10 April marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement or Belfast Agreement, the peace deal that brought an end to a three-decade-long conflict in Northern Ireland also known as the ‘Troubles’ (1968-1998). The agreement is largely perceived as successful: levels of violence have not reached those experienced during the conflict in which over 3,500 people died and over 40,000 were injured.
Although the largest republican paramilitary group from during the conflict—the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA)—has maintained its ceasefire, dissident republican groups have rejected the peace agreement and sought to continue their campaigns of violence. The recent shooting in Omagh of John Caldwell serves as a shocking reminder of the continued threat presented by some of these groups today.
Violence persists in the shadow of radical technological advances that have occurred since 1998. This Insight provides an overview of the militant republican factions still operating in Northern Ireland today and discusses how they use—or do not use—digital platforms.
The dominant cleavage during the conflict was between those in Northern Ireland who preferred to remain within the United Kingdom (on the political side known as ‘unionists’, and paramilitary groups tend to be referred to as ‘loyalist’), predominantly from the Protestant community, and those who wanted to break away from Great Britain and establish a united Ireland (on the political side known as ‘nationalists’, and the paramilitary groups are known as ‘republicans’), predominantly from the Catholic community. Both loyalist and republican groups engaged in political violence during the conflict and remain proscribed terrorist organisations by the UK government.
While loyalist paramilitaries retain a large membership and still engage in violence—indeed, a recent feud escalated to arson attacks—this Insight focuses on republican paramilitaries that reject the peace process and remain committed to the use of violence to achieve Irish unity, the so-called ‘dissidents’.
Dissidents regard Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA as sellouts for their role in the peace process. The main dissident republican group to have emerged in the past decade is the New IRA and its political wing Saoradh. The group formed as a merger of smaller groups in 2012, including the Real IRA and Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD). While far smaller than the Provisional IRA during the conflict, the New IRA are the most active dissident republican group today. They have engaged in significant violent events over the past years, including the shooting of John Caldwell, a bomb attack on a police patrol vehicle in 2022, and the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019.
The Real IRA was formed in 1997 as a peace agreement was on the horizon. Led by the former quartermaster of the Provisional IRA, the breakaway group was responsible for the Omagh atrocity in 1998. The bombing was the conflict’s single largest loss of life resulting in the deaths of 29 people in a predominantly Catholic town. Any public support the Real IRA had on the eve of the bombing quickly fell.
RAAD was a republican group based in Derry/Londonderry which focused on countering drug gangs in the city by engaging in so-called punishment attacks. Northern Ireland continues to experience persistent rates of shootings and beatings aimed at members of their “own” communities, usually young men, accused of anti-social behaviour and drug dealing. Most dissident groups engage in this form of violence as a strategy of coercive control, but they are also “regarded by some in the community as protecting their areas”.
Finally, a political faction opposed to dropping the principle of abstentionism—the policy of not allowing members to sit in Westminster, Stormont, or Dublin parliaments—broke away from Sinn Fein in 1986. Its military wing, the Continuity IRA, became active in 1994. They have been involved in several bombing and shooting incidents, including the murder of police officer Stephen Carroll in 2009 and the so-called ‘Brexit day’ bombing attempt in 2020.
Social Media and Digital Platforms
The use of digital platforms and social media by dissident paramilitaries and their political wings has shifted in recent years. Historically, digital platforms served as online debate chambers. Paddy Hoey’s research shows how digital platforms such as The Blanket or The Pensive Quill highlighted alternative viewpoints on the peace process—views that were “constrained, censored, and marginalised in mainstream media.” However, dissident paramilitaries are increasingly using digital platforms to amplify dissident activities through the dissemination of ‘on-the-ground’ reporting. Dissident social media activity including videos and images have been picked up by media production channels such as Vice News. Thus, digital platforms initially provided dissident republicans with a space to discuss and comment but have increasingly been used to gain new audiences that would not have been possible through the traditional media landscape.
Recruitment and Radicalisation?
In the limited research on the role of digital platforms in the radicalisation of people into violent dissident republicanism, there is evidence that digital platforms serve as a source of information for potential youth members. The extent to which this information is necessary and sufficient for radicalisation is unclear. In contrast to jihadist and far-right terrorist groups that actively use digital platforms to recruit, spread propaganda, coordinate attacks, and create online networks, digital platforms play a limited role for dissident republican paramilitary groups. Why are they not used more extensively?
There are two possible reasons for this. First, existing work shows that family ties and connection to the ‘Republican tradition’ were key factors for recruitment during the conflict. This recruitment pattern is likely to still be the case today, as groups recruit in specific areas. Second, dissident republican groups are aware of the security issues presented by new digital platforms. Indeed, users of one of the most prominent online republican forums are warned not to post information about their personal activities due to monitoring from “state agents.” The heightened awareness to monitoring is likely an important legacy of a counterinsurgency campaign that relied heavily on the use of informants.
In recent years, it is not just intelligence or security forces that have used digital platforms against dissident paramilitaries. Bellingcat used videos posted on social media to crowd-source information on Lyra McKee’s killers. Investigative journalists pieced together the events that led up to the moment the Northern Irish journalist was shot dead while observing a riot in the Creggan area of Derry/Londonderry, including posting images of individuals with potential involvement. In the process, Bellingcat demonstrated to the wider public—and no doubt leaders within the dissident republican movement—the ability of an organisation with limited resources to use evidence published online to identify members of their organisations.
In the wake of Lyra McKee’s murder in 2019, Voxpol published a study of Facebook groups associated with violent dissident republicanism in 2015. They found that followers of profiles linked to the political wings was low and concluded that “an ageing movement with thousands of passive sympathisers, few activists, and weak connections to the local community points to a grim future for [violent dissident republican] groups.” This may be correct, but it may also simply reflect that dissident republican groups’ use of digital platforms is more limited.
Although violence is much lower than during the conflict, it persists 25 years after the signing of a successful peace agreement. In contrast to jihadist and far-right terrorist groups, digital platforms appear to play a limited role in radicalisation and recruitment into violent dissident paramilitary groups.
Nevertheless, there is anecdotal evidence that dissident groups have started to use encrypted messaging services for internal communications. Equally, reports emerged in 2021 that the New IRA were using social media to gather intel on potential police targets. How these groups use digital platforms for security operations is an important avenue for future research.
Kit Rickard is a Research Associate at UNU-WIDER and will join ETH Zurich as a Senior Researcher in June 2023. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the Political Science Department, University College London (UCL). His research spans international relations, peace studies, and comparative politics, and primarily concerns three themes: international security, civil war dynamics, and the legacies of war.