As wild as the streets of Belfast can get at times, it’s not often that you can walk them and come across a group of masked men marching through the city carrying flags emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle, being manhandled into kettle pens by squadrons of British cops. But then it’s not every day that the G8 summit comes to Belfast, as it did this June.
The group, I later learned, was the Republican Network for Unity (RNU); a dissident network formed in 2007 whose members were mostly former republican prisoners or community activists. According to reports, the group are ardent Leninists who have taken it upon themselves to introduce Belfast’s nationalist communities to the joys of communist rhetoric. They’re also accused of having an armed wing that left a 60kg bomb near this year’s G8 summit site.
Irish republicans flirting with Marxist ideology is nothing new; the argument that the British state has deliberately divided the Irish working class to keep them from uniting and overthrowing their bourgeois oppressors dates back decades. But it seemed slightly peculiar that such a group was emerging in 2013, when socialist national liberation struggles are at such a low ebb. It’s been 40 years since disagreements over socialist ideals led to the splintering of the IRA, with the more militant Provisional IRA emerging out of the then-Marxist-leaning Official IRA.
I wondered if the RNU’s sudden appearance on Belfast’s streets this summer had anything to do with dissatisfaction with Sinn Féin. Is radical, far-left republicanism enjoying a resurgence in Ireland? Sinn Féin’s courting of Fianna Fáil – both parties that are ostensibly “republican”, but are widely regarded at this point as being more populist than anything else – hasn’t gone down well in the south of Ireland, given that Fianna Fáil are the ones that led Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” economy from boom to bust.
I went to Belfast to meet with members of the RNU in a bid to find out if Communism is due a return to my home city.
In Ardoyne, a working class, mainly Catholic republican stronghold in north Belfast, RNU supporters were holding a march to commemorate Henry Joy McCracken, an 18th century protestant radical. A banner at the head of their march read, “Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter”, referencing the argument of another 18th century revolutionary – Theobald Wolfe Tone – that religious division was “a tool of the elite”, setting one party against the other to “plunder and laugh at the defeat of both”. The march’s route was lined by angry loyalists who didn’t agree with Tone’s suggestion and armed police with water cannons, there to make sure the event remained peaceful.
An RNU member handed me a pamphlet that outlined their take on the old Soviet bloc. The text claimed that, while they introduced universal education, medical care and gender equality, both the USSR and China “committed dreadful acts”. Mind you, it also notes that “their failure was not based on the ideas which drove the first visionaries, but by attacks from both outside and from within”. In short, they seemed to be sympathetic to the principles of Communism and disdainful of those principles’ subsequent corruption.
The RNU’s spokesperson, Martin Og Meehan, is a former IRA prisoner and well known in the local community. I asked him how republicans have been reacting to the Soviet imagery the group has associated itself with in recent months.
“You can use the word communism, you can use the word socialism – we are very much leftist and we are going down that road,” he told me while the marching bands lined up nearby. “There’s always been a very strong leftist anti-capitalist tradition within republican movements, it was just muted for too long,” he continued. “It was muted by Sinn Féin, who were looking to bring Americans on board – they didn’t want to offend anyone. Our political strategy is to give voice to the voiceless.”
Explaining his own history, Martin told me, “I served time – a 12-year sentence in the H blocks for the Provisional IRA. I’m very much part of the RNU and have been from the beginning. We carry on the legacy of republican groups from the past.”
But does that legacy include the alliance with an armed wing, a charge that has been levelled at the RNU? It’s typical for republican organisations to have a political group backed up by an armed wing, and – following that tradition – people around Belfast have started to link the RNU to a small armed group operating across Ireland under the name Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH).
The group allegedly tried to use a Hezbollah-style IRAM flying IED to take down a police helicopter; they have claimed responsibility for mortar attacks on police patrols; they have appeared at a number of appearances at commemorations, firing shots into the air and even rattling off an AK-47 over the heads of the PSNI during rioting in the Ardoyne. In March of this year, a 60kg bomb in a beer keg belonging to the ONH was found near the G8 summit site in Fermanagh. A statement from the group said, “Target was hotel hosting G8 summit in June.”
Notes from a 2011 meeting show how the RNU, not yet transformed into a revolutionary leftist party, wished, “comradely greetings to Óglaigh Na hÉireann”. Around the same time, money was allegedly being sent to the RNU from the US to support ONH prisoners.
When I put this to Martin, he claimed that the RNU doesn’t have a military wing or any military objectives. When asked whether they support the actions carried out by ONH, he said, “We don’t. What we do is we accept and recognise that, so long as there’s a British occupation, that there will be armed actions. We recognise and accept that, but we don’t support any armed actions. It’s not a question of need; it’s a question of the Irish people having a right to resist foreign occupation in whichever way they choose to do so. It’s a moral imperative on their part.”
So while rejecting the allegations that the group has allied itself with an armed wing, the RNU stands outside of the peace process, opposing the Good Friday Agreement made 15 years ago. The group say that Sinn Féin had promised IRA volunteers that they would channel peace money into working class nationalist areas, a promise they claim was broken, making the agreement defunct in the process.
Martin explained: “I voted yes for the Good Friday agreement – I was prepared to speak for it and advocate on behalf of it. I was one of the volunteers in this area, and we were promised by the leadership of the IRA that the money generated by the British and Irish government would be put into working-class areas to improve housing, education and the future. None of it has happened.” Continuing, he said, “So long as the British occupy part of Ireland, there are going to be armed attacks against that force, be it the PSNI, the army or whatever. It has been continuing for over 800 years.”
Some of the RNU’s campaigns exist outside of the realm usually inhabited by dissidents. This month, they leafleted staff at benefits offices, asking them to refuse to implement Tory cuts under the “Welfare Reform Bill”. Activists also regularly picket letting agents, highlighting the cost of renting for people in impoverished areas, and graffiti warning “scum landlords” to drop their rents has also appeared around the city, signed underneath by RNU.
Then there’s the shit smeared across the offices of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, a dirty protest against conditions at HM Prison Maghaberry, where many dissident Republicans are incarcerated. I guess it makes some kind of an impact, but I’m not convinced that protest tactics involving faeces are going to win the RNU any kind of legitimate mass support. Mind you, it may be that the group use that kind of attention-grabbing tactic because they’re not large enough to force their agenda otherwise.
The RNU plans to contest elections soon, but dissidents rarely fare well at the polls – the five big parties have everything nicely carved up. The RNU point to 800 years of small and unpopular radical groups who, at times, found themselves on the right side of history, but it feels like it could be some time before they make their own impact.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
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