In the early hours of 19 April 2019, Belfast-born Irish republican Anthony McIntyre was awakened by his wife, Carrie, in their home in Drogheda, just south of the border in Ireland. “It’s not true, it can’t be true,” she was saying. “Lyra has been shot dead.”
Drowsy, confused and not quite believing what he had just been told, McIntyre fell back asleep. He awoke the following morning thinking, “What did she tell me?” McIntyre looked online, and saw that it was true: their good friend, the 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee, had been observing a riot in Derry the previous night when she was shot by a republican gunman.
Only a few weeks before, McKee had excitedly informed her friends, including McIntyre, that she was moving from Belfast to Derry to be with her partner, Sara. McIntyre had been glad for McKee, who he recalled as “a nice nice kid”.
In the immediate aftermath of McKee’s killing, news crews from around the world descended on the Derry housing estate where she had been shot, to pursue the story of what had happened to this young journalist and why. To the outside world, the Northern Ireland conflict had been settled with the historic Good Friday agreement in 1998. But almost exactly 21 years later, McKee’s death was a reminder that, although the Provisional IRA’s campaign against British rule had ended with the ceasefires of the 1990s, violent action had been carried on by dissident republican groups.
Responsibility for McKee’s death was quickly laid at the door of the New IRA, one of the two armed republican groups still committed to the fight for a united Ireland. The New IRA and the Continuity IRA see republicans from Sinn Féin and the Provisional Movement who were involved in the peace process as sellouts, and demand that armed struggle continue until Irish unity is achieved. Both groups continue to organise and recruit, and remain capable of launching attacks. Between April 2019 and March 2020 the police in Northern Ireland recorded 21 bombings, or attempted bombings, and 40 shootings; 30 firearms were seized and 774 rounds of ammunition were found. The main targets of these groups are the police and security services, but during the same timeframe there were numerous casualties from punishment attacks against drug dealers and antisocial elements involved in petty criminality.
The New IRA had been particularly active in the months preceding McKee’s death. In January 2019 a New IRA bomb exploded outside the courthouse in Derry, and in March parcel bombs were sent to British army recruitment personnel and commercial targets in England and Scotland (all were made safe except one which partially exploded, but no one was hurt).
McKee had been living in Derry for two weeks when rioting broke out in the Catholic Creggan estate after police raids of republican homes in the area. In the lead up to Easter, police stepped up searches for materials, weapons or ammunition used by the New or Continuity IRAs. In recent years commemorations of the 1916 Easter uprising against British rule have proven the setting for violent altercations between the police and dissident republicans in north Armagh and Derry, so the raids were conducted in an already highly charged political atmosphere.
Word had spread about rioting in the Creggan estate, and McKee went to observe it. She tweeted that the riot was “absolute madness”. A gunman emerged from the crowd who is believed to have been firing at the police, and accidentally shot her. A police Land Rover rushed McKee to hospital, where she later died.
On 22 April, the New IRA claimed responsibility for the killing and apologised, amid local and national censure. In Ireland politicians, clergy and community leaders were vociferous in their condemnation of the killing, and the organisation behind it. There was criticism from within the dissident republican base, including from independent councillor Gary Donnelly in Derry, who called on the organisation to desist from further attacks.
Condemnation came also from independent republicans like McIntyre, who in the past had been armed members of the Provisional IRA. McIntyre is disdainful of the republican groups that have carried on with armed actions. More than a personal tragedy, he described the killing of McKee as completely senseless, “an injustice”, and condemned any leaders who sent the gunman on to the streets of Derry that night.
The so-called dissident republican base is highly fractured. (In fact the word dissident is contested by those within that base who feel they are simply continuing on with traditional republicanism; it is the political process which they are dissenting from.) Disaffected republicans broke away from the republican political party, Sinn Féin, and its armed wing, the Provisional IRA (PIRA), at various points and over different issues – including the PIRA ceasefires of the 1990s, the Good Friday agreement in 1998, PIRA decommissioning in 2005, and Sinn Féin’s acceptance of the reformed Northern Irish police service, the PSNI, in 2007.
Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) was formed in 1986 when Sinn Féin announced that, if elected, it would take its seats in the Irish parliament – ending its longstanding policy of abstentionism. Its alleged military wing, the Continuity IRA, emerged the following year. The Real IRA and its assumed political wing, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM) were formed in 1997, when Sinn Féin accepted that Northern Ireland’s constitutional future should be decided by a referendum solely in the north. Another organisation emerged in 2009 after a split in the Real IRA, namely Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓNH); its purported political wing Republican Network for Unity had formed in 2007. Then, in 2012, the New IRA formed, which sought to unite that disparate dissident base. Viewing itself as the latest manifestation of the Irish Republican Army, it vows to continue the armed struggle until the achievement of Irish sovereignty – the unfinished business of the IRA. Saoradh, the most recently formed dissident group, emerged in 2016, believed to be political wing of the New IRA. These organisations deny that they have military wings, rather they state that they share a position with those organisations.
There are those within the dissident base who do not accept the New IRA’s campaign as a continuation of the Provisionals’. McIntyre, now 64, who joined the IRA at 16 as a response to the actions of British soldiers on the streets of Belfast, argues that the Provisional IRA’s legitimacy arose from the conditions in which it was founded in 1969, including discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland in housing and employment, attacks by loyalists against nationalist homes and businesses, and the British military occupation of nationalist communities. He argues that those conditions do not exist today and therefore the campaign waged by the New IRA is not justified.
McIntyre, who served 18 years in the maximum security wing of Long Kesh prison for killing a member of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1976, spent years on the no-wash and blanket protests for political status for IRA prisoners. Beyond unjustified, he argues that the New IRA is “completely ineffectual” and has no chance of success. “What can today’s campaign achieve? Nothing. If the big IRA couldn’t win the war against the British, how’s a wee tiny ineffective IRA going to do anything?” McIntyre tells me that, in his view, McKee had been killed by an organisation whose (alleged) political wing, Saoradh, poses “about as much threat to the British state as St Vincent de Paul” (the Catholic charitable organisation).
Small though they may be, particularly in comparison to Sinn Féin, the New and Continuity IRAs are not going away. In the two years since McKee’s death, Brexit has brought a renewed focus on the border in Ireland and the groups are watching developments with keen interest, though regardless of what form the border in Ireland takes, they remain committed to removing that border by force. A debate has developed within the republican base around whether or not there should be any armed actions in Ireland today. Some ask, what can sporadic actions, primarily targeting police, actually achieve?
Damien (Dee) Fennell, a taxi driver from north Belfast, is a prominent dissident republican and founder member of the political party Saoradh, widely believed to be the New IRA’s political wing (although the organisation denies this). Conscious of the anger directed at Saoradh after the killing of McKee, Fennell told me: “Saoradh played no part in Lyra McKee’s death.” Fennell knows the McKee family as they are also from north Belfast. Within days of McKee’s killing, he was the speaker at Saoradh’s Easter commemoration in Dublin. He said: “I felt it was important for me personally to say that was wrong, that whoever had done it should admit it and take responsibility for doing it organisationally and that they should say sorry.”
In 2016, Fennell gained a high profile during confrontations over contentious Orange Order parades. He was chair of the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC), formed around 2009 in opposition to Orange parades marching on the Crumlin Road past the Catholic Ardoyne area – an act which protesters viewed as deliberately provocative – and the confrontations would frequently erupt into rioting, with the PSNI firing plastic bullets at rioters.
Fennell, now 38, comes from a republican family. His grandmother was a member of the republican women’s military organisation Cumann na mBan in the 30s and 40s, transporting weapons and messages between IRA volunteers. She was shot in the face during crossfire in Belfast in June 1970, but survived. Fennell’s uncle, who was an IRA volunteer, was shot by a member of the British Parachute Regiment in 1973 while loading a bus with supplies for republican prisoners and internees in Long Kesh. He, too, survived. Another uncle, John Fennell, was killed during an internal Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) feud on 5 March 1996.
