I went to meet Derry's dissident republicans ahead of this summer's G8 summit.
Derry, the second largest city in Northern Ireland, has been chosen as this year's UK City of Culture. If you're aware of the history of the region – as aware, say, as the very vocal republican community who have railed against the idea of being part of the UK for decades – you might argue that the decision to deem Derry as the "UK city" of anything seems provocative. You'd imagine, for instance, that the active republican paramilitaries who still remember what happened on Bloody Sunday in 1972 might be feeling a little disconcerted by that.
Aware that the Northern Irish tourist board were unlikely to replace their website's images of Derry's rolling green hills and Peace Bridge with footage of explosions, water cannons and eight-year-olds in balaclavas lobbing bricks at the British army any time soon, I visited last week to attempt to take the mood of the city. While I was there, I attended a parade put on by the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM) – the group seen as the political wing of the Real IRA – which was held to commemorate the scores of IRA volunteers who have died in the city.
Unsurprisingly, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) decided to ban the gathering, but that wasn't going to stop anyone. Making my way to the notorious Creggan housing estate on the outskirts of Derry, I quickly drew the attention of the security services, who pulled up in an armoured van and demanded I show some ID, before starting to harass a young local who was showing me around the area.
Once I reached the march's assembly point, I looked down an alleyway to see a gang of young boys – some as young as ten – pushing a shopping trolley filled with bricks and bottles. When they reached the road, they immediately set about attacking the police, but none of the other adults gathered around me seemed to pay them much attention.
Heads began to turn when a petrol bomb was thrown and a small child climbed on top of a moving Land Rover to smash off one of the wing mirrors, but on the whole the march was a relatively calm affair. At one point, the police ordered the crowd to disperse, but given that many of them were fourth-generation street fighters on home turf, they chose to ignore the police and finish off the march they'd started.
Nathan Hastings is the young man who led the 32CSM procession through Derry City Cemetery, where many of the dead IRA members are buried. He defies any stereotype you might have conjured up about young Northern Irish dissidents. He's polite, educated, has no criminal convictions and is totally unfazed by the constant police raids and surveillance. He didn’t grow up during The Troubles, but he doesn’t think that makes his cause any less legitimate.
“The last 30 to 40 years have seen heightened tensions, but this is a conflict that's gone on for centuries," he told me. "Throughout history, republican struggle has been re-energised by youth, it's never been a necessity for them to have experienced the years of struggle before their time. So for young people to attack the PSNI is nothing strange – it's a regular occurrence, nobody blinks an eye. That kind of thing would get huge coverage if it was happening in a suburb of London or Birmingham, but here it's totally normal.”
Nathan continued, relaying his thoughts about the divisive City of Culture award: “Derry's biggest culture is the culture of resistance – a culture of resistance to foreign rule. And one of our proudest traditions is commemorating the dead here in Derry who gave up their lives fighting. There’s been a campaign of normalisation – authorities trying to normalise British installations and institutions, such as the PSNI. And the City of Culture award is another example, but for any nationalist to accept the award and readily accept being called a UK city is a great betrayal."
I stayed behind after the commemoration to talk to Mickey McGonigle, an older member of Republican Sinn Fein, the group believed to be the Continuity IRA’s political wing. The conversation turned to Martin McGuinness, a former local republican hero and ex-IRA member now cursed by dissidents for becoming a British minister at Stormont, Northern Ireland's parliament. In fact, the night I arrived in the city I was told that Martin's house had been paint-bombed and that the street outside his house is covered in graffiti calling for the release of dissident prisoners.
Mickey McGonigle explained that these parts of Derry aren't ready to move on: “The last 40 years, those young boys have seen nothing but anti-police and anti-army. Martin McGuinness fought for the same thing for years, but now he's totally against all of that anti-police and anti-army sentiment. He's sitting in Stormont and directing British rule in the six counties, something he fought against for 40 years.”
After talking to Mickey I realised I was one of the only people left lingering around and headed off to find the republican youths who'd gathered at a roundabout to wait for the police to return. Once there, I found out that it's not just the more radical dissidents who are pissed off at being labelled as UK citizens, but also ordinary republicans who accepted the decommissioning of paramilitary groups as part of the Northern Irish peace process.
