Understanding the Dissident Republican Threat to the UK and Ireland

The rising threat of dissident Republican activity in Northern Ireland comes at a time when the vast majority of Northern Irish people are moving towards a more normalised political environment. To challenge the threat, we need a more nuanced understanding of dissident republican motivations.

By Mark Lynch for RUSI.org

By all accounts, the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic of Ireland on 17 May 2011 represents a historical moment in the often turbulent relations between the two countries. Though her visit will mark a recognition of, and perhaps a closure to the Troubles that have blighted Anglo-Irish relations, it is has been overshadowed by the sudden upsurge of dissident republican violence that has culminated in bomb threats in both Dublin and London. [1] Indeed, in a reflection of the growing power of dissident republicans the threat level in Northern Ireland has been raised to 'severe' by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford.

However, it is exceptionally difficult to comprehend the reasoning behind this sudden upsurge. While dissident republicanism has become more entrenched so too has public support for the Northern Irish executive. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP have repeated their solid majorities in the recent elections to the Northern Irish Assembly and the Assembly itself has held together for its first full term without suspension giving some much needed stability to the Northern Irish executive. Thus while Northern Irish politics appears to normalising and community support for the peace process remains strong, the dissident republican movement appears to be growing in strength and support even though politics in the region is moving in the opposite direction.

Reasons behind the growth in dissident violence

In order to fully explain this paradox it is vital to understand the political sphere in which dissident republicanism has grown. Firstly, it is integral to avoid viewing the dissident republican threat as a continuation of the motives and ambitions of the Provisional IRA. Dissident Republicanism has its own attraction, its own makeup and its own support network that bring completely different security dilemmas for British and Irish security forces. Therefore in order to avoid an over simplistic view of the republican threat it is vital to analyse the motivations and growth of the dissident republican movement.

While the overarching goal of a United Ireland unites republican groups, dissident republicans completely reject any negotiation with the British government on the issue of Northern Ireland. They view the Good Friday Agreement as a capitulation and take a zero-sum approach to Irish unification. While many Catholics in Northern Ireland viewed the Good Friday Agreement as a means to correct institutionalised biases such as policing, the election process and housing allocation, dissident republicans viewed the Good Friday Agreement as a means to constrain the republican movement. [2] They seek the dissolution of the Northern Irish Assembly and reject any cross-community arrangements. Thus given this hard line stance it is remarkable that such groups are gaining potency in an increasingly normalised Northern Ireland. In order to comprehend this change it is important to lay out some of the reasons behind its growth.

Initial Recruits and Expertise

Firstly, while Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness did an exceptionally good job of retaining control over the republican movement during the peace process, given its historical propensity to split, there continued to be a hard line group that wanted to continue the armed struggle. These members formed the foundations of groups such as the Real IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann therefore, importantly, republican dissident groups always had an element of operational experience that is missing in other start-up organisations. They never had to develop the networks and expertise that start-up organisations have to as they already had extensive experience in paramilitary activity.

 Similarly, the transition of members of paramilitary organisations to normal society in Northern Ireland has been exceptionally difficult. Moving from a position of power and respect during the 'Troubles' to a weakened position in a normalised society has led a number of ex-IRA combatants to relapse and join dissident groups. Indeed, a lot of IRA volunteers joined the IRA straight after school and have limited knowledge of any other life away from paramilitary violence. For these people transitioning into working life having had no experience or training has proved exceptionally difficult. Thus the inability to successfully rehabilitate IRA combatants has strengthened the power of the dissident republican movement and swelled their recruits with experienced operatives. [3]

The Changing Nature of Community Support

While the Good Friday Agreement enjoys significant support from both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland, there are a number of groups that have become disillusioned with the process. In the 1998 referendum for the Good Friday Agreement over 90 per cent of Catholics voted in favour of the process. A small number of those voters voted 'Yes' under the explicit assumption that it would lead to linear process towards a United Ireland. As this has not materialized, we have seen an increased support for dissident republican movements. This is particularly prevalent amongst younger voters who have had little experience of the relatively peaceful pre-Troubles era and have limited contact with the opposing community. This has attracted many younger voters to the romanticised idea of a United Ireland. [4]

Similarly the euphoria that surrounded the Good Friday Agreement and the improvements that were meant to materialise for average citizens has not reflected reality. Whilst the security situation has improved immeasurably, unemployment and poverty remains prevalent in Northern Ireland and given the stuttering nature of the Northern Irish Assembly in its formative years, a small minority of individuals have decided that the peace process has failed and returned to the presumption that republican dissidents can pursue their interests. This has created a small community, alongside the small number of hard line republicans who rejected the Good Friday Agreement in the first place, who are willing to facilitate dissident republicans.

