When the journalist Lyra McKee was shot and killed last month in Northern Ireland’s Derry city, it seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears. The Brexit deadline was fast approaching, and a group calling itself the New IRA (Irish Republican Army) claimed responsibility for McKee’s murder. It was widely interpreted as proof that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union will spur dormant republican paramilitaries into reigniting campaigns of terror that were supposed to have ended years ago.
But while the international media has brimmed with dire warnings of the consequences of Brexit, in Northern Ireland talk of the supposed return of the paramilitaries sounds disconnected. That’s because they never really went away. Official police records suggest their presence has been on the rise since 2007—years before any talk of hard borders, backstops, or customs posts. The cause of the problem is far more closely linked to deteriorating conditions in Northern Ireland itself rather than the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union.
Pro-IRA graffiti daubs the terraced rowhouses populating Derry’s Bogside—the predominantly Catholic working-class district located in an adjacent, shallow valley just beyond the city’s historic walls. “Join your local IRA unit” reads one tag. “PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] scum watch your backs” says another—this one located beneath a mural of Nelson Mandela and the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
The New IRA is now the most severe paramilitary threat facing Northern Ireland. It was formed in 2012 after a collection of smaller republican groups amalgamated inside a single command structure. Under this new leadership, it has carried out a string of high-profile attacks eerily reminiscent of Troubles-era violence.
As with most issues in Northern Ireland, the source of the problem can’t exactly be pinned down to a single factor, but a web of underlying social issues plays a role. High rates of unemployment—especially among urban male youth—provide a steady supply of fresh recruits to paramilitaries. Meanwhile, a rapidly growing drug problem in the region gives them a ready-made target—a way to burnish their credentials in defense of their fellow Catholics.
“I wouldn’t be confident saying there’s a direct cause or direct link [between unemployment and paramilitary activity],” cautioned Jonny Byrne, a lecturer at Ulster University who researches youth radicalization in Northern Ireland, “but what you find is that there are concentrated levels of quasi-control of paramilitary influence in areas where there’s high rates of unemployment.”
Unemployment can provide one of the pathways for disgruntled, impressionable youth into the ranks of paramilitary organizations, and this is partly the consequence of a peace process that empowered the Catholic middle class but did little to alleviate deeper socioeconomic grievances, leaving a sizeable working class behind.
“People talk about the peace process that has been established here,” said Paddy Gallagher, a community activist and the current spokesman of Saoradh, a far-left republican party that police allege is the political wing of the New IRA. “I would call it a poverty process as opposed to a peace process.”
Over a stretch of six straight nights in July 2018, Derry’s Catholic working-class neighborhoods underwent an intense period of rioting in what was described as the city’s worst public disorder in years. The New IRA later claimed responsibility, but the riots were more characteristic of a spontaneous working-class outburst than a coordinated political stunt.
“Working-class people still suffer greatly from deprivation,” Gallagher said. “We still suffer greatly from lack of employment, lack of health care, lack of education, lack of housing. So all the issues that working-class communities suffered 20, 30, 40 years ago, we still suffer from those today. There hasn’t been much change, to be honest.”
According to the most recent census, at 8.8 percent the Catholic unemployment rate is still higher than both the national (7.5 percent) and Protestant (5.7 percent) averages. Although that is lower than it was on the eve of the conflict that began in the late 1960s, the rates in Belfast and Derry—cities with the highest concentrations of working-class Catholics—still hover around 11 percent. Those figures tick upwards to a dizzying 16.9 percent when one accounts only for male youth.
Housing—Northern Ireland’s most contentious social issue—also bears some of the hallmarks of the pre-conflict period. Despite constituting just under half the total population, Catholics in some urban areas are still overwhelmingly those in need of social housing. Worse still, they wait an average of six months longer on housing lists than their Protestant counterparts, revealing the persistence of a historical institutional bias against Catholics.
Economic hardship, religious discrimination, and lack of housing were at the core of Catholic discontent that helped spur the beginning of the conflict in the late 1960s. But this new generation of militant republicans is motivated by an additional phenomenon. Northern Ireland is currently in the throes of a major mental health and drug epidemic, and Gallagher sees a connection.
