tourist benefits. Sean O’Driscoll of the Kerry branch of the Irish Hotels Federation reckons it will generate more publicity than a [euro]20m marketing campaign. “Well, it won’t be very good publicity if there are riots wherever the queen goes,” Nic an Bhaird says.
Although the vast majority of young people becoming politically active in the south join mainstream parties, militant republican groups are gaining more recruits than is generally recognised and the royal visit is energising them.
UCD student Paul Stewart (20) is another Sovereignty Movement member who will be taking part in the protests. He was four years old when the Provisional IRA declared its ceasefire so what attracts him to dissident republicanism?
“I’m from a council estate in Sligo and I became interested in republicanism as a kid.
“When I was 12 I thought Gerry Adams was God. But I’ve seen how the Provos sold out and accepted British rule. Sinn Fein has no credibility. They may join the protests at the queen’s visit but they’re hypocrites. They sit in a British parliament at Stormont so she’s their head of state.”
He denies he is being used by others: “It’s annoying when young people like me who join what are called ‘dissident’ republican groups are portrayed as cannon fodder exploited by ‘godfathers’. Credit us with a brain. I wasn’t manipulated into anything. I made a conscious decision to join the Sovereignty Movement. Suggesting I didn’t is condescending.”
Stewart’s opposition to the royal visit is based on both traditional republican and left-wing reasons: “This jaunt will cost the Irish taxpayer [euro]8m in security costs. At a time when the government is borrowing [euro]50m a day just to keep the state afloat, it’s economic madness that we’re expected to pay for Mrs Windsor to prance around.”
To its supporters, the royal visit is a courageous act of symbolism showing that Ireland and Britain, nationalism and unionism, are finally at peace. “They aren’t,” claims Stewart. “This isn’t like the German president visiting Israel - there is no conflict between Germany and Israel.
“But the British are still occupying Ireland, and republican volunteers are still resisting them and being put in jail. It’s unfinished business. No British monarch will be welcome here until the British withdraw, pay reparations, and apologise for what they’ve done to our country.”
To wider Irish society, dissident republican protestors cling to the past. “It’s the royal family who are archaic,” says Stewart. “A parasitic elite surviving on hereditary privilege should be repugnant to anyone progressive. Those who have invited Mrs Windsor, and those who welcome her, are the real dinosaurs.”
He rejects the argument that the royal visit will help reconcile Catholics and Protestants in the North: “The whole roots of the British monarchy are sectarian. The Act of Settlement bars a monarch from marrying a Catholic. Supporters of the royal visit can’t lecture us on sectarianism.”
The last British monarch to visit Dublin was King George V in 1911. Crowds lined the streets - some cheering, others protesting and most just observing the spectacle. The largest rally was held by the IRB when Countess Markievicz addressed a 30,000-strong crowd. Opponents of Elizabeth II’s visit will certainly not attract such numbers.
Stewart says: “The Dublin bourgeoisie will welcome the queen but the media will be surprised by the number of ordinary working people, particularly young people, who protest.
“Dublin did us proud during the Love Ulster rally. The gardai will probably try to beat us off the streets. I wouldn’t be surprised if key republicans are arrested and detained before the visit. The Sovereignty Movement isn’t going out for trouble but, if it happens, we will stand by the people of Dublin. We won’t run away.”
The socialist republican political party Eirigi is to the fore in organising against the royal visit. Its chairperson Brian Leeson hopes several thousand people will take part in protests. “The reception Tony Blair received in Dublin will be considered warm to the welcome the queen will get,” he says.
“We’re currently delivering 35,000 leaflets against the visit across the city and our message is going down well. Regardless of what the establishment claims, there’s no great love out there for Elizabeth Windsor. Her visit will touch a raw nerve.
“But whether there are 10 people on the streets protesting or 10,000, it’s the right thing to do. Female suffrage and equal opportunities for people regardless of sexual orientation weren’t initially popular but they were right.”
Leeson says the scale of the protests will depend on where the queen visits: “If they fly her in by helicopter to somewhere remote like Glencree reconciliation centre in Wicklow or Lismore Castle in Waterford - places which can be secured easily and aren’t near large population centres - then the protests will be smaller.
“But such an itinerary would be a victory for protestors. It would mean the political establishment is running scared. Their preferred option is to have her in Dublin Castle, Aras an Uachtarain, or addressing Leinster House. They want a full state visit to the capital.”
Leeson (36) from Dublin is a former Sinn Fein national organiser who left the party four years ago saying he was disillusioned with its “abandonment of core republican and left-wing principles”.
So is Eirigi attracting young Southerners? “I’m not claiming we’re experiencing phenomenal growth but we’re enjoying a steady flow of young recruits. It’s not just ex-Sinn Fein activists getting involved; many new members have never been in another party.”
While Eirigi’s main reason for opposing the queen’s visit is the North, Leeson says the British Army’s involvement in current foreign conflicts is also fundamental: “Having endured colonisation, Irish people have an affinity with the occupied people of Iraq and Afghanistan.” He predicts that the queen’s visit will be preceded by the President visiting Britain: “Mary McAleese will be warmly welcomed there and we’ll be told to show manners and do the same for the queen here. But it’s different - Ireland isn’t occupying six English counties.”
Philip Forsythe from Dun Laoghaire is organising the Sovereignty Movement’s protests in Dublin. In 1998, when he was 25, he was one of five Real IRA members arrested during an attempted armed robbery in Ashford, Co Wicklow. The sixth member, Ronan MacLochlainn, was shot dead by gardai.
Forsythe was sentenced to seven years in jail but on being released from Portlaoise prison immediately became politically active: “I never thought of walking away from republicanism. I deeply regret what happened Ronan MacLochlainn but it didn’t put me off involvement in the republican struggle.”
He says the Sovereignty Movement has cumainn in North, South and West Dublin, and young people “fed up with politicians selling them out like the idea that we aren’t a political party and don’t contest elections”.
Forsythe (36) claims Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour politicians who support the queen’s visit have double standards: “They’ll be out in 2016 to honour the Easter Rising leaders. Yet James Connolly, Countess Markievicz and Tom Clarke opposed the 1911 royal visit. Countess Markievicz was arrested during the protests.”
Forsythe quotes Connolly denouncing the royal family for having ‘opposed every forward move, fought every reform, persecuted ever patriot and befriended every oppressor’: “Can you imagine him rolling out the red carpet for Mrs Windsor? Mainstream politicians lay claim to the legacy of republican leaders while conveniently forgetting their words and actions.”
Forsythe claims the queen’s visit should be opposed not just because of the North but because of British intelligence’s alleged involvement in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings in which 33 people were killed.
Many Irish people - including republicans - support English football teams, follow British bands, and watch British TV. Opposing the queen’s visit could be seen as hypocritical. “Look, we’ve nothing against ordinary English people. They’re always welcome in Ireland,” Forsythe says. “But for us to welcome the head of a state which still occupies part of our country would be the height of humiliation.”