As Brexit Talks Falter, the Risk of Violence in Ireland Is Still Alive

Despite a major crackdown, the uncertainty around the border won’t let militant republicanism go away.

A picture shows an Irish Republican Army (IRA) sniper warning sign overlooking the Bogside area of Derry in Northern Ireland on April 20, 2019.
A picture shows an Irish Republican Army (IRA) sniper warning sign overlooking the Bogside area of Derry in Northern Ireland on April 20, 2019. Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

As Britain threatens to unilaterally ruin the border agreement in Northern Ireland, undermining the Good Friday deal that brought an end to the long nightmare of political violence, the threat of militant republicanism is still alive. The enduring threat of militant republicanism in Ireland was brought forcefully to public attention in August, after a massive crackdown on the paramilitary New Irish Republican Army (New IRA) led to nearly a dozen arrests on terrorism-related charges and serious rioting. If Brexit talks fail, worse is likely to follow, and the ranks of the New IRA and other groups could swell.

The New IRA is the most prominent republican paramilitary group still active in Northern Ireland today, estimated by police to have had about 250-300 active members at the time of its formation in 2012. Like its predecessors, it is dedicated to the unification of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and it has carried out a violent campaign against the security forces. It is firmly opposed to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace accord that ended the three decade-long conflict known as the Troubles, during which more than 3,500 people were killed and almost 50,000 were injured. Dissident republicans like those in the New IRA differ from the mainstream brand of republicanism in that they reject the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and believe that violence remains a legitimate means to achieve their objectives.

On Aug. 18, police arrested 10 individuals in raids carried out across Ireland as part of a larger investigation into the New IRA’s activities. Codenamed Operation Arbacia, it involved 500 personnel from across Britain and Ireland’s security and intelligence services, making it one of the largest security sweeps in the country since the end of the Troubles. More arrests are expected in the coming weeks.

Authorities also raided all four offices of Saoradh, a far-left republican party that is widely believed to be the political wing of the New IRA, though it has long denied those claims. All 10 individuals arrested in the initial sweep have been charged with terrorism-related offences, and nine are known to be leading members of Saoradh. One of those standing trial was said to have met with a Palestinian doctor, the 10th individual charged, in order to develop relationships with unnamed foreign governments considered “hostile to the U.K.”

As police searched the Saoradh offices, a suspicious device was reported in Lurgan—a majority-Catholic town with an unusually high degree of support for dissident republicanism. Police evacuated several homes in the area and conducted searches, and although the device in question turned out to be a hoax, police did recover an improvised heavy duty weapon. Authorities were met with a barrage of petrol bombs that quickly descended into rioting.

All this took place against the backdrop of the ongoing negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom over their post-Brexit trade relationship. A resolution appears increasingly unlikely, and there is growing concern that a deal won’t be reached before the end of the transition period on Dec. 31 when EU regulations will no longer apply to Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently set a deadline of Oct. 15 for the British government’s participation in the talks, adding more pressure to an already strained process.

This has again raised the possibility of the United Kingdom crashing out of the bloc without a trade deal in place, which could necessitate a physical border in Ireland. On Sept. 8, the British government brought forward legislation aimed at overriding key parts of last year’s Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol, a mechanism that was put in place to ensure that the Irish border would remain open after Brexit in order to mitigate the potential threat posed by militant republicans. During the bill’s first reading in parliament, the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted that it would “break international law in a very specific and limited way.”

Johnson has since come under a torrent of criticism, and Brussels demanded that he withdraw the bill by the end of the month or it would consider pursuing legal action. The government quickly dismissed those warnings. Even leaders in Washington have stepped into the fray. In a statement, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi warned that “if the U.K. violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress.”

The renewed possibility of a physical border in Ireland, coupled with the expected negative economic fallout of a no-deal Brexit, has prompted fears that militant republican groups like the New IRA could exploit local desperation and renew their campaigns of violence.

