For a micro-group, there seemed to be an awful lot of them. Then again, the TV camera loves a crowded picture - it can even make attendance at a hockey match look big. But the balaclava-ed figure who spoke into the microphone in Derry yesterday was real enough. Representing the Real IRA, he said that his organisation would continue their attacks on "Crown Forces personnel, their installations, as well as British interests and infrastructure". In short, the war goes on.
There couldn't have been a sharper contrast with the words of Declan Kearney. At Milltown Cemetery on Sunday, he said "Unionists have been hurt by the war; and so too have republicans. We need to keep moving the peace process into new phases and onto new ground. National reconciliation is integral to our strategic project...Make no mistake: there is no other IRA, here in Belfast or anywhere else".
There you have in essence two completely-at-odds republican views. That represented by Declan Kearney believes reconciliation between former enemies is central to achieving the goal of a just and re-united country; the man in the balaclava believes in the same goal but is convinced it will be achieved through the cutting edge of violence.
The morality of political violence, whether in 1916 or 1976 or 2012 could be argued forever. But Kearney and mainstream republicans aren't arguing about the ethics involved. How could they? They themselves engaged in political violence over a period of decades. Their argument is that now - not in 1916 or 1976 but now - political violence is counter-productive. It alienates and deepens antagonism among unionists. The only road to national independence is the slow, unglamorous road of reconciliation. The man in the balaclava argues that such an approach emasculates republicanism: politics is about power, and power comes, as Mao said, from the barrel of a gun.
History, by and large, is on the side of the man in the balaclava. The 26-county state was born out of bloody struggle against Britain, not reconciliation. And down the centuries, republicans have always believed in political violence and acted on that belief. To engage in reconciliation and power-sharing is to do Britain's work for it. Equally, though, you could say that history is on the side of mainstream republicans today. If the breadth and depth of IRA violence during the '70s and '80s failed to dislodge the British, then the puny efforts of the Real IRA are surely futile. And they have the opposite of their intended effect, since reconciliation with unionists is a sine qua non, an absolute essential in a re-united Ireland.
The strategy of the man in the balaclava is clear, traditional and bloody. The strategy of Kearney and others like him is more complex, non-violent, and, for Irish republicanism, unique. Which strategy is more effective, it may take decades to decide. But as to which of the two is the bolder and more imaginative, the answer must be Kearney and Co.