Political leaders of every hue were quick to condemn Wednesday’s shooting of Det Chief Insp John Caldwell, but a very different note was struck on social media by Saoradh, the New IRA and their supporters.
In thinly veiled references, they celebrated the shooting, with some posting a photo of PSNI constable Peadar Heffron in a wheelchair with the mocking caption “Make it a career? Will you make it to work?”
Heffron, a Catholic, was seriously injured by a dissident bomb that exploded under his car in 2010. It’s not the first time the mocking image has circulated, but dissidents were quick to do so again over the past 24 hours.
The linkage with Heffron fulfils one key aim, since it sends a clear message that joining the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to carry a serious risk, and that officers remain, as dissidents put it, “legitimate targets”.
The group that is believed to be behind last night’s shooting, the New IRA, has been particularly determined to prove its continued capability in the aftermath of Operation Arbacia in 2020.
Then, nine members of its alleged political wing, Saoradh, along with a Palestinian doctor, were arrested in an operation where an MI5 agent had infiltrated the organisation.
Both Saoradh and the New IRA were quick then to reject suggestions that Operation Arbacia spelled the end of their campaign. Instead, they have been keen to demonstrate that there are others prepared to carry the mantle.
Infiltration of dissident groups by British intelligence, and, presumably, by the authorities in Dublin, too, is believed to be of a high order, leading to an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.
Billy McKee, a prominent dissident republican and former Provisional IRA founder in Belfast, said a few years ago: “I wouldn’t trust the way it’s working now. The Special Branch seems to be able to tell you who you were talking to yesterday.” Despite the continued high levels of infiltration by the authorities, members of both Saoradh and the New IRA appear undeterred in their determination to launch attacks.
The two active dissident armed groups – the Continuity IRA, which was formed in 1986; and the New IRA, formed in 2012 – argue that they are carrying on the republican struggle, with an unbroken lineage back to 1916 and before.
This message is driven home in annual commemorations throughout Ireland, where they commemorate their “fallen comrades” and rededicate themselves to continuing with the campaign for Irish “freedom”.
Many of those drawn to the dissident groups are steeped in the republican tradition and ideology, having family members who were involved in the past, particularly in the Provisional IRA. Some members were themselves in the Provisional IRA.
Others are drawn to the organisations through the development of their own republican beliefs or simply by being attracted to the mantra of “not giving up”.
Even if they are criticised for not doing enough, Sinn Féin, which commands majority support across Northern Ireland’s nationalists, has played a key role in condemning dissident groups and in asking the nationalist community to reject them.
Such a stance against the dissidents has had a significant impact, adding to the visceral hatred of Sinn Féin by the dissident groups, which believe they have abandoned republican principles in their pursuit of political power.
Saoradh, in particular, has drawn large numbers to their Easter Rising commemorations and parades, particularly in Derry and Dublin. But just dozens are believed to be involved in the New IRA’s attempts at attacks.
The latter group has a particularly strong presence in Derry, parts of Belfast, Tyrone and Dublin, while the Continuity IRA has drawn from a base concentrated in north Armagh, Fermanagh and parts of Dublin.
The campaign waged by the New and Continuity IRA – seen most graphically on Wednesday night at the Omagh Leisure Centre on the Kiltyclogher Road – continues to be directed at the PSNI, “the face” of the British presence in Northern Ireland, as the dissidents would see it.
In their eyes, the PSNI is no different from the Royal Ulster Constabulary that preceded it. The hatred is further fuelled by hostility over the PSNI’s own actions to curb the danger the dissidents pose, including arrests, stop-and-searches and home raids.
In fact a lot of the messaging coming from Saoradh in more recent times is especially anti-PSNI, while Saoradh and Republican Sinn Féin will consider Wednesday’s attack a victory, no matter the condemnation from every other quarter.
In particular, in their eyes, it demonstrates that they are still capable of a targeted attack, even if their campaign comprises occasional incidents rather than a sustained campaign.
Even occasional attacks, however, achieve one of their key goals of disrupting normalisation in Northern Ireland, and limiting the PSNI’s ability to present itself as just like any other police force.
For the section of the dissident base in both Republican Sinn Féin and Saoradh, to even question the viability of a military campaign is treacherous and unpardonable
Past attacks have prompted speculation that dissidents are reacting to Brexit or the impasse at Stormont, but the dissident campaign is not waged in response to these events, rather it continuously rumbles on.
The New IRA and Continuity IRA are not prepared to call a ceasefire and argue that by so doing they would be signifying that they are giving up and that it would signal defeat.
Other dissident republicans, who do not support the peace process but who do not support Saoradh, the Continuity IRA or the New IRA either, have called for an end to attacks.
Such quarters ask what can be achieved by occasional attacks on police when there is no public support for these actions and no capability to sustain a campaign. They have also asked how it is morally justified to occasionally attack police officers when it achieves nothing, pointing out that dissidents are being jailed for membership charges and for weapons possession for a war that is barely taking place.
Many of these so-called “independent dissidents” are former members of the Provisional IRA, some having served long prison sentences for serious offences.
Des Dalton became president of Republican Sinn Féin, the alleged political wing of the Continuity IRA, after Ruairí Ó Brádaigh – who had been president of Sinn Féin itself between 1970 and 1983 – stood down from the post in 2009.
Dalton, however, resigned from Republican Sinn Féin in March 2021 after the party’s ardchomhairle had called for his suspension following remarks he made in an interview with Liverpool University’s Civic Space project, where he had argued that the time was not right for a military campaign. The visceral reaction to Dalton’s comments – with some Republican Sinn Féin members wanting him dismissed, not just suspended – reflects the views of many.
For that section of the dissident base in both Republican Sinn Féin and Saoradh, to even question the viability of a military campaign is treacherous and unpardonable.
Both the New and Continuity IRAs insist that keeping the campaign going and the flame alive is of utmost importance, convinced that they are in a phase of rebuilding similar to that of the 1950s.
Neither do they believe that public support, or political condemnation matters, arguing that their legitimacy comes from the partition of Ireland and asking what mandate was held by republicans who went before them in 1916 or the 1940s. They are also driven by a belief that the Provisional IRA campaign did not fail. Instead, they insist that the Gerry Adams-Martin McGuinness leadership failed; and that they will not because they will not compromise.
The dissidents’ mantra remains: for as long as there is a British presence in Ireland there will be those willing to take up arms in resistance, and that it has been ever thus.
Dr Marisa McGlinchey is an assistant professor of political science at Coventry University, author of Unfinished Business: The Politics of ‘Dissident’ Irish Republicanism, and was vice-president of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, 2019-2022