Visit part of new anti-dissident strategy

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Republic graffiti in Kilwilkie estate
Image caption,
There is a small, hardline faction in the estate which backs violence

The visit to Lurgan's Kilwilkie estate by Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin was a sign of a new approach to the dissident republican threat.

Rather than pretend that the dissidents will go away if they are left alone and totally ignored, the Irish government was keen to be seen to tackle them head on.

The visit seemed to herald a subtle change of tack.

The estate has a small, hardline faction opposed to the peace process, and supportive of violence. Republican slogans are painted on walls, along with warnings to the police to keep out.

But the Dublin minister came to make it clear that the Irish government - and the people of the island, including those in Lurgan - were against them.

Hot tea and buttered scones were served in North Lurgan Community Centre which is in the heart of the estate.

The minister was treated to a DVD and chats with local school children.

Yet behind the smiles, the eating, the drinking and the glad-handing, there was a serious message.

Minister Martin said those involved in the recent violence were not even worthy of the name "dissident".

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness has called them "traitors", "conflict junkies" and most recently "neanderthals".

The Irish foreign minister used his own words.

He said: "Dissident is a completely inappropriate term in my view.

"Dissident relates to people of conscience during the Cold War, and that term has no application to the kind of indiscriminate bombings which have taken place, or the murder of police officers or British Army personnel.

"They're betraying the republican tradition. In my view they will not succeed."

That is also the view of local politicians like Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd and the SDLP's Delores Kelly.

They were there to meet the minister and help introduce him to young people who have resisted the lure of the dissidents.

Significantly, the dissidents do not have any political representatives at Stormont and they are reluctant to run in next year's assembly election at the risk of being humiliated.

The vast majority of people in Lurgan have rejected violence. However, the fear is that as unemployment in the area grows, more young people will get involved in trouble.

Most dissidents are in their 20s or early 30s, and they are mainly male.

Image caption,
Micheal Martin said dissidents were "betraying the republican tradition"

Many of them are too young to remember the worst days of Northern Ireland's troubles.

However, their ranks have been boosted by a small number of hardened ex-members of the Provisional IRA. They have either become disillusioned with the peace process, or become bored after failing to acclimatise to a life without violence.

Some of the car-bombs and under-car booby-trap devices used in recent months have been similar in design to devices used 20 years ago by the IRA.

As for the overall number of dissidents, it is difficult to be exact. Some estimates say there are around 500 in Northern Ireland and maybe 200 in the Irish Republic.

Not all of them would be prepared to plant a bomb or fire a gun, but they would give direct or indirect support.

Research published last week by Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, suggested that support is small but growing.

In a survey, 14% of nationalists said they had sympathy for the reasons why some republican groups such as the Real and Continuity IRA continue to use violence.

In many ways, the visit by Micheal Martin to the Kilwilkie estate was an acknowledgement that increased security alone will not defeat the dissidents.

A policy of persuasion is needed too. It seems that process is now under way.