Ahern and Adams go head to head

Sunday Business Post
23 January 2005 By Pat Leahy

The future of the Northern Ireland peace process will depend on the
outcome of meetings between the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the Sinn
Féin leadership in Dublin on Tuesday and a meeting between the
republicans and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, on Thursday.

Although officials in Government Buildings were tight-lipped about
the arrangements this weekend, The Sunday Business Post understands
that the meeting has been set for 1pm on Tuesday.

Contrary to some reports, it is understood that the Sinn Féin
leadership has been in regular - usually daily - contact with
officials from the Department of the Taoiseach in recent weeks as
both sides look to find away to make progress in the stalled
political process. This comes as relations between Sinn Féin leader
Gerry Adams and Ahern have deteriorated severely.

Both sides expect Tuesday's meeting in Dublin to be difficult.

Ahern has said he believes the Sinn Féin leadership knew in advance
that the Northern Bank robbery was being planned and that it was
executed by the Provisional IRA, as was suggested by the PSNI chief
constable, Hugh Orde.

Adams has said he was angered by the Taoiseach's remarks and that he
intended to ask him to explain and justify them this week.

The meeting will take place against a background of extreme hostility
to Sinn Féin among politicians, media and the public in the Republic,
unparalleled since the breakdown of the 1994-96 IRA ceasefire, the
Canary Wharf bomb and the killing of Garda Jerry McCabe.

Politicians have sought to outdo each other with condemnations of the
Northern Bank robbery and assertions that "enough is enough'` from
Sinn Féin and the IRA - with the justice minister Michael McDowell,
who may meet the Sinn Féin delegation next week, leading the way.

The Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, has called for sanctions against
Sinn Féin, and has said it is "time to end seven years of political
patronage'` for the party by government.

The Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, has said the time of opposition
parties refraining from criticising the government's conduct of the
peace process is now over, and he called on the republican movement
to cooperate with the police and "help prove the innocence they

Columnists and commentators in the Dublin media - some of whom have
always been opposed to any accommodation of Sinn Féin which arose
from the peace process - have savaged Sinn Féin and the IRA and
demanded, variously, a tougher government line with Adams and Martin
McGuinness, an end to "appeasement'` and some form of quasi-ritual
contrition and penance from the republican movement.

Letters pages and radio phone-ins - albeit representative of nothing
except people who write to newspapers and telephone radio stations -
have shown that this mood is not confined to politicians and pundits.

Friday's Irish Times poll showed a sharp drop in the "satisfaction
rating'` for Adams among the electorate; although the group of voters
that have given their allegiance to Sinn Féin dropped by only one
percentage point, suggesting that the party's voters either don't
believe that the IRA carried out the Northern Bank robbery or don't
care if they did.

It also shows that Sinn Féin is still biting at Labour's heels for
the position of fourth most popular party in the Republic.

A certain amount of the vehemence of the media and political reaction
of recent weeks can probably be ascribed to a certain amount of pent-
up frustration with Sinn Féin's electoral success and seemingly
inexorably increasing support in recent years.

Journalists and politicians who observed the IRA's campaign over 25
years shake their heads when Mary Lou McDonald issues press releases
condemning the EU arms trade or Caoimhghin O'Caolain makes a speech
in the Dáil attacking US militarism. They feel there are some things
the electorate - increasingly enamoured by Sinn Féin's heady cocktail
of hard graft in the community, opportunistic populism and the ol'
whiff of sulphur - needs to be reminded of.

Of late, those journalists and politicians have been doing more than
just shaking their heads at one another: they've been wagging their
fingers at Sinn Fein.

An important question, which will only be answered in the coming
months, is whether the outbreak of hostility to Sinn Féin in the wake
of the Northern Bank robbery is a permanent change of the political
contours in the Republic or a more transitory phenomenon.

Sinn Féin sources point out that their party is an electoral threat
to Fianna Fáil (the Taoiseach's brother almost lost his council seat
as a result of a Sinn Féin surge last June) and to the rest of the
southern political establishment in away that it wasn't when the
process began.

Sources close to the Taoiseach rubbish this argument, saying he knew
well that the process would result in gains for Sinn Féin and
pressure on Fianna Fáil. Where else could success possibly have led?

And even since last June's local elections, when the strength of Sinn
Féin's challenge to Fianna Fáil became apparent, Ahern has made
enormous efforts to reinstate the Northern institutions.

So what now for the process?

Ultimately, everyone will go back to the peace process, said one
senior official in Dublin. Because they know there's no alternative.

But in the meantime, the same official suggests, everyone's going to
line up and take a kick at Sinn Féin. Why? Because they can.

Attempts to revive the peace process will be difficult. But most
senior sources who spoke to this newspaper last week agreed that,
whatever the changes in the political landscape wrought by the events
of the last month, engagement with the Northern parties and with Sinn
Fein in an effort to bring self-government to the North will continue.

What's the alternative? Hammering the Shinners may be keeping certain
parties happy - and make lots of people feel a whole lot better - but
in the long term, it's not an option that offers political progress
towards a viable, functioning polity in the North.

Both governments remain committed to that goal, and they will
accommodate Sinn Féin in their efforts to achieve it.

However, the events of recent weeks have shown republicans that
neither the understanding of the governments nor the patience of the
public is inexhaustible.

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