Following hard on the heels of the controversy over the deployment of the SRR, though probably not related directly to it, came a republican attack on a British Army base in Antrim that killed two soldiers. This was the first British Army fatalities in the north since 1997, and the first time that republicans have inflicted military casualties. Claims of responsibility for this attack came from both the “Real IRA” and “ONH”.
This is latest in a growing number of attacks carried out by republicans, which have ranged from shootings to car booby trap bombs, landmines to the large 250lb-plus car bomb only last month. There is no doubt that the level of activity of republicans is growing and that they are picking up some degree of support, particularly in the most marginalised nationalist areas. The main reason for the growth of republican groups is the increasingly obvious failure Sinn Fein to make any advances on even the most minimal nationalist demands never mind a republican agenda.
There is also the ongoing decay of Sinn Fein from an activist party with grassroots support to one staffed by full timers who are dependent on patronage that flows from Stormont. In the most marginalised nationalist areas Sinn Fein are increasingly seen as corrupt and out of touch. A particular touchstone for discontent is the issue of anti-social behaviour. It has gotten much worse in recent years - serving to highlight both Sinn Fein’s diminishing authority and failure to improve policing. This has provided the opportunity for republicans to build a degree of support through vigilantism. It is this general social and political decay that has enabled republicans to build up a base to sustain a low level military campaign.
This in no way poses a challenge to the British state, but it does put pressure on Sinn Fein as they face demands from the British and Unionists to support more repressive measures against republicans. It the wake of the Antrim attack Sinn Fein are being urged to give their full support to the Chief Constable and his decision to deploy special forces.
If republican groups have any form of strategy it is to provoke more a repressive response from the British state that they hope will boost their own support and further discredit Sinn Fein. It is a variation of the old guerrilla concept than repression will inevitably provoke revolt. However, in most cases this has proved to be an illusion. More repression has just meant more repression and defeat. The Republicans also have a flawed assessment the Provisional campaign – putting its failure down to the development of a political programme rather than its adherence to armed struggle. The reality was that the armed struggle was defeated because of its own inherent limitations. Once it was defeated the republican political programme went down with. The critical point is that the Provisionals political defeat followed their military defeat, not the other way round as the republicans claim. Despite their criticism of Provisional movement they have actually adopted its strategy and are bound to repeat its failure.