Talking with the ‘dissidents’

I like Brian Rowan – always have.  I used to see him in and around the BBC, and unlike some in that institution,  he was friendly with everyone, regardless of rank or importance.   He was also a good journalist, invariably clear and informed. These days he’s making a stir because he chaired a political discussion in the Waterfront Hall recently, which included Ciaran Cunningham from the Republican Network for Unity (RNU). The group rejects Sinn Féin’s strategy and the meeting was seen as ground-breaking, since it gave the RNU a platform to articulate its views and defend them.

Brian Rowan believes strongly in the worth of this: “It is a massive piece of work and may be that there are those who are not interested. But we will only find the answer to that question if a place for talking is established, and if everyone is invited into the room”.

I’m with him completely – there should be room for every political voice, particularly those with whom we most disagree. That’s what made the BBC and RTÉ broadcasting ban on republicans so stupid. But there are two areas that Brian has skipped around and they have to be faced.

The first is the danger of over-estimating the value of discussion. It’s good, in that it forces participants to clarify their thinking. It’s good that the beliefs of all sides are challenged,  and where there are flaws, these are exposed. That said, I can’t think of a single example where political discussion with opponents has changed the mind-set of those involved. “West Belfast Talks Back” always hosted people with strongly anti-republican views (as well as those with strongly pro-republican views), but I don’t think any of those evenings ended with a panellist smacking his or her forehead and saying “Oh God, what a fool I’ve been! Now I see where I went wrong!”. In fact you might even argue the reverse. As the Rev David Latimer cheerfully pointed out, his attendance at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis didn’t make him any less of a unionist.

The second issue that’s been gracefully skirted is the core one: the use of violence. It’s clear that Sinn Féin have committed themselves to a non-violent path towards national reunification. You might almost say they’ve chosen the Christian path: they’ve beaten their swords into plough-shares and have extended the hand of friendship to those who have most reviled them. Not so some other republican groups, sometimes called “micro-groups”,  sometimes “splinter groups”, sometimes “dissidents”.  I was on a BBC radio discussion programme with Ciaran earlier this week and it was notable that the key question – “Do you believe in the use of violence to achieve your political goals?” – was somehow avoided.

Maybe with good reason. If Ciaran Cunningham or anyone else were to answer “Yes” to that question, they might  find themselves in a court of law. So I understand why Brian and others avoid it, but it really is the core question. Martin McGuinness condemns the violence that ended the young life of Ronan Kerr, not so much because he, McGuinness, is a pacifist, but because he believes such violence is futile and achieves nothing at this point in our history.  The people who believe in such violence or carry it out think it does achieve something at this point. I very much doubt if they believe they can defeat the British army, but they hope it will do one thing and they believe it will do a second thing.

They hope that their violence will draw increasing numbers to their ranks – people who are impatient or disillusioned with Sinn Féin’s strategy. And if that doesn’t happen, they can console themselves with the belief that  they are keeping the flame of violent republican resistance alive, so that another day or another generation will receive it and force a British withdrawal from Ireland. No other means, they believe, will do the job.

So as I say I applaud Brian Rowan’s efforts to make room for all voices. But he (and we) would do well not to over-estimate the persuasive powers of talk; and he/we would do well to remember that it’s not the issue of social justice that is the point of disagreement,  it’s the use of violence.

8 Responses to Talking with the ‘dissidents’

  1. Anonymous February 19, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    What was the B B C programme on which you and Ciaran Cunningham discussed these issues?It would be interesting to access it on I player.

  2. Jude Collins February 19, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Stephen Nolan Show – I think it was Friday last

  3. barney rowan February 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Jude – thanks for your kind words. I agree entirely that there are no guarantees that talking will change anything, but we won’t know until someone makes the effort to create a forum in which all voices can be heard. I think those who continue to engage in armed actions need to explain what they think they can achieve or will change. I spoke to Ciaran Cunningham about this during the panel discussion at the Waterfront and in a report I did for UTV Live Tonight mid January.You should still be able to get it on the UTV Player. Again, thanks for your kind words and for the issues raised in the Blog. Barney

  4. Anonymous February 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    Dissidents are merely following in the footsetps of Martin McGuinness and people like him. Jude’s point is right about not expecting too much from discussion. Although sometimes the people making the argument for violence really need to hear themselves in conversation with others to see how implausible their position is. For that reason Barney is to be commended.

    • barney rowan February 21, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

      Just a few thoughts and questions. What was the expectation when John Hume began talking to Gerry Adams, and what was achieved? A decade ago could we have imagined a political arrangement at Stormont involving Sinn Fein and the DUP? If you can create momentum within talks then people can be moved.There are those in that dissident or alternative republican world who have been around this conflict long enough to know that armed actions are not going to drive the ‘Brits’ out or force a re-write of the political agreement. So there needs to be a focus on those armed actions and a constant questioning about their motivation and purpose. Talking may change nothing, but who knows until someone makes the effort. This is a big discussion for the republican community and all its strands – the challenge is to talk to and with each other, not at each other.

    • Anonymous February 22, 2012 at 3:54 pm #


      long before Hume started talking to Adams the Provos were on the current course. It was clear there would be a unionist SF deal and that SF would bend considerably to accomodate that deal. If you go into talks with dissidents using that logic they are unlikely to talk much. What would be in it for them other than the defeat they are so opposed to? You need to talk to them in such a way that the logic drops on them about the futility of the campaign. Let them figure out that they can remain oppositional without either being violent or rolling over like the Provos did.

    • barney rowan February 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

      I said recently that there has to be room in the republican community for a second voice and another opinion. There is nothing wrong with dissent if that’s what it is – a different opinion. Where the argument is lost is in a resort to armed activity and actions that will achieve nothing and change nothing. That is the futility of the campaign, and, I agree, where the focus needs to be. The discussion is for the republican community and all its strands.

  5. Anonymous February 25, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Barney, but that is where the argument was always lost – in futile armed campaigns. The Provos got very little in return for their often brave and selfless actions. You thinking there should be room for a second opinion in that community is an acknowledgement that room is denied. It always has been. The Provo leadership cannot abide dissent. Armed dissent suits the Provos better as it is easier to dismiss than non violent critiques. Richard O’Rawe was not promoting violence. Even before his tale became stronger than SF’s they hated him.