Violence returns to the streets of Northern Ireland

By Kate Slavens
March 13, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In 1998, the Real Irish Republican Army, an IRA splinter group, detonated a car bomb in a shopping area of Omagh, Northern Ireland, that killed 29 people. Since then, violent Irish Republican groups have re-emerged as a major security threat to Northern Ireland, according to a Penn State terrorism expert.

"Dissident Irish Republican groups go by many names, but they are united in their refusal to accept the will of the majority of people in Ireland," said John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism and associate professor of psychology at Penn State. "No negotiated settlement, consensus solution or peace deal can convince them to lay down their arms."

In his book "Divided We Stand: The Strategy and Psychology of Ireland's Dissident Terrorists" (Oxford University Press, 2013), Horgan examines the activities, histories, motivations and strategies of these rapidly evolving splinter groups, including the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann.

Horgan's research is drawn from the Violent Dissident Republican Database that he and other researchers developed at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State. The VDR Database covers 17 years of analysis between 1994 and 2011. It includes information on 1,244 Republican activities as well as profiles of 662 individuals involved in dissident activity.

"We found that there has been a steady stream of violent events since 1997, with rapidly increasing levels of violence between 2008 and 2010," explained Horgan. "In total, over 700 people were injured and an additional 59 were killed by VDR groups between 1997 and 2011."

Today's VDR groups operate in a different environment than their predecessors active during the period known as "The Troubles," which spanned the late 1960s and ended with the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, according to Horgan. Despite some setbacks, the Northern Irish peace process has been judged a success, and thus current VDR groups enjoy little to no public support for their continued violent activities. Nevertheless, these groups claim to speak for the communities they supposedly represent by asserting their right to a united, independent Ireland.

"While all of the splinter groups reject the Good Friday Peace Agreement, they lack any kind of unified strategy," said Horgan. "A dissident group like the 32 County Sovereignty Movement has set itself up as type of a political pressure group, while other VDR groups have adopted a vigilante role in their communities, with the goal of taking over local 'policing' from the legitimate Police Service of Northern Ireland."

Equally disturbing are the increasing numbers of young people involved in violent dissident Republicanism, many of whom have little to no adult experience of The Troubles and thus may not be as ideologically devoted to the cause of Republicanism, or the people, as previous activists.

"We see two distinct groups: the older, more experienced Republicans and a younger generation active for the first time," said Horgan. "There is evidence that VDR groups are deliberately recruiting younger members into their organizations, thus ensuring continuity to a next generation of Irish Republicans."

Questions remain as to the VDRs' long-term viability, but Horgan says that in the short-term, they remain a legitimate threat to the region.

"Developing a counter-VDR strategy is urgent," he explained. "These groups shun popular support, claiming they don't need it. Some analysts believe this makes the dissidents pose a very low threat. To me, it's what defines them. It makes them unpredictable, and that is what makes them even more dangerous. The forthcoming 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising may well serve to unite the dissident factions in a way we haven't seen before, and I strongly predict an increase in the extent and lethality of their violent activities. The time for counter-terrorism initiatives to take hold is now."

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    IMAGE: Oxford University Press

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Last Updated February 11, 2020