Following the path of family members, Fennell joined the youth wing of Sinn Féin in 1997, but left in 2007 when the party accepted the legitimacy of the PSNI. He went on to join the 1916 Societies in Belfast, a loose collection of republicans who shared the overarching aim of an all-Ireland vote on Irish unity. In April 2015, he was the speaker at an Easter commemoration in north Armagh and in his speech, which was posted online, he stated that the armed struggle was legitimate. “It isn’t enough to shout up the IRA, the important thing is to join the IRA,” he told the crowd. He was charged with encouraging terrorism and inviting support for the IRA, and was remanded in Maghaberry prison for two months before being released with a ban on public speaking and posting online (he was acquitted of the charges in December 2017 on the grounds that he was entitled to free speech when expressing his personal opinion).
In the mid-2010s, Fennell became one of the founders of the anti-capitalist Saoradh party, which attracted individuals who, like him, had left Sinn Féin in opposition to ideological or tactical changes within the party.
We met in the Saoradh office on the Antrim road in Belfast where crafts like wallets and harps, made by Saoradh members currently held in Maghaberry and Portlaoise prisons, are displayed. The issue of prisoners has always been highly emotive in Irish republicanism and there are currently upwards of 50 republican prisoners in Ireland, north and south, on charges of IRA membership, or possession of a weapon with intent to endanger life.
In the days after McKee’s death, her friends dipped their hands in red paint and pressed handprints on the wall of the Saoradh headquarters in Derry. Saoradh members responded angrily to this implication that their hands were stained with McKee’s blood, emphasising that the organisation is completely separate to the New IRA and that Saoradh played no part in the killing. When signs appeared in Derry a few days later, warning people not to give information to the police, suspicion turned towards Saoradh. The group is vehemently anti-PSNI and encourages people not to support the police in any way.
The New IRA released a statement to the Irish News admitting responsibility for the killing, stating: “In the course of attacking the enemy Lyra McKee was tragically killed while standing beside enemy forces.” The organisation offered “full and sincere apologies” to McKee’s family and friends.
As we sat in the Saoradh office in north Belfast, the same part of the city where McKee was from, Fennell talked frankly about the killing and its aftermath, the first time that a member of Saoradh had done so. Asked if McKee’s death had changed anything for Saoradh, Fennell responded: “It sounds harsh but no it didn’t change Saoradh’s strategy. We didn’t lose a single member over it. Our recruitment levels have went up and I think that was because the republican base were able to differentiate between who was responsible and who wasn’t.”
Fennell is completely opposed to the political process and views Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament which resulted from partition, as an illegitimate institution. Like other dissidents, he rejects Sinn Féin’s calls for a border poll (a referendum on a united Ireland) which would take place in the north, and must be called by the British secretary of state. Fennell does not trust that a referendum on Irish unity will be conducted fairly. Sinn Féin has been conscious of the fact that the Catholic population in the north is growing and in the near future it may be a majority. However, dissidents such as Fennell have argued that as the Catholic population grows, the terms of the vote will change.
The New IRA is often criticised as having no chance of achieving Irish unity. When I put this to Fennell he said, “What else has achieved unity? I think it’s a question that can be asked of every political party of a nationalist republican persuasion right across Ireland. They’re basically all sitting and waiting on a sectarian headcount and then each of those parties is already trying to move the goalposts and make unity more difficult.”
Well-known independent dissident republican Tommy McKearney is dismissive of actions by the New and Continuity IRAs. “They are effectively irrelevant. Now because they’re noisy they can make the headlines. If somebody fires a shot it becomes headlines in London – but that’s what makes news, it doesn’t necessarily make sense.” McKee’s killing, he told me, “underlined the absolute dead end that [the New IRA campaign] was in”.
McKearney was a member of the Provisional IRA for 15 years until he left in 1986, choosing to remain independent, and has addressed republican events and commemorations throughout Ireland. Softly spoken but determined, McKearney was born into a republican family in Moy, County Tyrone. In 1971, when he was 19, he joined the Provisional IRA. He saw the group as “the resistance”, fighting back against British violence. He was particularly angered by internment, which had begun in August 1971, when hundreds were imprisoned without trial for suspected involvement with the IRA. British soldiers conducted aggressive house raids throughout the north, damaging property as they knocked down doors and arrested suspects. The raids left a bitter resentment among the Catholic community and served as a catalyst for many to join the IRA.
