Irish peace process at the crossroads

The failure in December to secure an agreement on reviving the Good Friday institutions and unsubstantiated police allegations of Irish Republican Army involvement in the $50 million Northern Bank heist have combined to place the Irish peace process in the coldest corner of the political freezer it has occupied in over two years.

With little or no progress expected until at least the other side of a British general election in May, and possibly even longer, serious questions begin to arise concerning the long-term future of the devolutionary, power-sharing Good Friday agreement.

Such questions are bound to intensify if the British and Irish governments move to penalize or exclude Sinn Fein from the process on the basis of their relationship with the IRA or as a result of a now imminent report by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) — a body set up outside of the terms of the Good Friday agreement, ostensibly to monitor paramilitary activity. To date, the IMC has shown itself as being far from independent or impartial.

As for the Northern Bank robbery, Northern Ireland police chief Hugh Orde let it be known that in his “opinion,” based on “investigative work done to date,” the Provisional IRA was responsible for the crime and that “all lines of inquiry ... are in that direction.” The IRA has since denied any involvement.

Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have made it clear that they believe the IRA’s denial and have reacted angrily to further unsubstantiated allegations that they themselves had prior knowledge of the raid. McGuinness said that he was unable to see how involvement in such a risky operation, with its potential to undermine the republican contribution to the peace process, could have been in the interests of the IRA.

The latter point has been raised by others, including veteran Irish communist Jimmy Stewart. Writing in a recent edition of the party’s northern area weekly journal Unity, Stewart asked the question, “Who benefits?” He concluded that it was certainly not the republican movement, whose political reputation had been dented as a result of the robbery accusations.

However, Orde’s claim of IRA responsibility had arrived as “manna to Ian Paisley’s DUP [Democratic Unionist Party],” Stewart suggested, letting the party “off the hook” as the main obstacle to reviving the Good Friday institutions. (Editor’s note: The DUP is a hard-line, ultraconservative Protestant party.) No longer under pressure to participate in attempts to revive the Good Friday process, the DUP is now free to get on with its immediate political priority of consolidating its position as the dominant voice of Ulster unionism.

Sinn Fein sees the hands of what it calls the “securocrats” — security and military elements within the British state opposed to the Good Friday process — as being the main source of “intelligence” pointing to IRA involvement in the robbery. Despite the size of the police operation, no evidence has as yet been produced to back up the chief constable’s opinion, no money recovered, no arrests made and no charges filed.

At the very least, the nature of Orde’s announcement rides roughshod over such supposed “norms” of British justice as the presumption of innocence until proved otherwise and the right to a fair trial.

None of which is to declare with absolute certainty that the IRA or republicans of whatever status or faction were categorically not involved in the Northern Bank raid. In the absence of any concrete evidence, how could anyone know for sure?

However, even if it is eventually proved that republicans were involved, it is stretching credibility to implicate Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, given their long-term role in developing Sinn Fein’s political strategy and the party’s commitment to the Good Friday process.

In a recent interview, Adams predicted that the truth about the robbery would eventually come out and that when it did it would not be his party that would be embarrassed.

It was a former Irish government adviser, Fergus Finlay, who pointed out prior to the signing of the Good Friday agreement that any process which excluded Sinn Fein was “not worth a penny candle.” In this respect at least, nothing has changed, and both governments know it. The simple fact is that the Northern Bank robbery and the allegations of responsibility that have followed in its wake have added to the current crisis facing the Irish peace process, but are not its cause.

The cause continues to rest firmly with the refusal of Ian Paisley’s DUP to sign up for power-sharing in the six counties. That is the task that the government of Tony Blair and his ministers need to return to with a degree of urgency.

— Excerpted from Morning Star