A leading political voice in Irish dissident republicanism has urged all the armed paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland to call ceasefires and end their violence.
Des Dalton, the former president of the ideologically hardline Republican Sinn Féin, has become the first figure to emerge from dissident republican groups to advise those like him opposed to the Good Friday agreement that “armed struggle” should be suspended. His call for a dissident republican ceasefire comes at a time of increasing tension within Northern Ireland, particularly inside Ulster loyalist paramilitary factions.
An umbrella body representing the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando groups has withdrawn its support for the Good Friday agreement. The loyalists say the imposition of a “border” along the Irish Sea economically decoupling Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK has forced a rethink of their pro-agreement position.
The Observer understands that this does not mean any of these terror groups’ ceasefires are under threat in the short to medium term, although relations between the loyalists and the Irish government are said to be severely strained.
In an interview for a University of Liverpool project on Ireland’s constitutional future, which has been obtained by the Observer, Dalton stresses that his ceasefire demand is made on a personal basis and not on behalf of Republican Sinn Féin (RSF). The RSF national executive member says he believes the current armed campaigns cannot be justified strategically and morally. He adds that the suspension of “armed struggle” will create better conditions for all Ireland dialogue about reunification to take place in the post-Brexit era.
Republican Sinn Féin and its military allies in the Continuity IRA (CIRA) are the oldest of the dissident republican organisations. RSF was founded in 1986 after a split in Sinn Féin over the latter’s dropping of the traditional policy of boycotting the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann.
The CIRA has been responsible for a small number of armed attacks since its inception. In March 2009 a CIRA sniper shot dead Constable Stephen Carroll, the first serving member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to be killed by paramilitaries.
While emphasising that he will always support “the principle, the right to engage in armed action when necessary”, Dalton says: “This is a personal view, not the view of Republican Sinn Féin, but I would feel that the present climate, in the moment we are in, it is not conducive to armed actions. From the viewpoint of advancing republican goals it is counterproductive. Look at the actions of the last couple of years and none of them have advanced the cause of traditional republicanism. If anything, they have set back that cause.”
He points to the killing of the young journalist Lyra McKee two years ago in Derry as an example of armed actions that have held back traditional republicanism. The reporter was shot dead during a botched New IRA gun attack on police lines in the city in April 2019.
“My experience is that when traditional republicans are making some advances in gaining support there have been armed actions where all that has been lost. Armed action swings against and drowns out any message that we traditional republicans try to make. One only has to look at the aftermath of the tragic death of Lyra McKee and the way it turned so many people against traditional republicans,” he said.
Controversially from a hardline republican stance, Dalton says there is no proper armed campaign by the various dissident groups presently, but rather a series of what he calls “sporadic actions”. He continues: “From a moral point of view there are two aspects to all of this. There is the immorality of sending out young men and women either to take a life or else lose their own. Or topossibly face spending, 10, 15, 20 years in jail. I think morally that is not justifiable at this present moment in time.I just think that it can’t be justified when the reality is there is no campaign and more so because those armed sporadic actions are working against traditional republicanism.
“I look at the jails and see young people facing down 10 or 20 years of their lives and then I think about something that is not an effective campaign, that isn’t something leading towards some kind of significant breakthrough. In those circumstances I don’t think it’s justifiable to ask people to make those kinds of sacrifices and, obviously more significantly, to take a life.
“In 1923 and 1962, ceasefires were called even though there was no slipping back from traditional republican ideology. They were done purely on practical terms for the movement to stand back and reassess. I don’t see my call being any different from then.”
Asked by the Observer if he believed his ceasefire call might be heeded within the ranks of the Continuity IRA and other factions such as the New IRA, Dalton said: “Frankly I don’t know, but all I can do is offer my view and if it is not reflective then I will have to see where I am from there. But I very much remain a traditional republican and Republican Sinn Féin’s position reflects my own outlook.”
• The headline on this article was amended on 8 March 2021 to better reflect the content of the piece.