DERRY, Northern Ireland — Not a day goes by when Sinead Quinn doesn’t remember how she felt seeing her friend collapse to the ground after she was shot in the head by members of the New IRA, a Republican paramilitary group, six months ago.
Journalist Lyra McKee was struck by a bullet fired at police during a riot in the Roman Catholic and Republican area of Creggan near Derry. Her death was a worrying sign of a return to the type of violence that characterized the “Troubles” that ended officially in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 but have been on the rise since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union three years ago.
“We are in extremism territory again, that's where we are,” said Quinn.
One of the biggest fears for those in Derry and across Northern Ireland is that Brexit will mean the re-establishment of a hard, militarized border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Police fear violent groups like the New IRA, which is driven by an ideological desire to push British officials out of the country and create a united Ireland, are using Brexit to boost their platform.
“This kind of momentum has been building up for some time, but what Brexit does is it pours petrol onto the situation. It is a major accelerant,” Tom Clonan, a security analyst who worked on the border with the Irish army, told VICE News.
Besides McKee’s murder, there have been eight attacks against security forces so far this year, compared to just one in 2018. More broadly, Northern Ireland experienced 56 violent attacks and arrests last year, according to Europol’s latest report on Terrorism in the EU.
In Derry, a former IRA stronghold, there is already a growing sense among working-class communities that they've been forgotten and abandoned by the Parliament in London, and politicians elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, which has not sat for almost three years because of political dysfunction.
"The difference Brexit makes is that it has given them a rhetoric and a language, and a raison d'etre that they didn't have before, and that is gaining traction in the communities that they draw on for their volunteers,” Clonan said.
An old threat returns
For many in Northern Ireland, the horrors and violence of the decades-long struggle between dissident Republicans and the British government came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Although violent dissident Republicanism largely faded to the background after the landmark agreement, it never fully disappeared. Over the years it has taken on various forms, with groups like the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, while other parts of the movement branched into organized crime, protection rackets, and vigilantism.
But the political violence that once defined the movement began to rear its ugly head again in 2012, when a paramilitary group calling itself the New IRA emerged, seeking to unite dissident Republicans under a single banner, and referring to themselves simply as the IRA. They have steadily grown since, absorbing members of other dissident groups into the fold while launching more and more attacks.
Key to their growth, experts warn, is Saoradh, an upstart political party out of Derry.
The new IRA
Just over a mile from where McKee was murdered, a uniform row of red-brick residential houses is broken by the green and white of Junior McDaid House that comprises Saoradh’s headquarters.
Formed in 2016, the group bills itself a political answer for those who feel abandoned by Sinn Féin, the left-wing Irish Republican party, and are still suffering from poverty and alienation.
“We felt the need for a vacuum to be filled,” Paddy Gallagher, Saoradh’s 27-year-old national press officer, told VICE News.
The group claims to provide a welfare assistance program to help those struggling to get government benefits. It collects food donations and distributes them to locals in need. It even established a youth wing, called Éistigí, in a bid to recruit teenagers looking for help.
Although the group presents itself as a champion of working-class Irish, most consider it the New IRA’s unofficial political arm. The Police Service of Northern Ireland, meanwhile, have called their headquarters in Derry “the mouth and the hub” of the New IRA.
‘People can think what they like. Saoradh has stated multiple times that we have absolutely no link to the Irish Republican Army.’
"People can think what they like,” Gallagher told VICE News, in a room filled with replica firearms and military uniforms. “Saoradh has stated multiple times that we have absolutely no link to the Irish Republican Army.”
But the murals that cover Junior McDaid House appear to undercut the group’s claims. On the outside of the very building where Gallagher uttered these words, there's a mural that simply says: “Join the IRA.” Another features the slogan “Unfinished Revolution” above the image of a balaclava-wearing paramilitary sporting a rocket launcher.
What aren’t visible, however, are the red handprints daubed on the walls of the building by Quinn and others just days after McKee was murdered, claiming that Saoradh had “blood on their hands.”
That feeling resonates throughout Derry, where locals openly talk about Saoradh as an extension of New IRA.
“Everyone in Derry knows who is involved, but they are being smart by not getting linked to the attacks,” one source from the nationalist community in Derry, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told VICE News.
A BBC investigation further stoked those suspicions, when it was revealed that several members of Saoradh were also among the leadership of the New IRA.
Two of those identified in the report, Thomas Ashe Mellon and Fergal Melaugh, were among the Saoradh members who attempted to intimidate McKee’s friends when they painted red handprints on Junior McDaid House shortly after her death.
McKee’s murder brought the group national scorn and attention, but it had already been asserting itself in other ways.
In Derry, where drug addiction, mental health issues, and domestic violence continue to plague much of the working class, the group has been making small but not insignificant inroads.
“What you have is people who have nothing, have no hope,” Quinn said. “Normal people want to have a better life. The bigger questions at times don't come into it. We are trying to survive; that's the reality in Northern Ireland.”
As a result, Saoradh claims to have wide support within Republican communities in Derry. Gallagher would not divulge specific numbers but said Saoradh’s membership was in the “single-digit thousands” across Ireland.
Yet both experts and locals disputed the group’s claims of widespread community support, even in Republican strongholds like Bogside and Creggan.
‘Anger may turn to violence’
But they worry that could change as Brexit stokes old resentments, especially in border regions like Derry, which are set to suffer the most.
Saoradh and the New IRA are hoping to expand by appealing to the disadvantaged in society, who are set to suffer the most post-Brexit.
“Brexit is obviously a difficulty for Britain, and any type of difficulty for Britain is always an opportunity for Ireland,” said Gallagher. “Looking to our past, people will obviously be angry if there is a reintroduction of a fixed border, so I can only imagine that anger may turn to violence.”
The prospect of greater violence is very much top of mind for security officials. Earlier this year, the PSNI warned that “Brexit provides an opportunity for [the new IRA] to encourage people to recruit.”
The trend toward violence has continued in 2019, and officials are struggling to address their root causes.
“We are really, really good at managing our problems but not addressing them,” Johnny Byrne, senior lecturer in criminology at Ulster University, told a security conference last month.
Byrne highlighted the same concerns as those living in Republican flashpoints — a sense of alienation, a deep-seated resentment toward the police and the British establishment, and a feeling that politicians have all but abandoned them.
He said this all makes Northern Ireland ”fertile ground for the development of the next generation of terrorist or freedom fighter.”
But Quinn, who has seen the impact of resurgent violent dissident Republican violence up-close and personal, believes that Brexit will serve only to intensify the sense of isolation being felt in Northern Ireland.
“My biggest fear with Brexit isn't the border; it's the poverty,” Quinn said. “I think that if people experience worse poverty, and people can't afford to buy food, that [dissident Republican] organizations will become a link, they will allow them to get what they need, and then they will feel obliged to support those organizations.”
Cover: Paddy Gallagher, 27, national press officer for Saoradh, outside the upstart party's headquarters in Derry, Ireland. (Photo: Jon Hazell/VICE News)