Three of McKearney’s brothers died during the conflict. Sean was killed by his own bomb, Pádraig was killed by the SAS and Kevin was killed by the UVF. He served a 16-year sentence, from 1977 until 1993, as a Provisional IRA prisoner in Long Kesh for killing a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). While in prison he took part in the blanket and dirty protests. He also took part in the 1980 hunger strike for political status.
McKearney left the Provisional IRA in 1986, while he was in prison, when its political wing, Sinn Féin, announced that if elected it would take its seats in the Irish parliament. McKearney, who is strongly anti-capitalist, strove for radical change, arguing that entering parliament, whether in the north or south, would simply serve a reformist agenda. A gradual process of reform of existing institutions was not what he had signed up for. Sitting in his home in Monaghan he tells me, “I believed that it was going to end up in a helpless, hopeless reformist position and I left the Provisional IRA at that stage and that was the reason. I have seen little reason to change my mind since.”
While a critic of the Sinn Féin strategy, McKearney supported the Provisional IRA ceasefires in the 90s. “The IRA ceasefire came at a time when I thought it was the rational option to take: that little could be achieved by continuing with the armed campaign at that stage.”
He has proven a formidable critic of the dissident groups engaged in armed actions today and tells me: “The use of force is very much a political option but if republicanism is equated just simply with the use of force then it makes it a fetish, it’s not a philosophy.” He believes the groups that have broken away from the Provisional IRA have defined republicanism purely through the use of force. This approach, he believes, has left them with no support “and massive infiltration” by British agents. He tells me: “We get lost here in this debate over what constitutes a republican, and if it’s down to: are you willing to shoot someone, I think that’s bizarre. It’s obscene.”
To question the armed campaign, within that dissident base, is to be met with accusations of treason and selling out. In March 2021, Des Dalton, president of Republican Sinn Féin from 2009 to 2018, was suspended from the organisation when, speaking in a personal capacity, he told an interviewer that conditions at present aren’t right for an armed campaign. When the interview was made public the ard chomhairle (executive) called an emergency meeting, during which Dalton was suspended, with some members calling for his dismissal. After 32 years as a member of RSF, Dalton resigned.
Dalton told me: “The support required to sustain an effective armed campaign simply does not exist. Recognising this fact is not a retreat from the principles of Irish republicanism and the demand for a free united Ireland. It is simply an acknowledgment of the objective conditions on the ground: recognising what will work best in advancing republican goals.”
To Dalton, holding these views is not a betrayal of comrades or current republican prisoners. Quite the opposite. He argues that republicans are going to prison for possession of weapons that aren’t being used, or for membership of the IRA, ultimately for a campaign that realistically isn’t happening beyond sporadic incidents. “In the absence of a clear strategy, and an effective campaign, it is immoral to simply lead people like lemmings over the edge of a cliff to imprisonment,” he told me.
RSF remains defiant in its support for the Continuity IRA’s campaign and, two weeks after Dalton’s resignation, RSF released its Easter statement arguing: “It is the duty of the republican movement to oppose British occupation in Ireland … When a sustained campaign cannot be mounted, it is a duty to at least harass the enemy.” For RSF and Saoradh, stopping armed actions, even on strategic grounds, is republican heresy. The flame must be kept burning.
The mainstream often point to a lack of support for dissidents in contrast to Sinn Féin’s strong electoral mandate north and south. In the Northern Ireland general election in 2019 Sinn Féin commanded 22.8% of the vote, and it is anticipated that it may be the largest party in the near future. Then in the Dáil elections in the south of Ireland in 2020, Sinn Féin won an impressive 24.5% of the vote, the largest percentage share of all the parties. The party now has a strong electoral mandate on both sides of the border. However, dissident groups are keen to emphasise that they don’t take legitimacy from electoral politics: legitimacy comes from the continued partition of Ireland. They’re not concerned with popular support. But McKearney has cautioned that without popular support, armed action cannot succeed. “I know what it takes to sustain a campaign against the British. I know how many houses you need and how many cars you need and how many people that you need and if it’s not there you don’t win. You don’t even survive.”
The Continuity IRA, believed to be the military wing of Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), has a notable presence in north Armagh, in the north-east of Ireland, which has led to heavy police surveillance. Sitting in a rural location, surrounded by the green fields of north Armagh, a spokesperson for the wider RSF movement, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me: “While there’s still British military and political interference in this country there’s going to be armed actions.”