“People can’t handle the wide-scale deprivation,” he said. “They can’t deal with the fact that they struggle to get work, get a house, have a decent education. People do certain different types of drugs to escape that reality.”
But mental health professionals have noticed another consistent thread in cases of mental illness: post-conflict trauma. In his recent book, Conflict, Peace and Mental Health, the author David Bolton writes that at least 34,000 people in Northern Ireland suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and further estimates that 210,000 people there could be suffering from a litany of anxiety disorders that can be traced to trauma suffered during the Troubles.
The causal link between post-traumatic stress and drug addiction is well established, and official reports show that cases of both drug-related crimes and drug use have steadily increased over the past decade. Worse, the presence of drug supply networks has opened space for republican paramilitaries to reassert their authority in Catholic working-class communities.
At the height of the conflict, incidences of drug crimes were actually relatively low. This was due mostly to the overbearing presence of the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary—the PSNI’s predecessor—but also to the Provisional IRA’s quasi-policing efforts in areas where it held the most sway. The cease-fires disrupted this informal system of justice as the paramilitaries retreated into the distance and the security forces began demobilizing, allowing drug suppliers to swoop into the vacuum and capitalize on the emotional distress that was left behind.
The rapidly growing drug trade was a novel and unwelcome change for most people, and that provided cover for a new crop of republicans to spring from the grassroots and transform their fight against the security forces into a fight against drug dealing. Catherine Rooney is a university student from a Catholic working-class background. She doesn’t like what she sees in her community, but she knows attitudes around her are mostly indifferent. “It’s kind of seen as, ‘Well, at least somebody’s doing something about this,’” she said. “Even if people aren’t supporting this, they’re kind of just looking the other way.”
The social situation was exacerbated by the weight of the 2007 global economic crisis, and drug use has risen over the past decade as a result. This has helped local drug lords consolidate their power, providing one of the pretenses for what the final Independent Monitoring Commission report called “the dissident republican resurgence from 2008 onwards.”
Since then, a new wave of anti-drugs republican vigilante groups have appeared, and reports of punishment beatings have become increasingly common occurrences. “It’s something they’ve just taken upon themselves,” Rooney lamented. “You’ve kind of taken the power out of society’s hands and given it to these paramilitaries, and they get to decide who they’re going to shoot, how guilty they are … it’s sort of down to them.”
Although the paramilitaries work under the guise of eliminating drugs and protecting local youth, they operate a rudimentary system of justice that positions them alone as judge, jury, and executioner—an arrangement that has sometimes led to the killing of innocent people.
Their growing presence also puts them at odds with local police, which often finds itself powerless in the face of influential paramilitaries.
Part of the problem is the PSNI’s inability to break a centuries-old social stigma that perceives all forms of government law enforcement as exclusively Protestant and working primarily for a foreign, colonial administration. “There is a wide vacuum there,” said Gallagher, the Saoradh spokesman, “and traditionally people would seek out groups within our communities in the absence of a viable or credible police service who work on behalf of the people and not the British state.”
These underlying social problems have fueled the paramilitaries’ resurgence, but Brexit threatens to exacerbate the entire situation by giving republican militants a sharper political focus. Northern Ireland voted by a majority to remain in the EU in 2016, and republicans have since crafted a narrative that fits neatly into their reading of Irish history: The British government is dictating the future of Northern Ireland against the will of its people, and the only way to reclaim national self-determination is to leave the United Kingdom and unify with the Republic of Ireland in the south. “Brexit has forced the IRA to refocus and has underlined how Ireland remains partitioned,” said one New IRA member in an interview with London’s Sunday Times. “It would be remiss of us not to capitalize on the opportunity.”
There is little reason to hope this state of affairs will improve in the near-term future. In addition to the death of Lyra McKee, the New IRA was also blamed in March for delivering packages containing explosives to a number of targets in England and Scotland, and in January it was implicated in a car bombing outside the local courthouse in Derry. These types of events were once considered the exception, but over the past year they have increasingly become the new normal.
Increased paramilitary violence may or may not follow the U.K.’s eventual withdrawal from the EU, but the problems that gave birth to this new generation of militant republicans show no signs of abating. Regardless of how Brexit turns out, republican paramilitaries have again become a fixture of life in Northern Ireland.