IRA shoots itself in the foot. What's going on?

First came the £26m bank raid. Then, Provisionals were implicated in the murder of a popular republican. The IRA looks split, and confused,with the peace process in jeopardy
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The Independent Online

The good news from Belfast is that no full-scale return to conflict is expected: the bad news is that, in most other ways, the Northern Ireland peace process is in bits. Weeks of turmoil and sensational developments and disclosures have rendered what was regarded as a basically sound process, often fraught but generally resilient, into something dangerously close to a quivering wreck.

The good news from Belfast is that no full-scale return to conflict is expected: the bad news is that, in most other ways, the Northern Ireland peace process is in bits. Weeks of turmoil and sensational developments and disclosures have rendered what was regarded as a basically sound process, often fraught but generally resilient, into something dangerously close to a quivering wreck.

The years of progress in which the prevailing culture of Belfast politics mutated, step by laborious step, from confrontation to negotiation have come to a sudden, shuddering halt.

A robbery and a killing have cast the process in a new light. This was not in the script: the process was supposed to be about coaxing the IRA and Sinn Fein into conventional politics, not about them corrupting the system.

Are the republicans unreconstructed incorrigibles who have lured everyone into a moral quagmire? Is their ambition not to merge with the political mainstream, but rather to subvert and pollute it?

There is as yet no clear answer to these questions, which have left the peace process in its present disarray. But events have changed the process itself irrevocably and altered its course.

Just months ago there was talk that a political deal, incorporating both Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, was tantalisingly close. The IRA offered to decommission all its weapons within weeks, while the loyalist leader offered to share power with republicans.

The deal could not be clinched because the IRA refused to agree to the Paisley demand for photographic evidence of decommissioning. London and Dublin were disappointed but were ready for another try.

The lack of a breakthrough was viewed not as a breakdown but as a frustrating failure to slot the last few parts of the jigsaw into place.

Much encouragement was taken from the fact that Mr Paisley had put a lifetime of negativity behind him and agreed to share power. And the IRA, after all the years of the gun, said it was putting its entire armoury on the negotiating table.

Forming a government dominated by these parties would not have been a pretty sight. Mr Adams predicted it would be "a battle a day" while Mr Paisley concurred: "Hell would have been let loose, probably every meeting."

Yet for all that, it would have been a historic achievement, and hopes remained high that those last elusive jigsaw pieces could be located, perhaps even this side of a May election.

But then, during the Christmas political break, came the Belfast bank robbery, netting £26m in the first of a series of developments to rock the process. The IRA said it didn't do it; Mr Adams said he believed them.

But Northern Ireland's Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, said the IRA did it, and many believed him. And then, unexpectedly, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said two things: that the IRA did it, and that Sinn Fein leaders had known about it. In the Dail, he roasted Sinn Fein to a crisp with a controlled vehemence which cast aside years of government policy. Gone was the polite fiction that there was distance between Sinn Fein and the IRA; gone was the toleration of IRA illegality.

There had been previous robberies, he said, and "we in this House took that coolly enough". They had watched as the IRA had controlled the pattern of "punishment" beatings and shootings in Belfast, turning off the tap of brutality during negotiations and elections.

What particularly offended him, he said, was that while the pre-Christmas negotiations were under way so too was the planning for the bank raid.

His devastating intervention convinced many doubters that the IRA was responsible. Republicans had not expected this from the Irish leader, and were particularly scalded by his assertion that Sinn Fein leaders knew about the raid.

By this stage the peace process was in real crisis, with the prospects for a Sinn Fein-Paisley accord put back for months, if not years, and the republican movement under attack from all sides.

Many relished attacking them, but a majority of the critics were simultaneously dismayed by the fact that the robbery and its aftermath had severely damaged not just the IRA and Sinn Fein but also the process itself.

The republican response remains one of dogged, defiant denial: Gerry Adams did not know the IRA would rob the bank. In fact, he said, the IRA had not robbed the bank: somebody else must have done it.

