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Dieter Reinisch

Opinion Dissident Republican ÓNH issued a warning to Loyalists - what does this mean?

Historian Dieter Reinisch looks at events organised by paramilitary groups over Easter in Northern Ireland and says they illustrate a worrying shift.

EASTER WEEKEND IS traditionally a time for headline-grabbing statements in Ireland and more so in Belfast.

After two pandemic years, the Easter parades returned this year to the Falls Road, where thousands marched with the National Graves Association to Milltown cemetery.

Their main speaker was Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald. Standing on the “new” Republican plot where 77 IRA members are buried, she positioned her party as the future leaders of governments in Dublin and Belfast. She reached out to Unionists, “British governments have failed you.”

Other groups

Only an hour before Sinn Féin assembled at the graveyard, another Republican organisation sent a vastly different message to Loyalist sections of the PUL community.

In their Easter message, the dissident Republican paramilitary Óglaigh na hÉireann issued a threat against the UVF and UDA leaderships. As the Irish News reports, four masked men dressed in black, at least one armed, appeared in the several hundred strong crowds and read a statement.

Screen Shot 2022-04-19 at 17.48.00 The speeches at the weekend. Dieter Reinisch Dieter Reinisch

Referring to the activities of the UDA and UVF in recent months, they said:

We witnessed the continued lack of leadership in Unionism. We continue to monitor the activities of UVF and UDA in light of recent actions, and if Loyalists target Republican and Nationalist communities, we will target Loyalist leadership figures. But we are careful not to be drawn into the British strategy of a sectarian conflict.

In recent weeks, it’s suspected the UVF left a hoax bomb on the grounds of a church in North Belfast while Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney spoke only metres away, and the UDA has been blamed for the placing of several hoaxes on the Dublin to Belfast railway line disrupting cross-border travel.

Worrying new departure

The ÓNH display was the most unexpected event during the Republican parades this Easter. It marks a significant development within militant Republicanism – the groups opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and the continued acknowledgement of the right to pursue armed actions.

It was the first armed display in Milltown cemetery since the IRA ceasefire in the 1990s.

ÓNH has been on a ceasefire since January 2018. Since then, the group has largely disappeared from public attention. Instead, observers and media focused on the developments of the smaller Continuity IRA and the New IRA, a group considered the most active and strongest among dissident Republicans.

However, the group lost significant support since the killing of Lyra McKee in Derry three years ago. Moreover, the infiltration of their leadership by MI5 informer Denis McFadden brought the organisation’s activities to a standstill in August 2020.

ÓNH emerged from a split in the IRA in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Former Provisionals aligned with former members of the Real IRA, most of them loyal to the former IRA Quartermaster Michael McKevitt, who himself had broken from the Real IRA in the 2000s.

They were particularly active at the start of the second decade. For example, in January 2010, PSNI officer Peadar Heffron suffered devastating injuries when a booby trap device detonated under his vehicle a half-mile from his house in Randalstown, Co Antrim. In August 2010, they claimed responsibility for planting a 200lb bomb outside a police station in Derry.

However, following the emergence of the New IRA, some of its members defected to the new group, and the organisation was riddled with infighting resulting in their announcement to cease paramilitary action on 21 January 2018. As a result, many had thought the organisation was slowly fading away.

Around the time of the ÓNH formation, the Republican Network of Unity (RNU) emerged as a political force aligned with the same movement. RNU has members in Belfast, Derry, South Down, North Armagh, and other parts of Northern Ireland, but few activists in the Republic of Ireland. RNU organised the Easter commemoration in Milltown cemetery.

While numbers at their events dwindled in the pre-pandemic years, several hundred attended the gathering on Easter Sunday. Led by a lone piper, a Republican flute band, an all-female colour party carrying the Irish flag and those of the four provinces, and 24 men dressed in black trousers, white shirts and face covers, the crowd marched to the plot of 1940s IRA hunger striker Seán McCaughey.

Then, after speeches from the RNU chairperson Eddie Quinn and a former hunger striker of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front of Turkey, the four masked men appeared from the crowd.

At the beginning of the speech, they addressed their ceasefire:

Just over four years ago, after a long consultation with its members and supporters, the leadership [of ÓNH] has called an end to the military activities. The British State has used that time to continue to harass our members and families. They failed to grasp the opportunity that was presented to them. Their hope is that this will crush the organisation.

They continued:

Over the past number of years, we have restructured and rearmed.

What that means became clear in the next part of the speech:

A number of former members, some driven by ego, some were British agents, attempted the usurpation of our organisation, and we took lethal actions against them.

While no names were mentioned, former ÓNH members Kieran Wylie and Danny McClean were killed in Belfast in May 2020 and February 2021. No one has claimed responsibility for these killings. In addition, ÓNH claimed the killing of suspected drug dealers:

We are determined to defend communities from drug dealers, and we also took lethal actions against them.

Again, no names were mentioned. Over the past years, several people linked to drug trafficking were assassinated in Belfast, such as Mark Hall, Warren Crossan, Robbie Lawlor, and Jim Donegan. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for these killings either.

New weapons

While it is the first time since their ceasefire the organisation acknowledged their continued involvement in armed violence, they stressed their ceasefire stance and called on other Republican paramilitaries to cease actions, claiming: “They have failed.”

The ÓNH display marks an unexpected turn in the militant Republican scene. It is understood that the weapons on display came from a stock of newly acquired modern automatic and semi-automatic weapons. This indicates that ÓNH indeed reorganised, recruited, and rearmed during the pandemic. They can be considered the strongest Republican paramilitaries in the Greater Belfast area. Their statement also proves that they are willing to use these weapons and have done so in the past.

The threat against the UDA and UVF leadership marks a new departure in dissident Republicanism. It is believed that it is the first time dissidents have issued a direct threat against the Loyalist organisations. However, any attacks against Loyalists are improbable at this stage.

Screen Shot 2022-04-19 at 17.53.21 Dieter Reinisch Dieter Reinisch

Instead, the ÓNH statement should be interpreted as an attempt to position themselves as defenders of the Catholic, Nationalist and Republican communities in the North. Their mention of violence against criminals and drug dealers indicates this new self-understanding.

For this reason, a return to a low-intensity armed campaign against the PSNI and others they consider as representatives of the British state, as it had been experiencing before their ceasefire in January 2018, is unlikely. However, ÓNH has positioned itself as an active, well-equipped armed group in Belfast. Therefore, an end to their ceasefire cannot be ruled out.

Nonetheless, it is also unlikely that this will happen in the near future. No matter how ÓNH will develop over the following months, the events on Easter Sunday at Milltown cemetery have caught many observers by surprise.

Observers, commentators, and journalists will be forced to re-evaluate their assessment of armed Republicanism in the following days and weeks. While attacks on the PSNI are not expected, the potential threat level from militant Republicans remains high.

Among the reasons are Brexit and the ongoing Loyalist Anti-Protocol protests. Less than a month ago, the threat level for Northern Ireland was lowered from “substantial” to “serve” for the first time – a step taken too early?

Dr Dieter Reinisch is a Researcher in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland in Galway; Twitter:@ReinischDieter.


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