Crisis talk puts Sinn Féin on the back foot

Allegations over bank raid and bar killing see party fighting to maintain electoral momentum amid talk of split in republican movement

Owen Bowcott
Friday February 25, 2005
The Guardian

Sinn Féin supporters filed into Cork's Curraheen Park greyhound stadium for a fundraising meeting last night, defying snow flurries and threats of being frozen out of Ireland's political establishment.

Martin McGuinness, the party's chief negotiator, flew down from Derry to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the party's foundation.

Among rival Irish politicians the idea that the republican movement - in Cork, of all places - needs a windfall provokes incredulity. They believe its coffers are already stuffed with the proceeds of Belfast's £26.5m Northern Bank robbery. The prospect of the party going to the dogs, however, is one they would relish.

For the past 10 days it has been open season in the republic for snapping at Sinn Féin's heels, warning it must sever all paramilitary connections and renounce every aspect of criminality. The arrest of eight suspects, including a former candidate in Cork, in a police investigation into IRA money laundering has been the signal to savage the party's promotion of itself as a political alternative.

Has the best-disciplined party machine on the island suffered an irreparable setback? Within its heartlands the evidence suggests it should hold its own. But can it continue to make converts?

Sinn Féin claims that its rapid electoral advance, generated by the success of the Northern Ireland peace process, has panicked the traditionally dominant parties. It has five deputies in the Irish Dail and one MEP. There has been talk of it entering a coalition government after the next general election.

Jonathan O'Brien, the party's longest-serving councillor in Cork, contends that the onslaught is down to jealousy. Neither Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael nor Labour, he asserts, can match the enthusiasm and commitment of republican supporters.


Sitting in the Sinn Féin office in Cork's Barrack Street, he is surrounded by familiar memorabilia from 30 years of the Troubles. There is a Republican Prisoners' Fund collection box and, on the wall outside, a granite plaque commemorates two IRA volunteers killed in 1973.

"The media have decided to try and criminalise Sinn Féin members," he says, "but it's not succeeding. People on the ground don't recognise that picture because they see ordinary republicans like us working for them day after day.

"We are out there 52 weeks a year, whether or not there's an election. We are no longer seen as a one-issue party, only associated with the northern question."

Charges for emptying rubbish bins have turned into a bitter political controversy in the republic. Sinn Féin has opposed them, claiming that the socially disadvantaged cannot afford to pay. Such policies have bolstered its support on working class estates, helping evict Labour from former strongholds.

Labour's leader, Pat Rabbitte, claims that Sinn Féin, flushed with cash, motivates its members by giving them money for community work. "That's nonsense. We don't pay our supporters," responds Mr O'Brien, a roofer by profession.

As for the allegations that the Provisionals carried out the Northern Bank robbery, he says: "The IRA have said they were not involved. I can only take them at their word."

On Barrack Street the lampposts are decorated with green, white and yellow posters reading: "Republicanism in Crisis. Is there an anarchist alternative?"

But in Knocknaheeny, a windswept housing estate high above Cork's prosperous Georgian waterfront, there is little sense that the Northern Bank robbery will inflict much political damage. "I've voted Sinn Féin," says Annette Murphy, hurrying to pick up a child from school. "They really get things done for you. I don't think [the robbery] will cause any problems. I'd still vote for them."

Near the Super-Valu supermarket another woman says with a smile: "Fair do's to them. But they went and got caught. There's still a lot of support for Sinn Féin around here." Gable-ends are scarred with graffiti, including fading IRA slogans.

"I'd say there's going to be a split," says Mary Ahern. "There's the guys who want to rule by the gun and the guys getting involved in the peace process."

On St Patrick Street in the centre of Cork, where flagpoles advertise the city's status as European City of Culture 2005, responses are varied. "They weren't robbing it off the Irish people," says Séamus Gillen, a construction worker taking a break. "Everyone here is voting Sinn Féin. Look at the massive profits the banks are making from their customers."

Others are waiting to make up their minds. "I've thought about voting for Sinn Féin because they've been so active in the community," says Gary Laffan, "but in the last few weeks so much has come out. I find it hard to believe the leadership could be so stupid. Perhaps it's a smear?"


Over the mountains into neighbouring County Kerry, the twisting road carries heavy lorries and tourist traffic into a Dail constituency held by one of Sinn Féin's veterans, Martin Ferris, a convicted IRA gunrunner.

In Tralee, the county town, some residents have begun to have doubts about republican values.

"I was always pretty pro-Sinn Féin," says Susie Nix, a 21-year-old student, "but [events have] soured my sympathies. A couple of friends who used to work for the party have left because of what happened, particularly the recent killing."

The murder in Belfast of Robert McCartney, allegedly by IRA activists, and the conviction in Dublin this week of five men for IRA membership - their van contained election posters for Aengus O'Snodaigh, a Sinn Féin deputy in the Dail - have added to the party's troubles.

This week, the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, unusually conceded that the republican movement might have to split if it was to stay in the democratic process.

Avoidance of a split within the movement has been a guiding principle for Sinn Féin's president, Gerry Adams. Having failed before Christmas to reach a political deal with unionism that would have in effect dissolved the IRA, he may now face renewed difficulties reconciling what could become increasingly divergent strands of the movement.

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