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A View North ‘Ordinary crime’ taking root in Northern Ireland

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Here’s a trivia question for Northern Ireland gurus. Who was the first member of the Orange Order to hold a ministerial position in the Northern Ireland Office? Answer: Adam Ingram, the man who has been minister of security since 1997. Actually, Ingram, who was in New York and Washington last week, was quick to point out that that he was only in the junior wing of the Order when he was a boy growing up in the tough working-class streets of Glasgow, where he was born in 1947.

"It was a family tradition," he explained over a beer at Le Cirque in the Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue.

It was not the only Glasgow tradition that he was exposed to that would make Northern Ireland more familiar to him than to most consuls dispatched from London to govern its unruly outpost.

"Sectarianism was rife right until the 1960s," he recalled. There was the marching, the rioting and the beatings — all the characteristics of a divided city of the sort that Belfast continues to be. Politics, too, was skewered in a way that is familiar to any one who knows the North.

"In 1955, more working-class people voted Tory than Labor in Glasgow," he said. More Protestants, that is. The poor Catholic vote went to the Labor Party. The situation was more or less duplicated in the poor wards of loyalist Belfast, where hard-working and underpaid trade unionists voted for the landed gentry and kept an Ulster Tory party in power for 50 years. Except that in Glasgow, Labor finally triumphed — Ingram has been an MP for East Kilbride since 1987. In Belfast, class-based politics remain a day dream.

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Ingram was in the U.S. trying to find out how to deal with organized crime.

As he put it: "As we move toward a normal society in Northern Ireland, we have more ordinary crime." But in the North, nothing will ever be quite as "normal" as in the rest of the British Isles. The so-called "ordinary" criminal activity is frequently run by paramilitary organizations that now have nothing better to do since the so-called "war" is over. Earlier this year, a report was published by the Northern Ireland Organized Crime Task Force outlining the extent to which "ordinary" crime has developed, identifying some 78 gangs, more than half of which have links to the UDA, UVF, Red Hand Commandos, and various republican groups such as the Provisional IRA, the INLA and the "Real" IRA. The report showed that organized crime was involved in everything from drug dealing to kidnapping, extortion, smuggling and benefit fraud. Ingram said that he discussed "strategies" for combating such activity with the FBI and NYPD and hopes to benefit from their expertise. He has also attended conferences on organized crime in the home of that phenomenon, Palermo, Sicily.

He agreed that there was a comparison between Sicily and Northern Ireland, far fetched as it may seem to some. Both harbor cultures which have been alienated from the state, and which traditionally have permitted "alternative" structures to flourish. Even after the North’s political problems have been settled, the underlying social alienation may well continue to allow high levels of illegal activity to flourish.

However, Ingram exudes a kind of optimism about the North’s future, which is made more credible, perhaps by a certain Scottish pragmatism which seems to underlie it. Even the prospect of the upcoming general election, which could see the decimation of moderate Unionist forces, does not daunt him. He dismisses any parallels between the situation currently confronting David Trimble, leader of the UUP and first minister in the power-sharing executive government, and that faced by Brian Faulkner in January 1974. Faulkner’s pro-power-sharing party went into a general election only to be steamrollered by the Ian-Paisley-anti-Sunningdale-Unionist bandwagon. This in turn set up the power sharing executive for defeat, which came a few months later in the form of a loyalist workers rebellion.

"Even those who are opposed to the Good Friday agreement support devolved government now, and that includes the DUP," Ingram said. "They don’t want to go back." He also believes that there is not the kind of support in the streets for action like that which occurred in 1974. He said he thinks Trimble will do better than people expect.

However, the same old problems persist, and will not go away, mainly the merry-go-round of decommissioning and demilitarization. Shouldn’t those dammed watchtowers in South Armagh go? Ingram shakes his head.

"No weapons have been handed over," he replied. "Though there are no preconditions," he quickly added. He explained the government position, for the nth time no doubt. Then he said that if there were "guarantees that something would happen" then a move would be made about the watchtowers. "But there are no guarantees," he said.

He has been in the post of minister for security for longer than any of his predecessors. During that time he has established another first — he is probably the only security minister who has hugged a member of the Provisional IRA Army Council. This occurred when Ingram embraced Pat Doherty, who is also a vice president of Sinn Fein. Why?

"He was born in Glasgow, too," Ingram said. Doherty, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Dr. John Reid, and Ingram himself — all Glaswegians and all helping to run Northern Ireland. Sounds like some sort of Mafia to me.

Agent Spotting 101

Déjà vu all over again, as they say. Some pundits are wagging their fingers at informer Dave Rupert’s associates, saying they should have known better. After all, claimed one, "FBI agent" might well have been written on Rupert’s forehead.

In 1996, when I published "Phoenix: Policing The Shadows," about the life and work of Superintendent Ian Phoenix of the RUC Special Branch, I was lectured by the know-it-alls who refused to believe me when I said I had no idea he was an undercover cop until he was killed in the Chinook helicopter crash of June 1994. It was so easy to spot them, after all. I mean, "Special Branch" may as well have been written on his forehead.

My reply to that argument is simple. If it were so easy, why did so many members of the IRA, UDA and UVF end up behind bars? Could it be that they thought that those house builders in the van were really house builders? Or butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers?

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