Who gains from this breakdown?
The British and Irish governments have reason to undermine Sinn Féin

Niall Stanage
Friday February 4, 2005
The Guardian

The Irish peace process, which just two months ago seemed inches away from a final settlement, is in turmoil. The current downward spiral began in late December, when a raid on a Belfast bank netted its perpetrators £26m. Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern wasted no time in declaring that the IRA was responsible for the heist. They have stuck with that position since, though they have not produced a shred of evidence to back up their claims. The two premiers this week characterised the IRA as "the sole obstacle" in the way of progress.

The IRA responded in kind on Wednesday, declaring that further decommissioning was now "off the table". While reaffirming its desire to see the peace process succeed, it also warned, ominously, that current circumstances had "tried our patience to the limit". That statement, in turn, provoked an outcry from Irish republicanism's opponents. Ian Paisley, the leader of the hardline Democratic Unionist party, said that the IRA had "never had any intention of giving up their criminal empire".

The peace process has passed through moments of peril before, of course. But now, all forward momentum seems lost. Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness spoke yesterday of a "deepening crisis".

Two things have remained true of Northern Ireland since the worst years of the Troubles. First, things are rarely as they appear. Second, it is always vital to ask whose interests are served when unsupported allegations are flung about.

There are three possible explanations for the bank raid which precipitated the current mess. It could have been carried out by the IRA with the approval of the Sinn Féin leadership; or by freelancing current or former members of the organisation; or by someone else entirely, possibly someone who would like to see Sinn Féin ostracised and republicanism's political progress halted.

The British and Irish governments clearly favour the first explanation. Their vehemence has fuelled the notion that they must have cast-iron evidence. Perhaps they do. But why, then, have they not produced any of it? In order to believe that the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were complicit in the bank robbery one must make a series of assumptions that make no sense.

The current republican leadership has invested two decades in the peace process. They have nothing to gain from its failure. Why, then, would they give tacit approval to a massive bank raid? Even if the perpetrators were not caught in the act, Adams and McGuinness would know that suspicion would fall upon them. And they would know that such suspicion would in itself be potent enough to wreck the project to which they have dedicated much of their lives.

It is more plausible to believe that individuals who are, or were, members of the IRA carried out the raid for personal profit. But if that is the case, why should the 300,000 Irish nationalists who vote for Sinn Féin be punished in response? One thing is not in doubt. It is Sinn Féin's opponents who can reap most benefit from pinning blame for December's robbery on republicans.

Attributing blame to republicans for the current impasse also gets Paisley off the hook. Many people believe that he kiboshed a possible deal on decommissioning at the end of last year: the IRA had offered to disarm fully, but Paisley demanded photographic evidence and made a provocative speech in which he demanded the IRA don sackcloth and ashes.

This would not be the first time a unionist leader has been saved from international condemnation by a flurry of allegations against republicans. Those who regard such talk as conspiratorial nonsense might recall that in late 2002, David Trimble was finally beginning to take flak for his intransigence - until sensational allegations of an IRA/Sinn Féin "spy ring" emerged. Almost all charges relating to that affair were eventually, and quietly, dropped. But Northern Ireland's devolved government has never been resuscitated.

The Irish government has good reasons of its own to blacken Sinn Féin's name. Adams's party is on the rise in the Irish Republic. It has five members of the Irish parliament and its first MEP from the south, and continues to threaten the establishment parties, Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fáil in particular. What better way to put a stop to Sinn Féin's gallop than to paint it as deceitful and nefarious?

Many Irish republicans were always suspicious of the peace process. They believed that the British government and the unionists were interested only in their defeat, not in genuine political progress. They believed they would be drawn away from the armed struggle, only to be frozen out politically. Recent events give them ample reason to say "we told you so".

· Niall Stanage is a correspondent for the Dublin-based Sunday Business Post


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