From Socialist Voice, March 2005

British government, political police and bank robbers block the way forward

The primary cause of the impasse in the North has been the foot-dragging of the British in relation to demilitarisation, the full implementation of the Patten reforms in policing, and the transfer of policing powers to the Assembly and the Executive. Why is this foot-dragging taking place? Who does it benefit?
     The Unionists could not oppose more powers for the Assembly and Executive in relation to policing. There has already been substantial reform of the RUC, with the main stumbling block appearing to be the role of the political police, the Special Branch. The difficulties in relation to the demands being raised by Paisley could have been overcome in time—or if not overcome, then certainly bypassed.
     If the British had fulfilled their commitments in relation to policing and demilitarisation, many of the problems now facing the peace process would not have arisen. We would have got the complete decommissioning of IRA weapons; the IRA itself would have begun to wither on the vine. This would have stabilised the Unionist middle ground so as to work the agreement. Policing is a crunch issue for republicans. Who controls the police? Is it British military intelligence, or is it the Executive and Assembly, with local accountability? This is a question that is of interest to everyone.
     We did not get complete reform of policing. This has led to increasing frustration and confusion within republican ranks. The extreme wing of unionism appears to be in the ascendancy. The British give the impression of being the honest brokers, having no responsibility for the mess that is now the peace process, while the Irish political establishment are moving in to inflict maximum damage on Sinn Féin, at the cost of the peace process. They are prepared to sacrifice the peace process in their own class interests.
     The impasse appears almost impossible to overcome, to get it back on track in the foreseeable future. We are facing into two electoral tussles in which Sinn Féin is to be the meat in the sandwich. First we have the two by-elections in the South, one in North Kildare and the other in Meath. Joe O’Reilly of Sinn Féin would have been very near to winning a seat in Meath, given how close he came the last time; the tide was running Sinn Féin’s way. The likelihood of Sinn Féin winning any of the two seats now appears remote.
     Since the outcome of the last local and European Parliament elections, the Southern government and the majority of Dáil parties have been watching the rise of Sinn Féin with a great deal of apprehension. The political and economic elites, as well as the state itself, have been showing signs that they need to corral Sinn Féin, to curb its growth. The real leader of the Progressive Democrats and current Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, has been making the running with his daily attacks on Sinn Féin over the Northern Bank robbery and other criminal activities. Naming three senior Sinn Féin leaders as members of the IRA Army Council is the latest stunt. And we have the ludicrous situation where two government ministers are saying that so-and-so is a member of the Army Council while the head of the government, Bertie Ahern, is saying he doesn’t know who the leaders of the IRA are and can’t confirm the names.
     The government is running a parallel strategy, with McDowell on the right leading the charge against Sinn Féin in an effort to outdo Fine Gael in its anti-republican rhetoric and on the other hand Bertie Ahern being the voice of moderation, with his talk of “inclusiveness” and the need for everyone to be involved. This will reassure Fianna Fáil’s ranks that the party of the “Republic” is still sound at heart and not like all the rest of the Dáil parties. Both the Labour Party and Green Party see Sinn Féin as their main threat from the left, mopping up the radical and protest vote that they believe rightly belongs to them. All have an objective interest in seeing Sinn Féin marginalised.
     Fianna Fáil suffered most in recent elections and has been smarting ever since, but it can’t be seen to be the one to knacker the peace process; so McDowell will carry the hod, with innuendos and half-truths and briefing from the political police. What we are now witnessing is class struggle being pursued by the establishment parties and the state. This is a lesson Sinn Féin needs to learn, and learn quickly.
     On the other side we have the looming British general election, due in May. The decline of the SDLP has almost reached melt-down proportions. It has to be rescued from oblivion at all costs. Eddie McGrady is under pressure from Caitríona Ruane of Sinn Féin in South Down, and the SDLP has no-one to replace John Hume or Séamus Mallon. This would be the nightmare scenario, not only for the British but more importantly for the Irish government.
     Ian Paisley is sitting tight and now enters the British general election with his tail up, having faced down Sinn Féin and put manners on them, something the weak and vacillating David Trimble was unable to do. Paisley appears to his followers to have secured, at least for the moment, a strike against the head in relation to Sinn Féin and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. He has the Irish and British governments singing from his hymn sheet; so he has a trouble-free run into the election, in which he hopes to capitalise on his apparent success in stemming the tide of Sinn Féin and finishing off the remaining Ulster Unionists in the British Parliament, leaving himself the sole voice of unionism.
     Into all these political machinations step the political police and spooks, as well as bank robbers and thugs. The Independent Monitoring Commission produces a report into the €30 million Northern Bank robbery and a number of other robberies. Who did this group of auspicious gentlemen from this so-called independent body say carried out the bank robbery? Of course, the IRA. How did they arrive at this conclusion? They spoke to the political police, police intelligence, Special Branch—call them what you like. They also spoke to community groups, individuals, academics, journalists, and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. The distilled wisdom of all these individuals is that it was the IRA. How would a community worker, an academic or a journalist have the knowledge of who did what, other than by hearsay? Most journalists rely on the political police as their source in the first place. The opinions of the writer of this article are just as valid as anyone else’s, and I don’t know who robbed the bank. I may have my suspicions, but that’s all they are.
     Then we have thugs who think they can run working-class communities like some private fiefdom, above criticism or reproach. They brutally murder someone who intervened in a pub brawl. In the district in which the killing took place, a strong republican and nationalist area that has suffered greatly over the years, people have come out in their hundreds to protest at this killing. These were not anti-republican people but the bedrock of republican support. When this happens it is time to have a serious think about things.
     People want peace and stability, as well as a proper policing service. The Good Friday Agreement was to have delivered all these, but so far this has not happened. But at the same time there is no excuse for such thuggery. Throughout the North both communities have been making attempts to end punishment beatings, with the development of restorative justice schemes—all important and necessary work. All that good work can be undermined with the flick of a knife. So long as certain individuals believe they are the law, this will keep on happening and will provide the enemies of republicanism with a stick to beat them with.
     Adventurism in its various forms is not the way forward. One mistake can weaken the standing of a political force and, most importantly, allow its enemies to present its actions or ideas as nothing more than a criminal conspiracy. Whoever robbed the Northern Bank has done untold damage to the peace process. We know from past experience that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that elements of British military intelligence could have carried out such an activity. On the other hand we have years of experience of what James Connolly put so well: “Ruling by fooling is a great British art, with some great Irish fools to practise on.”
     We have to get back to politics to solve people’s problems, whether they be policing, vandalism, sectarianism, poverty, unemployment, or service charges. Exclusion, discrimination, political opportunism or grandstanding will get us nowhere. It is now time for Sinn Féin to turn the tables on its detractors and join the policing boards for a limited period. Give the British a timetable for producing the necessary reforms, as agreed under the Good Friday Agreement. If they don’t, then pull the plug, exposing their foot-dragging. This would wrong-foot unionism, in particular the DUP, shut McDowell and Ahern up, and call the Brits’ bluff.
     If Sinn Féin is to realise its strategy of being in government north and south simultaneously to drive the process of unification forward peacefully, the IRA is increasingly an obstacle to that aim. It allows unionism not to engage and, more importantly, allows the British to continue to use unionism as a cover for their own political responsibilities. While there may be an acceptance of the necessity for the IRA in the North because of historical experience, it is increasingly a hindrance to Sinn Féin’s potential growth, both north and south.

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