A wink from Belfast to Belmarsh
Neither Sinn Féin nor Islamists can be damned without evidence

Peter Preston
Monday February 21, 2005
The Guardian

Welcome - same place, more or less same time - to the house of hiatus, the den of dislocation called Westminster. It's tomorrow, and two big moments are coming.

One is for Charles Clarke, the home secretary, feverishly pushing his burden of control orders: bad news for a hundred or so uncharged, untried and unconvicted terrorist suspects, doomed to be shoved aboard planes to north Africa or plonked in the cell of their own front parlours. The other features the Northern Ireland secretary Paul Murphy, wagging his finger at Sinn Féin over a bank's missing £26m. Will he stop their sweeties, put a lid on their expenses box?

Whatever he does, the bearded boys buried in Belmarsh would settle for it in a trice. Fashionable terrorists these days seem to chant the Qur'an not a Hail Mary. But the evidence against the incarcerated Muslims - evidence that will never get near a court - is standard casserole de spook, a hotpot of intelligence reportage, informer finger-pointing, surveillance and telephone tapping. And against Sinn Féin? Well, we wait to see where Friday's Garda raids will take us, but the spooks have their accustomed role in this Irish stew.

Neither Belmarsh nor Belfast, in short, has produced facts that sit snugly with what we call justice. They come bearing allegations that dare not speak their name in open (or any sort of) court. They can be shown to prime ministers or home secretaries under cover of darkness, but that's your lot.

Both cases supposedly involve wild men prepared to kill, rob and money-launder for the cause (though some IRA members have actually killed, years ago, rather than merely talked about it). Both fall easily into the bumper bundle of terror warfare beloved by George Bush. Then the differences begin.

For the Provisional IRA, though it murdered so many for so long, is not al-Qaida. It has (largely) stopped killing, if not beating and intimidation. It has political objectives. It is a prospective peace partner. At which point, other criteria suddenly apply.

Can you vote for the cause the IRA espouses? Of course, in increasing numbers both north and south. Are men who (allegation again) sit on its army council fit players in devolved government? They have been before and may be again - as well as welcome guests at No 10 and the White House.

So, a decade after the main violence ended, shouldn't Northern Ireland be returning to a kind of normality, featuring proper local democracy and a rigorous re-assertion of the rule of law?

You might suppose so. But, instead, a curious, half-civilised world persists. The police, embarrassed when £26m goes missing, solve the crime in general terms by pointing at the Provos and thus at Sinn Féin. The evidence, it's said, is crystal clear. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are duly convinced. Charles Clarke would surely be issuing control orders on demand, were they relevant.

But, despite such clarity, nobody is arrested or charged. Indeed, the Garda raid (for what that's worth) follows weeks later, in an Alice O'Wonderland sort of way. First find your culprit, then go looking for a little evidence. Worse, the likeliest sanction when the secretary of state gets to his feet tomorrow, is that freeze on political expenses - a punishment of Gerry Adams and Co for what precisely?

For masterminding the Northern Bank heist? For approving it/hearing about it/not stopping it, had that been possible? Mr Adams thinks all this "a disgrace". He's done a fair number of disgraceful things in his life, to be sure, but he also deserves a hearing.

Are there facts, duly tested in court, that substantiate the charges against Sinn Féin? Not yet. Nor anything of substance that can be divulged to parliament. Has anyone, as they hasten to condemnation, supplied even a wisp of credible motivation for Messrs Adams and McGuinness? Again, and most troublingly: not yet.

Whatever you think of their history and policies, you can't altogether fault them on courage. They, like others on all sides, have often made themselves physical targets. They've put themselves on the line for a political solution, and their careers will end in irrelevance if it fails.

They're also pretty astute, well worth their No 10 invites. So why, pray, put that in pawn by sanctioning not just the small change of criminality, but a robbery to make Buster Edwards puce with envy?

Any savvy politician sitting around the army council table and hearing about that scheme would have known precisely what to say: "Stop, for God's sake, you're wrecking everything I've worked for - and clobbering us come election time."

Why, then, did Adams let it happen? Because he wants a plush retirement home in Bulgaria or Libya? Because £26m buys a load of new guns to replace the old lot currently being turned into ploughshares for box Brownie consumption? It's ludicrous stuff. But such missing motivation matters.

Without it, you can't make sense of this swirl of politicking. You're stuck eating spook stew in the dark.

That isn't, I think, good enough for Northern Ireland any longer. Ten years on, it needs its due process back. Ten years on, it needs the lights turned on again.

Mr Murphy, trimming and hinting and wriggling through tomorrow, can't supply that. And, along the front bench, Mr Clarke should pay keen attention. What becomes of his and our "free world" when we trade it for incarceration on demand? There's a stark answer to that. Its freedoms fade into nudges and winks. Its processes duly corrode. And it becomes rather like Belfast on another bad day.


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