Out of the West
Welcome to the North 2005

The behaviour of those who have accepted as fact the opinion of Hugh Orde on the Northern Bank robbery (and even he said it was just an opinion) is as reprehensible as it is predictable.

They should be aware, though, that this is not consequence-free activity. For those who put their critical faculties to one side in order to promote a partisan political agenda, there is a price to be paid in terms of credibility, and that price will be paid; probably later rather than sooner, but it will be paid.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: there can be few people thundering on about the Northern Bank robbery and the dire implications for the republican movement who aren’t uncomfortably aware that what they’re doing is shabby and disreputable. To apportion blame authoritatively in regard to a crime for which no-one has been arrested, much less charged, is a very dangerous business indeed. In the long-term, of course, it’s more damaging to the cause of unionism than it is to the cause of republicanism because in the greenest parts of the North, the contemptuous cynicism about this state and its supporters is deepening by the day.

Anyone genuinely interested in a stable future for these six counties as part of the United Kingdom realises that this is only possible when the hitherto reviled and persecuted republican underclass becomes convinced that things are different and that a modus vivendi within the present border is, if not preferable, at least possible. But those behind the present political onslaught are driven not by common sense, but by personal and political animus. Ian Paisley’s ‘Smash Sinn Féin’ campaign was seen to fail miserably, but there are those who are pursuing the same agenda with a lot more vigour and ruthlessness than the old preacher ever did. The pretence that the frequently disappointed but persistent ‘good guys’ – the British and Irish governments, the ‘constitutional’ parties, thinking journalists – are doing their level best to bring Sinn Féin into the political fold lies in tatters, and exposed is a Canute-like determination to hobble republicans electorally, by foul means or foul.

In republican areas of the North, there’s a growing conviction that so rattled is the political establishment by recent republican advances that the intelligence agencies have been given free rein to do whatever it takes to close down Sinn Féin as an electoral force. But because they know as much about this community as they do about the remotest tribes of Equatorial Guinea, the scenarios that are presented to the Sinn Féin constituency as reasons to be fearful – Castlereagh, ‘Stormontgate’, Colombia, the Northern Bank and whatever’s next – are viewed as part of a quasi-military anti-republican conspiracy. And the Shinners reap the benefits. If there was an election here tomorrow with the Northern Bank storm blowing stronger than the Atlantic gales, Sinn Féin would clean up.

The I’m With Hugh gang don’t have to take my word for it: they should walk down the streets, meet people in the shopping centres or chat to them in the pubs and clubs. Maybe they might be able to work out – because I haven’t been able to – whether the most powerful sentiment is anger or disgust.

What kind of state is it, they’re asking, in which a senior policeman has effectively the same power as the highest court in the land? Why would the PSNI, the republican movement’s most ferocious opponent, say anything other than the IRA did it, and just as importantly, why would otherwise intelligent people accept that bald statement without the merest scintilla of evidence?

Because it’s clear now that this is a state whose very inception flew in the face of justice and democracy, and in which those qualities have been corrupted rather than cherished. And that’s more true today than it ever was.
Two weeks ago there was a strong sense in West Belfast that the IRA did the Northern Bank job – that was never the case with the last setpiece scandal, Castlereagh. We could probably go further than that and say that there was a strong hope in West Belfast that the IRA did it. But with the passing of the days and weeks and the political furore growing in inverse proportion to the amount of evidence, suspicion and resentment are the order of the day.

Anger, disgust, suspicion, resentment. Welcome to Northern Ireland, 2005.

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