Brexit was a watershed moment for republicans because it made Irish unification a relevant and realistic policy proposal for the first time since the end of the Troubles. They argue that the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union despite a majority in Northern Ireland voting to remain highlights the harmful effects British imperialism still has on Ireland. Republicans from across the political spectrum have responded to the resulting groundswell of support for Irish unity by intensifying their activities.

Sinn Fein, the country’s largest republican party and currently the leader of the opposition in Dublin, has consistently pushed for a unity referendum to be held within the lifetime of the current Irish government as a way of safeguarding the democratically expressed will of the people of Northern Ireland. Brussels has said that Northern Ireland would regain its EU membership in the event of unification, giving a powerful push to the pro-unity campaign.

Dissident republicans, meanwhile, reject Sinn Fein’s nonviolent approach to constitutional change, and although Saoradh has advocated for Ireland’s own withdrawal from the European Union, it still recognizes that Brexit has helped boost its own efforts. “Brexit is a huge opportunity. It’s not the reason why people would resist British rule, but Brexit just gives it focus, gives it a physical picture. It’s a huge help,” said Saoradh Chairman Brian McKenna in an interview last year.

The New IRA has expressed similar sentiments. “Brexit has forced the IRA to refocus and has underlined how Ireland remains partitioned. It would be remiss of us not to capitalize on the opportunity,” a member of the group said last year in an interview.

As we reported in May 2019, paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland has been on the rise since at least 2007, but Brexit has provided this generation of militants with a potent new issue to rally around. “It presents a unique opportunity to the New IRA and other violent dissident republicans,” said John Mooney, a journalist at the Sunday Times and author of Black Operations: The Secret War Against the Real IRA. “It has injected life into these organizations and they have previously said they are using it to recruit new members.”

To underscore their newfound motivation, some militants have planned attacks to occur simultaneously with key Brexit events. In February, it was reported that another group calling itself the IRA tried to smuggle a bomb across the Irish Sea into Scotland, before transporting it to an unknown location in England where it would be detonated to coincide with the United Kingdom’s formal withdrawal from the European Union on Jan. 31. “It was timed for Britain’s exit from the EU and to bring attention to the sea border,” the group said in a statement. The plot was thwarted, but several members of that group have since defected to the New IRA.

There is some speculation that the New IRA was planning an attack to coincide with the current round of Brexit negotiations, prompting the recent crackdown. “I understand [the New IRA] leadership was actively planning to carry out attacks which forced the Irish and British security services to move against them,” said Mooney.

But the recent arrests are a major victory for the security forces. Dieter Reinisch, a historian at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and an expert on dissident republicanism, said that the crackdown was a serious blow to the leaderships of Saoradh and the New IRA and both organizations will find it extremely difficult to recover and return to their past form.

Former members of the Provisional IRA—the New IRA’s far larger, deadlier, and more threatening predecessor—say the newest generation of militant republicans pose little (if any) meaningful threat to the state compared to their own era. Anthony McIntyre, a former Provisional IRA prisoner and the author of Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism, said that the New IRA’s “level of activity is inconsequential. It has the capacity to carry out isolated attacks … But in terms of threat to the state, there is more of a threat from organized crime and even that threat is low.”

Yet the issues that have given rise to this new generation of militant republicans are unlikely to subside anytime soon. As the post-Brexit vagaries shape and reshape the conversation in Ireland, republicanism will increasingly gain resonance far beyond its most dedicated adherents, and groups like Saoradh and the New IRA—though small—will benefit from a growing number of disenchanted people looking for established vehicles of change to cling onto.

More than that, militant republicanism has shown itself to be remarkably resilient over the course of its long history. The Provisional IRA itself emerged in the 1970s out of an even older iteration of the IRA that, at the time, was thought to no longer possess any serious military capabilities. Even if Saoradh and the New IRA are hobbled by this setback for the foreseeable future, they aren’t going to disband and, conversely, will continue to recruit and organize. Eventually, they will regroup and coalesce around a new leadership, one that could be younger, more volatile, and more aggressive in its pursuit of change. “Saoradh activists remain committed, dedicated, disciplined, and prepared,” said party spokesman Paddy Gallagher in a statement. “We are here to stay.”

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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