County Armagh produced some of the most notorious IRA units during the conflict, leading to its nickname “bandit country”. The county has been the scene of several violent clashes between the police and republicans in the past five years. The level of police surveillance was quickly demonstrated when I was travelling in a republican’s car to conduct an interview. We weren’t long into the area when police lights flashed behind us and the car was pulled over. We were ordered out of the car and searched at the side of the road. For dissident republicans, this is a regular occurrence, and the PSNI, in its pursuit of republicans, is no different to the RUC. Republican graffiti can be seen throughout the north stating “RUC-PSNI, Same Aim – Different Name”.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary, founded in 1922, was overwhelmingly Protestant in makeup. Viewed with suspicion by the Catholic population, it was seen as a hostile force. Alongside British soldiers, the RUC raided Catholic homes searching for weapons or ammunition used by the IRA and arrested suspected republicans. So hated was the RUC by the IRA that its members were viewed as a “legitimate target” of the armed campaign.
The RUC was accused of operating a shoot-to-kill policy. Repeated allegations have also surfaced of RUC collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in the killing of republicans, and of ordinary members of the Catholic population who had no political involvement. The visceral opposition to the RUC from the Catholic community led to calls for it to be disbanded, resulting in it being reformed in 2001 as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). A police ombudsman was also set up to handle complaints against the police. But for the Continuity and New IRAs, the PSNI is no different to the RUC and much of their armed activity has been focused on trying to kill police.
The RSF spokesperson is in his 30s and is in full-time employment. He has served a sentence in Maghaberry prison as a Continuity IRA prisoner, for possession of explosives. While in Maghaberry in 2010, he joined a dirty protest demanding better conditions. He told me: “When conflict kicks off in the prison the armed groups out there have shown that they will target prison officers; but they have quite clearly stated that it has been in response to the brutalising of their prisoners (by prison warders).”
He was born into a republican family in north Armagh and his uncle served a sentence in the H Blocks in Long Kesh in the 80s as a Provisional IRA prisoner. Other members of his family are also active republicans and have been imprisoned in Maghaberry since 1998.
Like other dissident republicans, he is regularly stopped by the PSNI, his home and car are often searched and his name and address are recorded at protests or meetings in the north and south. At one point, he would leave the keys in the front door of his home so that the police wouldn’t break it down again when entering to conduct yet another raid.
He rejects the Sinn Féin argument that altered conditions within Northern Ireland have removed the justification for an armed campaign. “The movement has always been quite specific in what would end the armed campaign. It would be a British declaration of intent to withdraw.” From his perspective, the current low level of republican armed activity is only a temporary lull. “We are coming on the back of the treachery that was inflicted upon the movement, the running down of the movement [by the Provisional IRA leadership] and it’s the job of republicans now to rebuild that movement.”
A key aim of the armed groups is to disrupt “normalisation” in Northern Ireland. In the post-1998 period Northern Ireland became increasingly demilitarised, which included the dismantling of British army barracks and the departure of foot patrols. Today it doesn’t feel like a place that is at war. For dissident groups, the more normal life becomes, the less focus there is on the fact that Ireland is still partitioned. Security alerts and attacks on the police continue to demonstrate that Northern Ireland is not a normal society. The PSNI, the RSF spokesperson told me, must not feel safe.
“I have a problem with this,” said Anthony McIntyre. “It’s myth making.” He points to the fact that the PSNI are confident enough that they patrol on bicycles: if they were a genuine target they’d be shot at. Further, McIntyre said, “You put it to a vote, to the people in the north, should they dispense with the New IRA or the PSNI, what way is it going to go? Even rule out all the unionists and ask the nationalist community to vote on who you want rid of. Do you think the crowd’s going to shout ‘fuck the PSNI give us Barabbas?’ It’s not going to happen.”
Dissident republicans condemn Sinn Féin support for the PSNI and the fact that Sinn Féin members sit on policing boards. The RSF spokesperson makes his views on Sinn Féin abundantly clear to me. “They have placed themselves firmly in the camp of the occupier and the oppressor. They are now administering British rule. They are in government in both puppet parliaments.”
Although Northern Ireland has been officially demilitarised since 1998, dissident republicans highlight the fact that the British army maintains a presence in Palace and Thiepval barracks. The RSF spokesperson stated, “They are here. They are here on the streets daily. There is evidence that there’s British army here. British army intelligence are here. They are placed in patrols along with the PSNI.”
Saoradh member Dee Fennell says the continuing British military presence demonstrates that the dissident republican groups still pose a threat. “There’s still more British soldiers per capita in the six counties than there was in Iraq and Afghanistan combined at any time, so if republicanism isn’t a threat, if the IRA’s campaign isn’t viable, if Saoradh is futile, if republicanism is currently in a valley and not on a peak, then why does the British government have to invest so much infrastructure, personnel, logistics, technology, so much money to combat it?”
While I was reporting this story, Fennell stepped away from Saoradh for personal reasons, although he emphasises that his views have not changed and that he is still active in the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association (IRPWA), which supports Saoradh or New IRA prisoners.
In August 2020, nine members of Saoradh, along with Issam Bassalat, a Palestinian doctor based in Scotland, were arrested for alleged New IRA activity. The arrests were based on the undercover activity of an MI5 agent who is said to have infiltrated the organisation and recorded meetings. The scale of this operation was a potential blow to the New IRA which, like all republican organisations, had been vigilant for infiltration, but Saoradh will have taken some comfort from the number of people who attended its demonstrations in September 2020 in support of Bassalat and the Saoradh prisoners who were on hunger strike (they were protesting against the two-week Covid quarantine imposed on Bassalat upon his return to the prison after a hospital visit).
Fennell told me that the protests “demonstrated that the IRPWA and Saoradh have the potential still at this stage to mobilise large groups of people in Belfast and elsewhere … and it sort of put the myth to bed that Soaradh or the IRPWA or the republican movement was in any way finished in those areas”. Hundreds of Saoradh members and supporters attended protests in various locations including in Belfast and outside Maghaberry prison.
But McKearney has argued that the numbers don’t signify in relation to protests for republican prisoners in the past. When I mentioned the hundreds who attended the Saoradh protests he answered: “Now you can talk about a rally on the Falls Road and I tell you there wasn’t 20,000 or 30,000 at it. There is more support than you would get maybe under other circumstances but that’s an extraordinary circumstance. In 1978 before the first hunger strike began there was a parade from Coalisland to Dungannon focusing on prison conditions. There was 20,000 people who marched. There was 100,000 at Bobby Sands’ funeral.”
Anthony McIntyre, a colourful and straight-talking character known as Mackers, is one of the most vocal and recognisable critics of the Sinn Féin leadership. He was supportive of the IRA ceasefires in the 90s, but he left the Provisional Movement in 1998 when the Good Friday agreement was signed. Sitting in a bar in Drogheda last year he told me: “I wasn’t opposed to the ending of the armed campaign. I was opposed to the politics behind the ending of the armed campaign.”
But though he is disillusioned with the process, McIntyre, a former Provisional IRA gunman, has no interest in returning to the armed struggle. “If I was to highlight an identifying moment that made me say that we should never again resort to the physical force tradition, and the physical force tradition had gone beyond the pale for me, it was the day of the Omagh bombing,” he said. “But I had already come to those conclusions about the IRA campaign.”
On 15 August 1998 the Real IRA, a dissident organisation that had split from the Provisional IRA in 1997, planted a bomb in Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring 220 others. The bomb went off on a busy Saturday afternoon in the town centre, causing revulsion, including from within the republican base. At the time, the Republican Sinn Féin president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh said: “The slaughter of innocents at Omagh was totally unjustified and the organisation [RSF] deplored and rejected the absolute inhumanity of it”. After Omagh RSF and the Continuity IRA remained wedded to armed struggle. But for republicans like McIntyre, Omagh reinforced the fact that the armed campaign was over.
McIntyre didn’t come from a particularly republican family. He was born in affluent south Belfast in 1957 to a mother who thought the Ulster Unionist Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill (who was convinced that economic investment would help improve relations between unionists and nationalists) “was a good guy” and to a father who voted for the middle ground Alliance party in 1973. “I joined the IRA because I thought the IRA was an armed response to the British,” he told me. “It seemed a justified response.” In 1972, British paratroopers opened fire on a civil rights protest march in Derry, killing 13. It was a key moment for McIntyre, and many of his peers. “Once we’d Bloody Sunday the die was cast.”
