Will Dissident Irish Republicans Achieve Their Aims? A Citizen’s View

By Gavin Norris

Few will have heard of Beragh, County Tyrone. It is a small village of just over five hundred inhabitants, only eight miles east of Omagh, the site of the worst terrorist atrocity of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. However on 6 April, Beragh was the site of one of the most symbolic gatherings in modern Irish history as hundreds of people from across the country’s political divide came to pay their respects to PC Ronan Kerr of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. 

The Roman Catholic officer was killed the previous Saturday after a bomb exploded under his car, making him the second member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to be murdered since the replacement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in 2001.

PC Kerr’s death appears to be part of a wider campaign by so-called "dissident" Irish Republican groups who are opposed to the peace process and wish to see a complete British withdrawal from the island of Ireland. The campaign has already led to the killing of two British soldiers and a police officer in 2009, and there have been numerous explosions and attempted bombings across Northern Ireland in recent years. Moreover as time passes, politicians and the security services are admitting that the dissident groups are much more sophisticated and deadly than was previously thought. For example, the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA are thought to possess bomb-making expertise capable of producing devices with the potential to cause huge loss of life.

The increase in dissident Republican activity in recent weeks is an attempt to discourage Roman Catholics from joining the PSNI and to destabilise the political institutions as the people of Northern Ireland prepare to elect a new assembly on 5 May. Both are symbols of the progress made in Northern Ireland since 1998 and anathema to dissident groups who feel that the union with Great Britain is more secure since the Good Friday Agreement. The power-sharing Assembly has just completed its first full term since it was established and this has contributed to a sense of normalisation and hope for a peaceful future. However, with some Unionists feeling anxious about an Irish Nationalist/Republican electoral victory and the possibility of a Sinn Fein First Minister, it appears that the dissident groups are seeking to exploit these fears by using violence to drive a wedge between the two political traditions. Nevertheless, the cross-community response to PC Kerr’s murder demonstrates that their chances of success are extremely slim.

The sombre gathering in the small town of Beragh saw several political barriers broken down. The Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson attended his first Roman Catholic church service, Enda Kenny became the first Irish Taoiseach to attend the funeral of a northern policeman, and the Sinn Fein leadership, who once told mourners at republican funerals to “turn your backs on the police”, joined with the rest of the mourners. Even Jackie McDonald, the current leader of the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, was in attendance to express his abhorrence at the killing of the young policeman.

The most symbolic and poignant moment occurred on the main street of Beragh before the funeral service commenced, as members of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the PSNI carried their murdered friend and colleague to the church. In a country where the RUC and Irish Nationalist groups regularly engaged in hand-to-hand combat it was incredible to see the police and the GAA united in grief and sharing the duty of carrying the policeman, his hat and gloves sitting proudly on the top of his coffin.

Since that day in Beragh, peace rallies have been held throughout Northern Ireland and people from across the country’s political spectrum have expressed their anger and disgust at the killing and their hope for an end to the violence. Out of the dissident plans for division has come unity and out of their violence and destruction has come renewed hope for peace, reconciliation, and cooperation. Against such determination and resolve from the people of Northern Ireland the dissidents have little hope of success.


Gavin Norris was born in Northern Ireland and holds a BA in Modern History and International Studies from Queen's University, Belfast. He is currently studying for an MA in International Relations at King's College London. 


21 April 2011


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