Woody is a young football fan from a family of well-known republicans who backed the peace process, but the suggestion that his city is British enrages him – he sees it as a provocation that makes him question all the progress Sinn Fein has made towards ending British rule in Northern Ireland.
“In this city, the culture I know of is fighting, it's resistance," he told me. "Our culture here is fighting the UK that we're now so 'proudly' a part of. What was all the conflict for if we're just going to accept we were defeated, basically? They can have as many festivals in Derry as they want, but we know and they know that this is Ireland – this place has nothing to do with the UK.”
While tensions flare around the City of Culture award, another issue is bubbling away ominously in the background; plans to host this year's G8 summit in County Fermanagh, an area south of Derry, in June. The plans have created a security nightmare for police. Paramilitaries are threatening to target the event and have already planted a bomb in the area, and the Republican Network for Unity – a group launched by former prisoners – is hoping to link up with anti-capitalist groups to protest the meeting. Republican Sinn Fein are also getting involved, hosting an "anti-imperialist" conference in Belfast to build opposition to the summit.
Nathan explains, "The G8 being held in County Fermanagh is them saying they have the situation here well wrapped up, that there's no security threat here. It's sending a message to placate unionists and sending a message to the world about the situation in Ireland."
The PSNI are planning to buy drones to police the event and temporary prisons are being built in case there are more arrests than the local jails can handle, which doesn't bode particularly well. English, Scottish and Welsh police federations seem reluctant to draft in members of their own forces to provide extra security, which means the PSNI face a dilemma, as using the army to secure the area could provoke an even bigger backlash from republican dissidents.
Violence has already begun to spiral in the leadup to the summit. A van filled with mortars was recently intercepted by police, a 60kg bomb was left at the site of the planned G8 summit last June, bombs are regularly left for police and IRA members have appeared at rallies firing shots. So, all in all, the situation isn't sounding too promising.
Photo courtesy of RAAD
As if the PSNI didn't already have enough to worry about, they also have to attempt to predict the actions of a group calling themselves the new IRA, comprising the Real IRA and Republican Action Against Drugs, or RAAD (the name is pretty self-explanatory). RAAD sprung up a few years ago and, while technically taking a similar stance towards drugs as the police, have caused them nothing but trouble. Last year, Derry was dubbed the “city of fear” after two masked RAAD members were pictured with a hooded “leading drug dealer” they had captured.
Hundreds of young men involved with drugs in some way are thought to have fled the city after threats from the group. Others have stayed, but if RAAD track them down, they're going to their parents and giving them two options: either they bring their children directly to them to be kneecapped as punishment, or their kid dies. Which seems like a bizarre way of looking out for the community.
However, as bad as that might seem, Nathan Hastings explained that the RAAD militants have filled a void left by the Provisional IRA – a branch of the IRA that became inactive in 2005 – and are attracting support from locals. That claim was backed up by other people I spoke to in Derry, who – despite rejecting the political aims of Nathan and the 32CSM – say they are still in support of vigilante justice.
“People are living in poverty," Nathan told me. "People feel compelled to turn to selling drugs because they can't make any other means of income, but we can’t be mistaken into thinking that's the case for all drug dealers – there are people out there who are totally parasitical. They’re willing to turn on their own communities and ruin them through anti-social behaviour, and all other activity that's related to substance abuse, for their own personal gain.
"The republican movement has always had a harsh stance against any such activity, and defending the community from the police also involves protecting the community against those elements. Nothing has changed politically for us, but people are now of the belief that armed republicanism is something that is rightful and is something that can be exercised with dignity by an Irishman.”
So with all that in mind, it's pretty clear that if the City of Culture award and G8 summit are methods to gloss over the ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland, they're never going to work. Both militant republicans and their slightly more docile counterparts will never be able to fully reconcile with British rule; over a century of conflict doesn't get forgotten about that easily. And while the majority of republicans have expressed their will for peace through the ballot box, poorly thought-out tokenistic acts like these risk pushing more young men into the culture of violence that the country has been trying to escape for so many years.
As the City of Culture celebrations trundle on and with the G8 summit on the horizon, it looks like 2013 could be another eventful year in Derry's history of resistance.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
More IRA and Northern Ireland: