There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the news media over the weekend caused by the military funeral of Tony Catney, a former senior veteran of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. His funeral cortège in Belfast was escorted by uniformed activists, possibly Volunteers of the so-called New Irish Republican Army or NIRA through the west of the city which infuriated Unionist politicians and journalists (several suspected NIRA members or supporters were prominent at the funeral). Catney had severed his association with the (Provisional) Republican movement, including (Provisional) Sinn Féin, in the early 2000s and for a time was active with the Republican Network for Unity or RNU, a political party opposed to the interim settlement in the north-east of the country which ended some three decades of regional conflict. The RNU has been linked by some sources to the militant Óglaigh na hÉireann or ÓnaÉ, a minor Republican insurgent grouping which has been active since 2009 or earlier. However it is more likely that the funeral of Tony Catney was organised by those in association with the NIRA (the so-called New Irish Republican Army was created by the coalescing of the former Real IRA, DAAD and others. The titles “ÓnaÉ” and “IRA” are used interchangeably by all contemporary Republican militant groupings).
More interestingly was the video released by the Republican insurgents showing Volunteers firing three volleys of shots in tribute to Tony Catney, a traditional Republican practice. It is quite revealing of the current status of the insurgent grouping, both in equipment and organisation. Firstly it should be made clear that the great myth of the “Long War” was the supposed propaganda abilities of Irish Republicans. The claim was most often made by their opponents in the British news media and government who were unable to otherwise explain why their own propaganda repeatedly failed to erode popular support for the insurgency or gain international sympathy. In fact most of the visual propaganda by revolutionary Republicans was pretty amateurish even by the standards of the time. There were many reasons for this, not least the difficulties of staging “propaganda shoots” in a relatively confined war zone saturated by enemy personnel and uncertain levels of civilian sympathy. Even well away from the region of conflict the dangers of informers or discovery made the production of still or cinematic information pieces hazardous indeed.
While more sophisticated film equipment was available to the general public in the 1990s most Republican PR continued to be characterized by low production values, often featuring armed Volunteers who looked exactly as their critics would have portrayed them: gunmen with an array of mismatched combat uniforms and weapons. It is notable that when (P)IRA did produce more professional images, both technically and in terms of the message being presented, news reporting companies in Ireland and Britain consistently made use of previous recordings, even if many years out of date. The newer pieces simply made the Irish Republican Army look too much like a professional force for the, ahem, impartial British and Irish press to deal with.
In the latest video – below – several things stand out.
The Volunteers are armed with a possibly Czech-produced 7.62mm AKM assault rifle and two Romanian 7.62mm AIM rifles, the export version of the Pistol Mitralieră model 1963 (which in turn is based upon the Russian AKM, the upgraded revision of Russia’s original AK-47 assault rifle). Hundreds of these “Kalashnikovs” were purchased by (P)IRA from the late 1970s to early ‘90s (mainly through Libya) though most were “decommissioned” when (P)IRA sealed the majority of its arms in several underground bunkers during the penultimate months of the Peace Process. However several dozen were acquired by break-away factions of the organisation before those events. The ones displayed here almost certainly come from former (P)IRA stocks. With the same relative ease of use and durability as the Russian AKM rifles the AIMs were an ideal weapon for short- to medium-distant engagements, especially in rural areas, providing heavier if less accurate rates of fire than the British infantry weapons facing them (the inferior L1A1 SLR and latterly superior L85A1). However a weapon is only as good as its user and the maintenance it has received. Notice in the video that one of the rifles misfires and has to be “cocked” again, while the arms drill is desultory (though that is hardly a high priority in any guerilla army). The three rifles may well be twenty years old or more.
The camouflage clothing the Volunteers are wearing is actually British, a type known as Disruptive Pattern Material or DPM. This was widely employed by (P)IRA from the 1980s onwards, gradually replacing the olive-green combat uniforms initially supplied or purchased from the surplus stocks of the Irish or United States armies in the 1970s. While most (P)IRA Volunteers wore civilian clothing when on active service many propaganda images featured some use of military dress. British DPM uniforms continue to be readily available from surplus stores in Ireland and Britain and those pictured here almost certainly come from such a source. Note the complete lack of body armour for the torso or head, even for use in a short propaganda video where it might have some media impact. Obviously the acquisition of such equipment is beyond the insurgents abilities. The balaclava masks (or ski masks), gloves and boots all come from civilian or ex-military stocks, in the case of the masks probably purchased overseas.
Though initially the video looks to have been shot in an isolated rural setting (a sensible precaution) some media outlets are claiming that it was actually filmed in or near Belfast by a local city brigade. Certainly the location, with the side of a building and earth bank behind, looks foolishly identifiable to those in the know (the British Forces for a start).