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The Politics of Public Humiliation

Northern Ireland: No Postcards from the Edge

by HARRY BROWNE

Dublin.

"HEIST ALMIGHTY!"

That was the suitably seasonal headline on Wednesday’s Irish Sun. The story below the giant, screaming typeface, and also plastered across other more restrained front pages, was of the robbery of about £20 million sterling (nearly $40 million) in cash from a bank headquarters right smack in the middle of downtown Belfast, of all the locked-down places.

The enormous and carefully planned heist has excited lower-than-typical levels of romantic admiration. This is partly because the gang involved, believed to number up to 20 operatives, used the increasingly common and distressing method of kidnapping family members of bank employees. Two bank officials — each of whom held a separate password for vault access — were forced to work as normal all day Monday while their loved-ones were held hostage, then facilitate the robbers’ night-time access to the money. The hostages were unhurt, though one woman was reportedly abandoned barefoot on a remote roadside, on a very cold night.

But there’s another complication amid all the usual speculation. (Was it an inside job? Is there forensic evidence? Can the gang get rid of so many Northern banknotes, which Irish travellers know to their frustration are hard to spend in Britain, despite their being legal UK tender?) Politically the heist has prompted a big "uh-oh", because everyone knows the name of the organisation most qualified to pull a job like this: the IRA. And that’s the same IRA that until a couple of weeks ago was negotiating its way out of active existence.

In fairness, the IRA is only the first name on a reasonably long list of suspects. It also includes "dissident republican" groups such as the Real IRA and the INLA, or perhaps an alliance. Dissidents have been setting off minor incendiary devices for several weeks around Northern Ireland, so the fact that they’re active and presumably short of funds might point to them. Then there are the various loyalist groups, the UDA, UVF and their various splinters and pseudonyms. "Ordinary Decent Criminals" might just be involved, though the scale of the job suggests that if it was done merely for fun and profit, the gang may still have been ex-paramilitaries.

The timing is dramatic, at any rate. Earlier this month, talks involving the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, the British and Irish governments and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) broke down over Paisley’s demand that IRA disarmament be photographed, and the pictures published.

With Sinn Fein now, by some distance, the main elected representative of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland, mainstream republicans were prepared to totally "decommission" their weapons, but not to submit to Paisley’s call for a photo-album, which they saw as the latest incarnation of "the politics of public humiliation".

Paisley’s DUP now leads unionism, but he in turn wasn’t prepared take up his role as the First Minister in Northern Ireland’s still-suspended government without some visible sign of IRA surrender — or as he called it, "sackcloth and ashes".

There was some talk from politicians of rescuing an agreement before Christmas, but in reality it was only likely to happen if accompanied by the sight of Satan tossing a few snowballs. A UK general election is due in the new year, probably May, and Paisley likes the look of fighting the mini-election within Northern unionism as the man who wouldn’t cave in to Popish pressures.

Since the talks fell apart, the focus of political discussion south of the Border has not been on unionist intransigence, but rather on the IRA’s extracurricular activities, known in the press as "criminality"–though republicans would of course debate that description of actions intended to raise money for "the cause". Politicians, including some in the Republic’s ruling coalition government, have demanded that the decommissioning IRA should also pledge that its members will not engage in any criminal activity. Four IRA men convicted of killing a policeman in the Republic in the course of an apparently-unauthorised robbery in the 1990s are still in prison, and the prospect of their release in the event of a final Northern Ireland settlement has caused outrage in the Republic’s media. (This outrage bemuses the families of people killed in Northern Ireland by paramilitaries in the most horrific of circumstances–all the killers there who claimed membership of organisations on ceasefire have been released as part of the "peace process".)

So, it is into this ugly, bitter and rather confusing scene that this week’s Belfast bank-robbers have strode purposefully. Tony Blair in Baghdad said the British were not a nation of quitters, but if the best Iraq can hope for is the sort of democracy and stability that prevails in British-ruled Northern Ireland, perhaps his boys should get out of there now.

HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in Dublin Institute of Technology and a columnist in Village magazine. He can be reached at: Harrybrowne@eircom.net