By this stage those who had believed that Mr Adams was for real were bewildered and confused as he insisted the IRA was innocent. Each fresh denial seemed to inflict a further blow to republican credibility: Sinn Fein was in a hole, but it kept on digging.

Republican problems then dramatically multiplied when IRA members, drinking in a Belfast bar after attending a Bloody Sunday commemoration in Derry, became embroiled in a brawl.

Robert McCartney, a Catholic man from a respected Sinn Fein-voting party, was surrounded and stabbed to death in an episode involving a high-ranking IRA officer and several other IRA members.

The killing was a spontaneous flare-up but afterwards standard IRA procedures came into play. The bar was cleaned up, the murder weapon disappeared, no film from CCTV cameras was to be found. The word was forcibly put out: nobody is to talk.

But while none of the bar's 70-odd customers have spoken to police, the dead man's formidable and fearless family have talked, telling the world what happened, to the embarrassment of the IRA. Although the murder and the robbery were unconnected, both damagingly associated the organisation with criminality.

The next shockwave came as the authorities in the Republic went with a vengeance after the organisation's money men: the approach of acting "coolly enough" was abandoned.

Everyone knew republicans were into illicit fund-raising and money-laundering, but it all took place invisibly. This time the Irish public gaped at the pictures of large bags stuffed with millions of pounds.

The arrest of a Sinn Fein activist from Cork meant the party's name featured in every report of the large-scale raids. He was released without charge, but the link had been made, adding yet another stratum of damage.

All this has generated great confusion and uncertainty within the republican community itself. The IRA has often put out a kind of samizdat explanation after puzzling events, designed to reassure the faithful that all was well and everything was under control. Such confidential murmurs have been important for an underground organisation. This time it's different.

There is no off-the-record briefing, either for the media or the grassroots, to explain why the IRA robbed the bank. The line is simply an implacable assertion that the IRA didn't do it. Hardly anybody believes this.

In many pubs there were initial republican chuckles about the bravado and daring of the IRA, but smiles faded as the extent of the damage became clear. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness may be reviled in many quarters, but over the long years of both war and peace they have garnered much respect, both for themselves as individuals and for their cause.

The mission, on which they have expended huge effort, is to put Sinn Fein into government in both parts of Ireland. They have gained hugely both north and south, and looked set to win more seats at Westminster and in the Dail. Suddenly there is less confidence that their heady successes will continue unchecked, though everything is still in motion and the electoral effects are impossible to predict. But even if Sinn Fein holds its seats in May, the party has already lost much in the wider world. An internationally known author, an Adams admirer, said this week: "I feel so sad for them, sad they think they could do this thing."

Such perplexity is not confined to republican west Belfast, but extends to the intelligence people as well. They are confident that the IRA did the robbery, but they can come up with no definitive explanation as to why.

They have lots of theories but no certainty. Perhaps, it is said, they were trying to reassure IRA people who were queasy about full decommissioning; perhaps it was a non-lethal "spectacular" designed to show off IRA abilities.

Perhaps it was a last fling, designed to fill the IRA's coffers before it went straight; perhaps it happened because the bank was about to change hands and new security arrangements could mean the opportunity would be lost.

Perhaps "they did it because they could", as one security source put it, trying to take advantage of the fact that previous smaller robberies had been studiously underplayed in both London and Dublin.

"Sheer arrogance" is the belief of some senior people: republicans have handled the peace process so astutely for so long, and benefited so much from it, that perhaps they thought they could get away with just about anything.

One of the few certainties is that, no matter why the IRA did it, they under-estimated the furious reaction and the serious damage it would cause both the IRA and Sinn Fein.

And all of this has been self-inflicted: no one knows why the IRA - which in backstreet "punishments" has shot so many people in the leg - should take such careful aim and shoot itself in the foot.