Furthermore, while the Provisional IRA was immensely difficult to eradicate in Northern Ireland due to the extensive community support it received in areas such as West Belfast, South Armagh and Derry, dissident republican groups are beginning to gather increased community support where they were otherwise marginal. A central reason for this has been the changing power balance in areas that were previously under Provisional IRA control. During the Troubles the PIRA effectively policed Catholic areas due to extreme mistrust of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army. Therefore as the PIRA began to demilitarize and deconstruct and the RUC (now the Police Service of Northern Ireland- PSNI) was still in a period of wide-ranging reform to make it palatable to all communities in Northern Ireland, dissident republican groups have managed to enter the power vacuum created.[5] This helps to explain why the PSNI have continually been targeted by dissident groups in Northern Ireland. By pressurising Catholics to avoid joining the newly reconstructed police service, dissident groups are trying to paint the PSNI as unionist institution in order to breed distrust amongst Catholics and strengthen they're position within the local community.

Changes to Policing and Counter-terrorism

Importantly, the drastic changes to the police service in Northern Ireland have left it unprepared to cope with a renewed republican movement. While knowledge of the Provisional IRA was exceptionally strong and the British security services were able to thwart attacks with increasing regularity and sophistication, knowledge of dissident republican groups appears to be markedly less robust. Indeed, as the PSNI sought to readdress the demographic imbalance in the police force, in 1999 only 8% of the police officers in the RUC were Catholic, this has lead to a vast number of new recruits with limited counter-terrorism experience [6]. PSNI Area Commander for Londonderry, Chris Yates summed up the problem succinctly when he suggested that 'a lot of the experience we would have had from the previous terror campaign have left the organisation, and undoubtedly left skills gaps...skills-including counterterrorism, that we are having to learn all over again'. [7]

This skills gap has coincided with the end of Operation Banner and demilitarisation of Northern Ireland by the British Army leading to a far weaker security mechanism to stop the growing dissident republican threat. Therefore dissident groups have had far more relaxed security constraints on their actions allowing them to recruit and organise in a far less claustrophobic atmosphere. While the PSNI has been relatively successful at disrupting dissident republican attacks this may prove exceptionally difficult if the groups gain more recruits and expertise.

The security implications of the growth of dissident groups

The growing threat posed by republican dissidents in Northern Ireland creates a number of security headaches for the British Security forces. First of all the PSNI has to be more rigorously trained in counter terrorism to compensate for the lack of practical experience that a number of new recruits have. Also both sides of the political divide need to maintain their support for a demographically balanced police force. This means that politicians in Northern Ireland, the UK and the Republic must implore Catholics to continue to join the police force. A return to the animosity towards the Protestant-dominated RUC would allow the dissident groups the ability to get a stronger foothold in Republican areas and exasperate the issue. The police need to be the front line against dissident republican groups and financial support and training must be provided for them

Similarly, the growth in dissident power means that British security forces must remain far more vigilant towards attacks in mainland Britain. The Real IRA's bomb threat in Central London this Monday acts as a reminder that the dissident republican groups may be widening they're operations as they grow in power and support. The 'British Campaign' of the 1980s that was utilised by the PIRA was deemed extremely successful at providing the group with what Gerry Adam's called 'Armed Propaganda' thus it is very likely that such an attack would be sought by dissident groups in the future. [8] Thus the UK must maintain its resistance and resilience to this increasing threat by making sure key security targets are protected. While the PIRA largely avoided large-scale mass casualty attacks it is difficult to ascertain the limits that dissident republicans are willing to go to push their message. However, given that the Omagh bomb that killed twenty-nine people was carried out by the Real IRA it is advisable that the UK attempts to mitigate against mass casualty attacks. Whatever the case, the threat of republican dissidents is growing alongside their capabilities.


[1] 'Northern Ireland terror threat at 'severe' level' The Guardian, 6 February 2011

[2] Claire Mitchell (2003) 'From Victims to Equals? Catholic Identification in Northern Ireland after the Agreement' Irish Political Studies, Vol. 17(1)

[3] Neil Ferguson (2010) 'Disengaging from Terrorism' in Andrew Silke The Psychology of Counterterrorism, Taylor and Francis, London

[4] Siobhan McEvoy (2000) 'Communities and Peace: Catholic Youth in Northern Ireland' Journal of Peace Research Vol. 35:1

[5] Christopher Bass and M.L.R Smith (2008) 'The War Continues? Combating paramilitaries and the role of the British Army after the Belfast Agreement' in James Dingley Combating Terrorism in Northern Ireland, Routledge, London

[6] Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland (1999) A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland

[7] Martyn Frampton (2010) 'The Return of the Militants' International Centre for the Study of Radlcalisation and Political Violence

[8] Rogelio Alonso (2001) 'The Modernisation of Irish Republican Thinking Towards the Utility of Violence' Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Vol. 24(2)


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