Among the shocked pundits reflecting on the Palestinian election victory of Hamas, there are already a few predictable straw-clutchers. Look, they say, at the Irish ‘peace process’: it worked only when the IRA was brought in from the ‘terrorist’ cold to the warm hearth of democracy. Hamas, like the IRA, must be a party to any workable solution anyway; the electoral mandate will help its leaders to face their responsibilities.
Okay, look at Ireland if you must, but don’t look too long. It’s more than two years since an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly yielded its own double "hardliners" result: on the nationalist side, the triumph of the IRA’s friends and relations in Sinn Fein; on the unionist side, victory for the pope-bashing bigot Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party. Whether the two parties could really ‘do business’ is a moot point. In fact, they’ve barely got a glimpse of each other as Sinn Fein and the republican movement have been engulfed by a series of storms, not necessarily of their own making, that have made even ‘talks about talks’ impossible. The latest hapless British minister with the job of running Northern Ireland in the absence of a local executive, ex-lefty Peter Hain, is playing at petulant impatience with the difficult natives, threatening to stop paying the salaries of the elected politicians who have yet to hold a legislative session since 2003, let alone form a government with some devolved powers.
The latest trouble has taken the form of a baffling "Spy Versus Spy" saga about which few observers are prepared to make any definitive statements, lest the next revelation catch them out. This much is clear: Sinn Fein has had at least one republican who turned British spy, Denis Donaldson, close to its leadership for about two decades. Donaldson ‘came out’ before Christmas, not in the old-fashioned way that we learned of informers during the Troubles–a taped confession and a body found by a remote roadside–but with a broadcast interview.
Sceptical republicans and others have been scurrying through their memories looking for clues about the effects of the penetration of the movement. Are their other agents? How high up? Was the whole IRA ‘peace strategy’ manipulated by British spies? Were other republicans set up for arrest or murder to protect the informers and keep the strategy on track? More broadly, is the strategy itself, which presently involves seeking a role in governing part of a still-partitioned Ireland, a corrupt betrayal of deep republican principles? Dissidents with longstanding suspicions about the leadership have been voicing them: on WBAI’s Radio Free Eireann in New York, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, and the former leader of the IRA in Derry, Martin McGuinness, was accused of being a British agent, though only with circumstantial evidence. The name of party president Gerry Adams continues to prompt significantly raised eyebrows in some circles.
Other republicans are holding fire, in the stated belief that the current storm is itself an example of shadowy ‘securocrats’ trying to block republican progress in general, and in particular progress toward a Northern Ireland government in which Sinn Fein holds crucial ministries. They have good reason for their suspicions. A key ‘scandal’ that has stalled talks was ‘Stormontgate’, the arrest in late 2002 of several Sinn Fein workers accused of operating a spying ring (stealing secret documents etc) at the offices of politicians and British officials at Stormont Castle, near Belfast. Then, in recent weeks, the charges against the men were dropped without explanation–and one of the accused was none other than Denis Donaldson. It beggared belief that the British had arrested their own spy and charged him with spying for the other side, then waited three politically destructive years to let the charges drop. Was DD a double agent? Or had he been assigned to fashion evidence of a spy-ring to discredit Sinn Fein? For once, conspiracy theories seemed at least as credible as explanations based on simple incompetence.
There have been some more or less plausible attempts to revive the idea that there was indeed a Sinn Fein spying operation at Stormont, but at most it seems to have been more in the familiar political business of gossip-collection rather than document theft. Of course, no one can doubt that the IRA historically had its own agents in political and security circles. There are also the longstanding stories of virtually autonomous British spooks spying on their own side, crystallised by Gerry Adams when he said that successive British secretaries of state for Northern Ireland took him out of the office if they wanted to speak to him privately.
The espionage controversy has crossed the Irish Border, with charges that the British government and the IRA have both had agents, paid and voluntary, in the Irish state and media establishment. The estimated numbers have run into the hundreds, which sounds enormous until you consider that it may include everyone capable of having a friendly and revealing chat in the pub with a sympathetic listener, in which case it sounds rather small, given Dublin’s ceaseless trade in rumour and innuendo.
This sort of charge has had dramatic consequences in one celebrated case: the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, has essentially accused a leading investigative journalist, Frank Connolly, of being an IRA ‘sleeper’. McDowell says Connolly travelled to Colombia in 2001 with known IRA men and on a false passport, though there is clearly not evidence to prosecute Connolly on a passport offence. Connolly denies the charge. Disgracefully, McDowell has leaked the police file on the case to a favoured journalist, and shared its contents too with Irish-American billionaire Chuck Feeney, who was financing Connolly’s Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI). Feeney pulled his money out of the CPI, and Ireland may lose this valuable new anti-corruption watchdog as a result.
That’s a highly edited version of the mess Ireland finds itself in. Tony Blair used to trumpet Northern Ireland as a triumph for his peace-promoting statesmanship–most notably when he invited George Bush for a summit there in the weeks after the invasion of Iraq. This week he was slinking in and out of Dublin for a desultory hour-long meeting with Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, whose democratic credentials include continuing assistance for US military and ‘rendition’ flights through supposedly neutral Ireland. Blair and Ahern came out muttering about talks about talks starting next month, and hopes to get a Northern executive up and running "this year", not exactly an optimistic forecast in January. Meanwhile, in the supposed Mother of Democracies, the historic injustice of Irish partition has been supplemented by more years in which the people of a corner of the ‘United Kingdom’ have had no real say in their government.
So if you happen to hear someone mention Ireland in relation to Palestine in the next few days, feel free, if you can, to reel off the many reasons why the comparison isn’t apt. But remember too that the Palestinians have suffered enough without being visited by this sort of ‘democracy’.
HARRY BROWNE writes for Village magazine and lectures in the Dublin Institute of Technology. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org