During his 18 years in prison, McIntyre took a degree in social sciences for which he was awarded first class honours, and upon his release he completed a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast under the supervision of Prof Paul Bew, who later became a member of the British House of Lords. In recent years, McIntyre has become known as the researcher on the Boston College project. Conceived in 2001, between academics and journalists in Belfast and the US, the project sought to gather interviews from republicans and loyalists who had been involved in the Northern Ireland conflict. Their interviews were only to be revealed after their death. But the project collapsed in 2011 when the PSNI subpoenaed Boston College for the interviews, resulting in an international court case as McIntyre and his wife, Carrie, battled against handing over the interviews. For years there has been an arrest warrant for McIntyre in Northern Ireland as the PSNI seek to question him about the Boston tapes.
When the Provisional IRA ceasefire was announced in August 1994 it was greeted by a jubilant atmosphere on the Falls Road in the republican heartland of west Belfast, as a cavalcade of cars and black taxis blew their horns and waved tricolours from their windows in celebration. While McIntyre supported the ceasefires, he saw no cause for celebration. The campaign hadn’t achieved a united Ireland. He saw it as defeat, and remembers watching the celebration saying: “I mean everybody can celebrate Christmas, but not the turkeys!” McIntyre told me,: “It was clear to me at the time that the IRA had lost the war and were going to settle up. There’s no united Ireland on this agenda.”
The Northern Ireland peace process had begun in the late 80s and early 90s with talks between John Hume, leader of the non-violent constitutional nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin. The SDLP sought to convince the Provisional IRA to end its armed campaign. Hume’s main argument was that Irish unity could only come about through consent of the people in Northern Ireland. At that time Sinn Féin rejected this, calling it a unionist veto over Irish unity.
When in 1997, Sinn Féin shifted its position to accepting the principle of consent, paving the way to the Good Friday agreement, some republicans broke away from Sinn Féin or the Provisional IRA, and McIntyre was one of them. He told me: “I think the Good Friday agreement is a good agreement for the SDLP. But I was never in the SDLP. I was in the IRA.”
The north approached this year’s Orange marching season, which peaks in July, with trepidation. In April, loyalist rioting broke out across the north, with violent altercations in Belfast between protesters and the PSNI. In scenes reminiscent of a bygone era, the police used water cannon and dogs to disperse the rioters.
In an attempt to avoid any remilitarisation of the “soft” border between the north and south of Ireland, the NI protocol, introduced in 2020, raised the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain. This led to loyalist anger, and claims that such a border would create a de facto united Ireland. At a rally in Newtownards in June 2021, loyalist spokesperson Jamie Bryson referred to the “unjust, unlawful and unconstitutional protocol imposed upon us, binding us in chains to the Irish Republic within an economic united Ireland.”
Conversely, any hardening of the border in Ireland between the north and south would provoke a reaction from republicans. To date, dissident republicans have not responded to the loyalist protests and riots. In a sense they don’t need to. For many, the sands have shifted with Brexit, as more people in the north may be considering whether they would be better off in a united Ireland within the EU than remaining in the UK outside the EU. Republicans will hope to capitalise on the altered political landscape which Brexit has brought, as the border is propelled back into mainstream discussion.
The republican campaign for a united Ireland continues regardless, as explained by the north Armagh former Continuity prisoner. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a soft border, a hard border, it’s still the British-imposed border there. What [Brexit] has done is probably reignited the fact that there is a real possibility that there could be some form of remilitarisation of the border.”
Historically the republican movement has not always been at war. Strategic decisions have been made by past leaders to tactically lay down arms at times of low public support. But there doesn’t appear to be any indication that the Continuity or New IRAs are considering ceasing their campaign, even temporarily. The diminished community support for current armed struggle doesn’t deter those who view themselves as keeping the flame alive. RSF and Saoradh continue to assert that as long as there is a British presence in Ireland, there will be those willing to resist it in arms. They only have to be lucky once, the security services have to be lucky always.