Int the last few days, Ireland has roused itself from holiday-season torpor and moved its gaze from southeast Asia for long enough to notice that the political process in Northern Ireland lies in utter devastation.
It hasn’t actually been pronounced dead, but it’s “resting” like a Monty Python parrot, with feck-all hope of revival.
The proximate cause is the pre-Christmas Belfast bank robbery already reported here. The haul has now been estimated at £26.5 million sterling ($50 million), and the finger of suspicion pointing to the IRA has grown into a full-fisted attribution of blame.
“In my opinion, the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime, and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction,” the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, told a press conference last Friday, though he refused to share any hint of what evidence he had for this assertion.
It’s not just British cops saying this. Ireland’s head of government, Bertie Ahern, believes it too. Usually sympathetic to republicans in his public utterances, this time he has hit out hard at them. He has even complained that while he was trying to broker a deal for local rule in Northern Ireland last month, the Sinn Fein negotiators at the table must have known this robbery was being planned, given their party’s intimate links to the IRA.
Although he didn’t name them, that brought Ahern pretty darn close to calling Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly criminal conspirators. Just over a month ago, McGuinness was only an Ian Paisley concession away from being the North’s deputy first minister, and Kelly might have been justice minister in the Northern Ireland executive.
All the Sinn Fein politicians vehemently deny any foreknowledge of the heist, and say they believe the IRA’s own statements denying the organisation’s involvement. The Sinn Fein denials become only slightly less robust when spokespeople are asked if “members of the IRA” might have been responsible. “I don’t believe they were,” McGuinness said on radio.
The scale, professionalism and geographic specifics of the crime point to the IRA, and so too, perhaps, does the timing. Although the robbery must have been plotted far ahead, its execution less than two weeks after the political process broke down certainly makes the two events look connected. Was it an IRA act of defiance? A reminder to its enemies of its capacities? A sop to militants in the organisation? Indicative of internal tensions? A political fundraiser for elections expected this May? All of the above?
Inevitably, some observers believe the circumstantial evidence against the IRA is all too convenient. Some Sinn Fein members and sympathisers have begun to mention the “securicrats”, forces within the British and Northern Irish military-political establishments who have long been hostile to their party and the peace process. Wasn’t it handy that just as alleged IRA “criminality” was all over the political and media agenda, a high-profile crime occurred bearing conspicuous IRA hallmarks? Isn’t the one force that can compete with the IRA for discipline and competence the one that fought it to a stalemate for nearly 30 years? And couldn’t those same dark securicrats, having carried out the crime, perhaps for a combination of political and financial gain, now be feeding black propaganda to the previously “even-handed” police chief to implicate the IRA?
Like most conspiracy theories, it’s plausible. So far, the best argument against it has been the half-heartedness with which it has been advanced. But until someone is arrested with a barn full of banknotes, and maybe even after that, the argument is still in play.
The police, by the way, are saying most of the stolen notes are useless. In the UK, several banks are authorised to print money, and the cops say most of the heist consists of Northern Bank notes. The bank is recalling all its printed money, and issuing notes in a new colour. Orde says it means the robbers now own a huge waste-paper collection, but here as everywhere in the world you simply cannot believe what police say when they are clearly trying to affect the behaviour of suspects. At any rate, even by this account of the haul there are several million pounds in cash that scarcely needs laundering, a nice payday for someone out there.
If “someone” is indeed the IRA, there is remarkably little debit side to this payday. The political process was going to be on hold until the UK elections anyway, so Sinn Fein faces no awkward, unpalatable dilemmas about voting, in the name of “power-sharing”, to make the ranting anti-Catholic bigot, Rev Ian Paisley, the political leader of Northern Ireland, still under British rule. And this political hold-up also means there is no urgent need for the party to sign on to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. These were the concessions most agonising for the republican grassroots, and now they are no more available than they are desirable. The robbery simply underlines this.
There will, of course, be a concerted effort to make the party suffer electorally because of the heist, but in Northern Ireland as everywhere in the world working-class people are not notably hostile to bank-robbers, especially those who draw no blood while collecting the money. And Sinn Fein’s rival for Irish-nationalist votes in the North, the SDLP, is a dilapidated shell of its former self, almost certainly incapable of rousing itself this side of the election. Southern voters would be more susceptible to the coming political and media blitz to demonise Sinn Fein, and they have more political alternatives, but elections for a Dublin government are still probably years away.
Years away, too, is any chance of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, because the arguments, eventual criminal charges and court cases arising from the bank-job are likely to drag on. Instead, we’ll have the politically ugly sight of direct rule from London, which could itself further enhance the prospects for Irish-republican politics. What remains very, very unlikely is any significant return to a shooting war in the North’s streets, because there is virtually no appetite for it.
All of which suggests that if the IRA didn’t carry out the Northern Bank robbery, then perhaps it should have.
HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org