Sinn Féin and Dublin in grudge match

After IRA withdraws decommissioning offer, Republicans are furious with Irish PM for accusing leaders of approving £26.5m bank job.

Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondent
Friday February 4, 2005
The Guardian

On the Falls Road, someone had scribbled "IRA is the best" in marker pen on a wall. Other more light-hearted graffiti, "Gerry, Gerry give us a loan", had turned up elsewhere.

Steven, an unemployed coalman who voted for Sinn Féin, was in a pensive mood. "The IRA were right to withdraw the offer on decommissioning.

"What else could they do? It's the only playing card they have and they had no option but to use it," he said.

He did not believe the IRA had carried out the £26.5m Northern Bank robbery. It was MI5 or "British dirty tricks".

He had served time in prison for membership of the IRA and said a mood of frustration had taken hold of republicans who, a decade after their first ceasefire, saw no sign of the Stormont assembly sitting.

"The ceasefire won't be broken - this leadership wouldn't go back to war now - but the younger generation could run out of patience," he said.

Others in this republican area were not so sure the IRA's hands were clean. "It had to be a big organisation that robbed that bank, didn't it?" sighed a woman who would not be named. "They are very silly withdrawing the decommissioning offer. The majority of people round here just want peace. We don't want our kids going through what we did."

The IRA's statement that it was withdrawing its offer to decommission all weapons is a gambit that has been tried and tested before.

It broke off contacts with General de Chastelain's decommissioning body in October 2003 after a deal with the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble collapsed, but returned to the table when the atmosphere changed.

But the threatening tone of the new statement is of a different order. It is seen by some as a return to the old instinct of the armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other, a reminder there is still an awkward stable of unhappy paramilitaries to be squared.

There is a more crucial difference. The enemy is not the unionists or even Downing Street, but Dublin, and this is what seems to have made republicans jittery.

Sinn Féin seem to have been taken by surprise by the vehemence with which the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, has turned on them after police blamed the IRA for the bank robbery.

It is now no longer simply a struggle with British government, but a grudge match within nationalism. Mr Ahern has been scathing in the Daíl, linking the IRA to a series of multi-million pound cigarette and other robberies as well as punishment attacks.

He has effectively said Sinn Féin and the IRA are one and the same. What is more, he has got personal, claiming that both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness knew the bank robbery was being planned while they negotiated with him to end IRA activity.

The other Dublin parties have rolled in behind him to denounce Sinn Féin, accusing it of refusing to play by the rules of democracy.

Sinn Féin's wounded response was illustrated last night by Mr Adams lashing out at the "criminality" of what he called the republic's culture of political backhanders and brown envelopes.

Mr McGuinness attacked Mr Ahern for playing electoral politics, saying even more forcefully than before that the robbery was the "work of criminals who have nothing to do with the IRA". He talked of "malign forces" at work, accusing Dublin of listening to London's intelligence rather than its own.

All this has happened against a backdrop of rising republican violence. The IRA has been blamed for an upsurge in brutal new forms of punishment beatings across Northern Ireland as it flexes its muscles against young undesirables. This week a senior republican was arrested and questioned about a bar fight murder in the staunchly nationalist Markets area of Belfast. As police moved in to do searches, they were pelted with bricks, stones and bottles by youths.

The new siege mentality within Sinn Féin was caught by the first front-page headline of Daily Ireland, the republican all-Ireland newspaper launched this week. It asked: "House raids and harassment to replace handshakes and dialogue?"

Republicans denied that a split in the IRA between hardliners and political strategists had led to withdrawal of a decommissioning offer.

One ex-republican prisoner in West Belfast said the pessimistic mood was the worst in 10 years, with republicans angry that their efforts in the peace process had not been recognised."The IRA is getting blamed for everything. When dissident republicans throw paint over a kid in Falls Road, the IRA is blamed."

Another source in west Belfast said there were serious differences in opinion in the movement about whether the peace process was working.

There is no palpable fear in Northern Ireland that the IRA will return to violence. The chief constable, Hugh Orde, repeated his claim that the IRA had the capacity and the capability to return to war, but not the intention.

Most believe that Sinn Féin's international statesmen and strategists could not countenance a repeat of an act like the Canary Wharf bomb in the post-September 11 world.

Anthony McIntyre, a former republican prisoner and commentator, said the IRA's withdrawal of its decommissioning offer was "about a process of brinkmanship, about throwing the rattle out of the pram. It creates a difficult atmosphere. Sinn Féin wants to give the impression they are victims."

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