Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Series of Unfortunate Events (for SF)

Saturday's Irish Times carried an article (subs required) by Mark Brennock reviewing the latest shenanigans between the Irish Government and Sinn Féin. It's a pretty good analysis, and though it probably won't tell you much that's new, it's well worth the read, so I thought I'd post it here.

Is the party over?
Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland)
February 19, 2005

Following this week's extraordinary events, there seems no way back to normal political discourse for Sinn Fein until the question of IRA criminal activity has been resolved, writes Mark Brennock , Chief Political Correspondent

Gerry Adams flew home from Bilbao yesterday afternoon into the biggest crisis facing what he calls the republican movement. Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell calls it the provisional movement, not wanting to surrender the title of republican to Adams's organisation. The crisis for Adams is that when McDowell called this movement a "colossal crime machine" on radio yesterday, he will have been believed by more people than ever before.

The Government has led a two-month rhetorical onslaught on Adams's movement for its refusal to leave violence and criminality behind, seven years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement. In parallel, the IRA has carried out a series of actions that could not have been better planned or timed to prove the Government's point.

Adams arrived home from his book promotion tour yesterday to a leadership floundering as it attempts to come to terms with a political environment that has changed utterly in just two months. It faces pressure from above and below.

The Government - aided ably by the IRA itself - has severely damaged the veneer of political respectability that Sinn Fein has so carefully created over the past decade. Meanwhile, in Belfast, IRA members killed a party supporter Robert McCartney in an act of murderous thuggery, before threatening witnesses to shut them up. The anger from within its own community has shaken the republican movement severely.

The sudden crisis has caught the movement by surprise. After all, since the peace process began, IRA killings, beatings, shootings, robberies and money-laundering have continued in parallel with political developments and nobody has seemed to mind all that much. Last December Sinn Fein was on the verge of yet another "historic" deal, this time one that would have put it in government with Ian Paisley's DUP and would have put its members on police boards. Nobody in the Government was denouncing it as a criminal mob then.

But now there is no way back into normal political discourse until the question of IRA activity has been resolved. Until recently, Sinn Fein had hoped that its candidate, Joe Reilly, could challenge for a Dail seat in the forthcoming Meath by-election. Now it must fear a demoralising slump in support in the wake of its worst period of publicity in a decade. The same concerns apply in relation to the British general election in May. For years there has been a sense that Sinn Fein would destroy the SDLP electorally. Now, within the SDLP, there is some hope that the attention being paid to the ongoing IRA criminal activity will remind nationalist voters why a large majority of them voted SDLP rather than Sinn Fein before the peace process began.

As he prepared to leave Bilbao yesterday, there was a suggestion in Adams's remarks that we are at a major watershed in the history of the peace process. He said he was "coming home to deal with the situation". He had asked for a full report to be ready for him.

Asked on RTE's News at One yesterday what would happen if evidence emerged that the IRA had, after all, carried out the Northern Bank raid, he said this would "take very serious reflection by me and others who are in the leadership of Sinn Fein". He said he did not want to be tainted with criminality: "I don't want anybody near me who is involved in criminality. I will face up to all of these issues if and when they emerge."

Asked whether that meant he would walk away from "certain people" if presented with proof of an IRA connection with the Northern Bank robbery he said: "We will weather the storm and I will not walk away from any challenge which presents itself in the time ahead. If Sinn Fein has issues to deal with, we will deal with those issues." This, of course, could mean something or nothing. At most it could mean he recognises that Sinn Fein must "deal with" its relationship with violence and criminality once and for all, possibly breaking ranks with those who want to continue with such activity. At its least, it could simply mean that Adams was seeking to say something that sounded interesting but was essentially meaningless in response to a tricky question.

McDowell made it clear yesterday that he believed it was the latter. Don't be fooled by talk of splits and divisions, he said. The movement is coherent and united under a single leadership.

The new situation is so shocking for the republican - or provisional - movement because it was completely unexpected. It is behaving more or less according to the same pattern as it has done since the peace process began. The ceasefires saw an end to the killings of police, soldiers and others seen as "legitimate targets", and the bombing campaign in the North and Britain in the struggle against the British occupation. But other activity - robberies, extortion, "punishment" attacks and murders of alleged petty criminals and internal dissenters continued.

Such occurrences were much less frequent than before the ceasefires, but they were regular. However, those who wrote about such activity and drew attention to it were denounced as peace process saboteurs.

In July 1998, just three months after the Belfast Agreement was signed, the RUC said the IRA had shot dead Andy Kearney in Belfast. The following year the FBI disrupted an IRA gun-running operation in Florida, and three men were subsequently jailed. The then Northern Secretary, Mo Mowlam, said she accepted security advice that the IRA shot dead Charles Bennett in July 1999. The killings of Belfast drug dealer Edmund McCoy in May 2000 and of Joe O'Connor in October 2000 were blamed on the IRA.

In August 2001 came the arrest of the Colombia Three. In October 2002 Daniel McBrearty was shot dead in Derry - another killing blamed on the IRA.

