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Members of Saoradh marching on the 103rd anniversary of the 1916 Rising earlier this year. Sam Boal

Opinion I went to the Saoradh party conference to see where radical republicanism is going

Saoradh is an attempt to give a political face to the growing republican dissent in nationalist areas north of the border, writes Dieter Reinisch.

THE RADICAL REPUBLICAN party Saoradh held its fourth Ard Fheis in Newry last weekend, and although many observers consider it the unregistered political wing of the New IRA, party members continue to deny this.  

Formed in 2016, Saoradh is the newest and most influential republican group opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. The party is an attempt to give a political face to the growing republican dissent in nationalist areas north of the border.

Following a large commemoration on the Easter Rising centenary in Coalisland, Co Tyrone, that attracted over 3,000 participants, Saoradh as a political vehicle was formed.

The decommissioning of the Provisional IRA took place in 2005, while the Northern Irish police service (PSNI) was accepted at an extraordinary Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in January 2007.

Over the following decade, militant republicans, many of them experienced members of the provisionals, joined with members of so-called dissident republicans to form the New IRA in 2012.

The past year has been a dense period for militant republicanism. In January, the New IRA detonated a car bomb outside a Derry courthouse on the occasion of the 1919-Soloheadbeg ambush.

Before Easter, a New IRA member fatally injured journalist Lyra McKee during riots in the Creggan area of Derry. In a statement, the New IRA offered “full and sincere” apologies for her killing. 

Statements regarding the killing were read at Saoradh commemorations, and the group called the killing “heartbreaking”, saying that McKee was killed accidentally while a republican volunteer “attempted to defend people from the PSNI/RCU”.

Many observers expected, or rather hoped for, a decline of the party in the aftermaths of the killing. 

Due to the activity of the New IRA in the past year, fears of increasing violence over Brexit and a hard border dominated the public debate. In a recent Channel 4 interview, a New IRA spokesperson warned of attacks on any border infrastructure.

In this situation, this year’s Saoradh Ard Fheis provided a crucial window into the state of radical republicanism.

The Ard Fheis

Over 150 delegates assembled on Saturday afternoon in Newry for the conference.

Among them were Saoradh chairperson Brian McKenna, a former IRA prisoner from Dublin, and vice-chairperson Mandy Duffy from Lurgan – both were re-elected in their positions.

Other attendees were Dee Fennell from Belfast, Paddy Gallagher from Derry, and Davy Jordan and Sharon Jordan, both Tyrone.

Thomas Ashe Mellon, who recently spoke at a press conference about house raids and stop-and-search practices in Derry, was another delegate. The Derry office, Junior McDaid House, was searched by the PSNI two days before the party conference took place. 

While Brexit occupies the public debate, it merely played a minor role at the Ard Fheis.

“There was hardly any debate on Brexit, our position is clear and has not changed,” explained national public relations officer Paddy Gallagher.

In his address, Brian McKenna stated: “Saoradh supports an exit from the super-imperialist EU, this has been a long-standing revolutionary position. We see Brexit as a defeat for the business and political elite of Britain, Ireland and Europe.”

This should not be interpreted that Saoradh is a pro-Brexit party. Instead, as McKenna outlined in an interview after the publication of the party’s Brexit policy, Saoradh has a largely defeatist view on Brexit.

While the party welcomes the chaos brought to the UK, the party’s goal remains a united Ireland, with or without Brexit. This unified island should then leave the EU.

This anti-EU stance is, indeed, a long-standing republican position developed since the Sinn Féin opposition to the European Economic Community (EEC) – the former name for the EU – in the 1960s.

Sinn Féin itself was a strong opponent of the Lisbon and Nice treaties and only later became an ardent supporter of the EU.

Since its formation, Saoradh was only partially able to provide a political face to their movement. Their Brexit document remains the sole position paper. “We are still in a self-finding process. We are intensely discussing the future direction of the party,” a delegate explained.

In her address, party vice-chairperson Mandy Duffy said that “a series of all-day conferences to debate and form a consensus on policy regarding the issues of drugs, abortion, housing and elections” were held. Whether this will result in further policy documents remains to be seen.

The speeches stressed a democratic-socialist ideology. Strikingly, the word nationalism was largely omitted, instead replaced by revolutionary republicanism. Another term that often appeared was internationalism.

Links with Palestine?

Speakers stressed the links they saw with the Palestinian struggle. A message was read from Issam Hijjawi of the Palestine Democratic Forum in Europe.

The Palestinian delegate was detained at Madrid airport on his way to the event. Greetings were also heard from Scotland and Sweden.

Overall, the party was satisfied with the outcome of the weekend, with one delegate saying “we come out of the Ard Fheis with a clear message for the coming year”. 

The killing of Lyra McKee was only mentioned once at the conference.

Mandy Duffy said in her speech: “Easter 2019 proved a very difficult time for the party and for Irish republicanism, the death of Lyra McKee killed tragically by the IRA while defending a Derry community under siege by the British Crown Forces was swiftly and cynically used against Irish republicans.”

Another delegate said: “We lost members after the death of Lyra McKee, but we were still able to grow.”

New branches of the party in South Derry, North Antrim, and Scotland and the opening of an office in Newry were announced.

Saoradh is strongest in deprived Catholic areas in Belfast and Derry, as well as areas in rural areas such as North Armagh and East Tyrone. It also witnessed growth in Dublin, while the rest of the Republic remains underrepresented.

The weekend showed that since the killing of McKee, Saoradh consolidated. While observers hoped for the decline of the party in the aftermaths of her death, the party experienced slow but steady growth.

For many in Ireland, the most worrying message that the radical republican party sent from Newry is that it has found its place among traditional republicans and disillusioned youth on both sides of the border, and it is prepared to stay there for many years to come.

Dr Dieter Reinisch is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Central European University and an adjunct professor in International Relations at Webster University.

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