Ben Lowry: The dissidents have little support but there is some succour for them

Eamon O'Cuiv, who has condemned dissident violence but repeatedly aired their grievances
Eamon O'Cuiv, who has condemned dissident violence but repeatedly aired their grievances
Share this article

This week Adrian Ismay became the latest person to lose their life to a fanatical republican ideology.

The good news is that few people now die in this way compared to 20+ years ago.

Almost everyone on the island of Ireland spurns the current violence.

The Provisional campaign had much more support than the current dissident one, but even PIRA was clearly rejected by the community on behalf of which it purported to fight, northern nationalists.

In the first major Province-wide election contested by Sinn Fein, the 1982 Assembly, nationalists were divided almost two to one in favour of the SDLP (119,000 to 64,000 which is a 65:35 split).

That poll took place a year after the hunger strikes, and yet even amid raised tensions the IRA’s political wing fell far short of majority support among N.Ireland Catholics.

The figures are even more stark than the 65:35 suggests. If 20% of the Alliance vote in 1982 was Catholic (I suspect it was higher than that) and if almost all of the Workers Party vote was so, then 70%+ of NI Catholic voters repudiated Sinn Fein in 1982.

In any event, a vote for Sinn Fein did not necessarily mean support for the IRA, so support for Provisional violence was lower even than the Sinn Fein election tallies.

In every other big group in the electorates, north of south of the border, Sinn Fein support was negligible – including voters in the Republic.

Whatever way you crunch the numbers, PIRA terror lacked public support, except in republican enclaves.

Backing for the dissidents is much lower even than that and has resulted in no electoral success beyond a handful of council candidates who have polled respectably.

There are, however, troubling indications of a degree of ambivalence towards them. In 2010, we reported a University of Liverpool survey that showed that 14% of nationalists have “some sympathy” with dissident motives.

Professor Jon Tonge told the News Letter: “One of the mantras of the peace process is that ‘dissident’ republicans have no support … yet the assumption that dissidents have no support has been precisely that – an assumption, untroubled by actual evidence either way.”

Then there are people who oppose dissident tactics but seem keen to bring them in from the cold. Some have mooted the idea that we should talk to them.

Others such as Eamon O’Cuiv TD have supported their grievances (while making clear he opposes their violence).

Last year he attended the trial of Gary Donnelly in Londonderry. He had previously been in the city to allege heavy-handed PSNI treatment of dissident suspects.

Mr O’Cuiv once flew to Lithuania with IRA veteran Martin Ferris to ensure that Michael Campbell was not being tainted in an arms trial by fact of having a brother who was an Omagh bomber.

On another occasion he apologised after suggesting that the murder of the prison officer David Black in 2012 was caused by mistreatment of dissidents at Maghaberry.

Now another officer has been killed by these thugs.

We have been hearing lately about Northern Ireland’s ‘Victorian’ prisons. The impression from such talk is that conditions are too harsh.

Maghaberry has been the site of many menacing republican protests. At such times, the human-rights-for-murderers brigade is not slow to echo dissident complaints.

But we report today that a prison officer has been assaulted in Maghaberry more than once a week on average in the last three years. That hardly points to a harsh system.

It rather points to the atmosphere that prevailed at the Maze, where officers were afraid of upsetting prisoners in case they came on the IRA radar.

In any event, some of the worst dissidents are skilled at avoiding prison. Look at the woeful conviction rate for the rollcall of their atrocities: Omagh, Massereene, Carroll, Kerr, Black.

Meanwhile, there are other worrying signs: students shouting pro IRA slogans in the Holylands (Queen’s has long had an ugly triumphalist republican subculture).

And barely a day passes without fresh implication of British brutality during the Troubles. Yesterday Theresa Villiers was told to jump in the Hooded Men case.

There is the looming scandal of five years of legacy inquests (which I plan to write about). Sinn Fein will seize on findings of state failure.

All part of the retrospective legitimising of the Provo campaign, which the people who lived through it rejected – legitimising that gives succour to the present dissident terror campaign.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry: Liberal naivete about the Guantanamo inmates

Ben Lowry: The end of Lent is in sight and red wine awaits