On and on it went, with talks that made breakthroughs and talks that broke down. The executive was formed, suspended, re-formed and suspended again. Acts of weapons decommissioning took place out of public view. The sense was of a political process inching forward slowly but going in the right direction. While nasty incidents took place regularly in different parts of Northern Ireland, these were tolerated as inevitable blips during what was believed to be a total transition of an armed and violent organisation with a political wing into a political party which had left behind its violent history. In the meantime, the Government made little fuss about the regular IRA actions. The policy was one of "constructive ambiguity" in which the parallel lives of the movement were tolerated in the hope that this was simply a transitional phase on the road to a total end to violence and criminality.

Sometimes, the illegal and legal elements of the movement's activity cohabited in the same building. In November 2002, the PSNI uncovered an IRA spying operation at Stormont.

In May 2003 it said Armagh man Gareth O'Connor, who had been abducted and disappeared, was an IRA victim. The PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, reported some intimidation of members of District Policing Partnerships later that year. In December, 2003, the Garda and the PSNI said the hijack of a truck, carrying cigarettes worth about €1.6 million, had all the hallmarks of an IRA operation.

On it went into last year. Orde said the IRA was responsible for an alleged abduction of dissident republican Bobby Tohill (47) in Belfast city centre and for punishment beatings. In November, as hopes remained for a historic power-sharing deal involving Sinn Fein and the DUP, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that the IRA was making millions of pounds from robberies and smuggling in the North.

The commission relies heavily on information from the security forces both sides of the Border, and this information is in turn provided to the two governments. It blamed the IRA for a multimillion pound robbery of goods from the Makro store in Dunmurray in May 2004. Up to the end of September 2003 republicans were blamed for 52 "punishment" shootings; to the end of last September republicans were accused of 22 such shootings. A political associate of Aengus O Snodaigh TD, Niall Binead, was convicted of IRA membership late last year and evidence was heard of a spying operation on politicians in the Republic.

In short, the IRA has been carrying on like this for years. But in December, the Government's tolerance ran out. The Government was both disappointed and angry at the failure to reach a comprehensive deal before Christmas. Until close to the end of negotiations, those talks were believed to be foundering on the sole issue of whether IRA decommissioning should be photographed or filmed. Indeed, when Michael McDowell announced there was a second issue - the IRA's failure to sign up to a pledge not to engage in criminal activity - there was initial scepticism over whether this was as big an issue as he was making out.

This marked the start of the Government's turn against the republicans, and the end of the policy of constructive ambiguity. Displaying an impressive grasp of republican theology, McDowell announced to a surprised public that the IRA did not believe any of its actions were capable of being seen as criminal, because it was the IRA and therefore the legitimate government of the Republic. The scepticism did not last long, however. Adams indicated on television that this was indeed the position. Then McDowell got Mitchel McLaughlin to admit on television that he did not see the revolting killing in 1972 of Jean McConville, mother of 10, as a crime.

No sooner had the talks on the decommissioning and crime issues broken down in December than the IRA lifted GBP26.5 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast. The persistence with which the Taoiseach asserted that the Sinn Fein leadership knew about this robbery in advance, and had therefore behaved duplicitously during the failed talks, deeply angered Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Then came the stabbing to death of Robert McCartney in a Belfast bar, believed to have been done by IRA members. The dead man's family, Sinn Fein supporters all, laid into the IRA for allegedly intimidating witnesses and said those with information should go to the PSNI. Pitted against the family of a man killed by IRA members, Sinn Fein backed off its usual line of refusing to say people should cooperate with the police. If people saw the PSNI as a "respectable" body, they could go to it, said Adams.

And now comes this major money-laundering operation, apparently with Sinn Fein members' fingerprints - perhaps literally - all over it. All that is required to complete the linkage between Sinn Fein, the IRA and the Northern Bank robbery - and to make liars or fools of the Sinn Fein leaders who insisted they believed IRA denials - is confirmation that some or all of the money seized over the past three days was stolen from the Northern Bank.

There is no going back to the twin-track strategy now. Sinn Fein has five TDs and three MEPs, and it is the largest nationalist party in the North. A refusal to end IRA activity might not cause huge electoral damage in the North. It hasn't damaged it in the Republic in recent years, but it would almost certainly do so now.

The extraordinary recent events promise to leave no doubt that Sinn Fein and the IRA are, as the Taoiseach says, "two sides of the same coin". They will show that the movement, whatever you choose to call it, is involved in major criminal activity and has no plans to stop. It must be likely that in time, at least one of the 20 people involved in the Northern Bank robbery will be caught and IRA involvement will be established. And continuing money-laundering investigation will surely lead to the doorsteps of prominent figures in the IRA and Sinn Fein.

It will not then be credible for Sinn Fein to deny involvement in various criminal acts, or to dismiss those acts as isolated or unauthorised incidents carried out by rogue elements. At that point, if it is to have a political future, the republican, or provisional, movement will have to have something new to say.

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