Republicans have finely honed damage limitation skills, but this time their touch deserted them. The IRA, which generally speaks in terms of lofty dignity, was reduced to rushing out flustered statements which carry diminishing credibility.

Gerry Adams, who for many has developed the aura of a statesman, is accused by Dublin of being on the IRA army council, and he continues to go on television saying things which no one believes.

The shadow of the bank robber lies across his party, which has become firmly identified with large stashes of cash. Above all, no explanations are forthcoming as to how republicans got themselves, and the peace process, into this mess.

The London and Dublin governments have been casting around for an alternative political approach without Sinn Fein, but no convincing alternative to an inclusive process has appeared. Remarkably, Mr Paisley does not rule out the possibility of a future deal.

But the republicans will pay a heavy price to get out of the sin-bin, for no one will do serious business with them in the absence of cast-iron guarantees that the criminality will cease.

Yet the IRA has just saddled itself with a reputation for lying, and any future promises it gives will be subjected to the most thorough testing, with nothing taken at face value.

All this is not the end of Sinn Fein or the end of the peace process, but the image of a consummately cunning and successful republican movement has been shattered and the rules of the game have changed.

In the Dail yesterday Bertie Ahern reflected the new mood, not only of nationalist Ireland but also of the British Government and indeed Unionists. He set out for republicans the new requirements which are now the new reality: "We want no ambiguity, no fudge, no messing."

HOW SINN FEIN LOST ITS CREDIBILITY

14 October 2002

The nine week-old Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended and the country returns to direct rule from Westminster, after IRA decommissioning fails to make progress.

4 November 2004

A report by the Independent Monitoring Commission says the IRA remains a sophisticated terrorist grouping, kept in a state of readiness - though there is no evidence of any preparation for a return to violence. Talks between the IRA and DUP on a power-sharing agreement continue.

30 November

An unofficial deadline on talks between Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists passes without agreement.

8 December

Hopes of a breakthrough are dashed, with the DUP demanding photographic evidence of decommissioning and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, warning that the IRA will "not submit to a process of humiliation".

20 December

The Northern Bank in Belfast is robbed of £26.5m - the biggest bank robbery in the UK. Two senior bank workers assist in the raid after gunmen take their family hostage the previous night and threaten to kill them.

23 December

The IRA denies involvement. Detectives say paramilitary involvement is "a key line of inquiry".

7 January 2005

Police formally blame the IRA for the robbery. Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, says: "In my opinion, the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction." Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, dismisses the report as politically biased: "I asked the IRA about this and was assured that they were not involved."

3 February

IRA withdraws its offer to decommission its weaponry: "We do not intend to remain quiescent within this unacceptable and unstable situation. We are taking all our proposals off the table."

10 February

A new police report says Sinn Fein's leaders sanctioned the robbery. Gerry Adams angrily challenges the Irish authorities to arrest him and McGuinness. Michael McDowell, the Irish justice minister, says some of Sinn Fein's "household names" are members of the IRA's army council.

14 February

Pressure grows on the IRA as they are accused of protecting the killers of a Belfast man, Robert McCartney, stabbed to death outside a bar. The victim's family accuse the IRA of intimidating witnesses.

16 February

Adams admits he "may be wrong" in previously denying IRA involvement in the bank heist.

17 February

Large-scale police swoops in the Irish Republic find more than £2m in stolen bank notes. A former Sinn Fein political representative, Tom Hanlon, is among six people arrested. McDowell accuses the republican movement of being a "colossal crime machine".

18 February

Footage of Martin McGuinness speaking to Hanlon is broadcast. Phil Flynn, one-time Sinn Fein vice-president, resigns as head of a government decentralisation committee and as head of the Bank of Scotland's Irish division, but denies involvement with money-laundering.

20 February

Irish government says Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris are members of the IRA's controlling Army Council.

22 February

Sinn Fein MPs to be stripped of their parliamentary allowances and barred from their Westminster offices.

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