Sinn Fein has been on the defensive for over three weeks against claims that the IRA did the job.
Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, and Mitchel McLaughlin have been run ragged in recent days, busily denying that the IRA carried out the raid and claiming that the Sinn Fein leadership did not know of its planning.
If proved to be true, the claim by the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s chief constable, Hugh Orde, that the IRA robbed the bank could prove disastrous to the prospects of short-term political resolution between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The British and Irish governments believe the IRA did it. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both personally believe that the Sinn Fein leadership was aware of the heist’s planning while in negotiations before Christmas.
The DUP, the UUP and even the SDLP believe the IRA were responsible. If true, the implications for the Northern peace process are startling.
Irish government sources put it like this: either the IRA carried out the raid unbeknownst to the Sinn Fein leadership, meaning the political wing of the republican movement is no longer in the ascendancy and therefore unable to deliver IRA decommissioning, or the Sinn Fein negotiators knew in advance of the robbery and are treating the main players in the peace process with contempt.
Sinn Fein insists that neither scenario arises, given that the IRA is not guilty. The party blames the “securocrats” in the Northern Ireland Office, the British military and the PSNI of having fingered the IRA in order to damage Sinn Fein.
McGuinness went so far as to name NIO chief Joe Pilling at a press conference as being a member of the shadowy grouping. Pilling, McGuinness said, had told Irish Americans at a November briefing in the U.S. that the British government’s main preoccupation was to prevent Sinn Fein from becoming the biggest party in the North. This, he said, was proof enough of the NIO’s real agenda.
However, Sinn Fein has had little success in tallying Orde’s decision to declare IRA involvement with the idea that a vast conspiracy exists within the British establishment designed to cause republicans damage.
Things remain up in the air with regard to the nitty-gritty of the bank job — no arrests have been made. Adams and McGuinness have, meanwhile, made some potentially significant comments about their relationship with the IRA.
Adams said in an interview published Saturday that had the IRA carried out the robbery it would have signaled a “crossroads” for him and the military wing of the republican movement.
“If the IRA had told us that they did it, then I think that that would have been a crossroads [in our relationship with the IRA] for the likes of me and those of us who are in the political leadership,” Adams said.
McGuinness followed this up Sunday in an interview with the BBC. He said it would have been “unacceptable” for the IRA to carry out the Dec. 19-20 raid.
“If the IRA had been involved in that robbery, then there would have been a defining moment in Sinn Fein leadership’s work with the IRA. I would not have stood for it,” he said.
The two men may have made themselves hostages to fortune. If the Police Service of Northern Ireland finally produces the evidence to back up its assertions of IRA involvement, what then for the two most senior republicans in the movement? Will they stick to the current script of “dirty tricks” and insist that the evidence has been fabricated by those opposed to the peace process, or will they walk away from the IRA?
Sinn Fein’s party chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said on RTE’s “Questions and Answers” debate Monday that the party would be prepared to “take its medicine” if allegations of IRA involvement are now proven correct.
If, as they claim, the IRA has nothing to do with the raid, then all is well — at least for the time being. What happens in future, however, if the IRA is firmly implicated in a similar act?
The notion of Adams and McGuinness walking off into the sunset with noses raised in disgust at an outrageous act of so-called IRA “duplicity” would be a bizarre one. They alone have guided the IRA to the present juncture, having won over the most influential and pivotal individuals in the organization to their political strategy.
They could only walk away in two other distinct situations: either they deliver IRA decommissioning and disbandment, thus bedding down the Good Friday agreement, or the IRA balks at the peace process, casting the political leadership adrift.
The latter would most likely spell the end of the peace process as we know it.
According to observers of the republican movement, if the IRA did indeed rob the bank, it is unlikely that Adams and McGuinness had intimate knowledge of the heist while negotiating with the DUP.
Republican sources insist that the IRA was poised to move into a “new mode” on foot of an agreement with the DUP and that its units had been readied to stand down. If a deal had been done, they say, no such robbery could have ever taken place.
Instead, it has been suggested that the Sinn Fein leadership may have been aware of the IRA’s general policy to carry out low-level heists but would have had no involvement in the planning or sanctioning of such acts.
Given that a deal with unionists fell through, the IRA simply continued with this policy. If this analysis is correct, it is said, the IRA may have robbed the Northern Bank with little understanding of the amount of cash it would seize or of the huge political consequences that the raid would have.
McGuinness has said that the raiders did a “grave injustice” to the peace process. He has been joined by Gerry Kelly and Mitchel McLaughlin as describing the operation as “wrong” and a “crime.”
Their comments suggest that if the plans to rob the Northern had become known to them they would “not have stood for it.”
Some observers believe the ongoing controversy arising from the robbery has caused irreparable damage to the political process. The reverse may in fact be true — the Sinn Fein leadership, in having to deflect as yet unproven allegations, has firmly set down a marker for future IRA behavior that can only be welcomed.