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Dissidents and dissenters

Northern nationalists are not all lining up behind Sinn Féin, or even the SDLP.

While focus over the past year has been on Loyalist alienation, there is also a significant level of nationalist alienation in the North. Dissident Republicans have small but real support. Far beyond their circles, there is a discontent: a feeling that the Assembly has not delivered, and that the DUP is running government: of dissent.

There is no possibility, in the foreseeable future, of either the dissidents or the dissenters significantly eating into Sinn Féin support.

A small trickle of recruits is joining dissident groups – despite their weakness on all fronts. Those who claim such groups have no support refuse to recognise a reality they dislike.

The dissident groups can operate in a small pool. Support is underestimated because many people will not openly admit to holding an unpopular view. This is analogous to the way that opinion polls understated electoral support for Sinn Féin (and to a lesser extent the DUP) in the past.

An older generation of dissidents came from Sinn Féin. To become the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin dramatically moved to the centre. Its electoral strategists recognised that this meant shedding more hard-line voters. The loss was counterbalanced by taking votes from the SDLP. The more republican voters who left had nowhere to go: the votes taken from the SDLP have reduced that party.

The older group which left Sinn Féin is now mostly inactive. Of more current significance is an angry section of Catholic working-class youth which has never accepted Sinn Féin. The dissidents have recruited among them. However, even some young Catholics with jobs consider themselves dissidents. Over the last few months, I have met a scatter- ing of young people who call watch your backs – both of you “ themselves Republicans, but disagree with the strategy of Sinn Féin. Some are in organisations, others not aligned to any. A Real IRA member once explained to me that the peo- ple they were recruiting had been active supporters rather than former members. Most now come from the post-ceasefire generation, tending to be between 20 and 40. Most are from deprived areas, but by no means all. Among dissidents convicted here have people with skilled and white-collar jobs.

Militarily the dissident organisations are weak, and riddled with agents. Partly because of what Northern society went through during the Troubles, their military campaign is unpopular. Importantly, the dissidents do not have a cause to mobilise around. There are, though, always dangers of a British government blunder. However, three contentious issues have been resolved. Sixty-three year old Martin Corey from Lurgan has been released: he was a former Republican life-sentence prisoner whose licence was revoked and who was jailed for three years without facing any charges. A dirty protest by prisoners on the Republican wing in Maghaberry prison has been settled. The seriously ill Marian Price, who was a remand prisoner, was released on bail. Dissidents are active on the issue of marches by the Loyal Orders through perceived Catholic areas. These are resented by most residents in those areas, even many who would not call themselves Republicans.

Dissidents have members in some of those areas, and oppose the somewhat conciliatory approach of Sinn Féin. There are wider symptoms of discontent than the small dissident groups. ‘1916 Societies’ have developed. These developed first in East Tyrone, the traditional heartland of Northern Republicanism. Initially they attracted an older generation.

More recently, they have attracted numbers of young people from the post-Troubles generation. They are a loose network whose only clear policy is promoting Irish unity on the lines of the 1916 Proclamation. Members disagree with Sinn Féin for often conflicting reasons. They disagree on the central issue of Republican tactics: whether or not there should be an armed campaign. They are a network for ex-members of the IRA and Sinn Féin. More generally, there is discontent in the wider Nationalist community. All sections of the community feel the Assembly has not delivered on its initial promise. Among Nationalists, many feel Martin McGuinness is too conciliatory to the DUP. Despite the DUP having moved towards the centre there is a deep distrust of it in the wider Catholic community. Projects which many Nationalists saw as symbolic gains for them like the Maze/Long Kesh Peace Centre and the A5 dual carriageway from Ballygawley in Co Tyrone to Newbuildings, south of Derry City, have been cancelled.

All this will have political implications. Of the Nationalist parties, the SDLP’s long decline continues. As Sinn Féin becomes a mainstream party, its active membership has decreased. Could it, like the SDLP ear- lier, lose contact with its electorate, and if so what would the consequence be?

Anton McCabe