Good Friday deal pushed into the freezer

by David Granville

THE FAILURE in December to secure an agreement on reviving the Good Friday institutions and unsubstantiated police allegations of IRA involvement in the £26.5 million Northern Bank heist have combined to place the Irish peace process in the coldest corner of the political freezer it has occupied since Britain's suspension of the Stormont assembly back in October 2002.

With little or no progress expected until at least the other side of a British general election in May, and with many commentators predicting an even lengthier time scale, serious questions begin to arise concerning the long-term future of the devolutionary, power-sharing Good Friday deal.

Such questions are bound to intensify if the British and Irish governments move to penalise 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 were 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.

Speaking on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme on 13 January, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness insisted that no one in the party's leadership had any knowledge of the robbery. If they had, he said, it would have represented "a defining moment in Sinn Fein's leadership's work with the IRA" and been "totally and absolutely unacceptable" to him.

McGuinness said that he was unable to see how involvement in such a risky operation, with its the 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", Stewart suggested, letting the party "off the hook" as the main obstacle to reviving the Good Friday institutions.

No longer under pressure to participate in attempts to revive the Good Friday process, the party is now free to get on with its immediate political priority of consolidating its position as the dominant voice of Ulster unionism.

The DUP are not the only ones hoping to benefit from republicans' difficulties. The current situation offers plenty of scope for political opportunism and the list of those concerned for their future employment and influence as a result of the growing electoral strength and popularity of Sinn Fein on both sides of the Irish border grows lengthier by the week.

Predictably, 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.

While the response of some will be "well they would say that, wouldn't they", experience suggests that it would be wrong to dismiss such claims out of hand.

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 laid. Although this could change, the situation should at least set alarm bells ringing concerning the quality and origin of the supposedly high-grade intelligence on which Orde claims to be basing his assessment.

In this respect, the key role of the six county's notorious Special Branch will not inspire confidence outside of unionist quarters. Characterised by former deputy chief constable John Stalker as a 'force within a force' , Special Branch has been linked to some of the worst instances of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and continues to include those hostile to police reform and disillusioned with what they see as the British government's capitulation to republicans.

Significantly, Special Branch has played a central role in attempts to implicate republicans in connection with the Castlereagh break in and the allegations of a Stormont spy ring in 2002, both of which arose at critical junctures of the Irish peace process.

It was former RUC chief Ronnie Flanagan, a former head of Special Branch, who attempted to blame the IRA for a break in at the top security Castlereagh base, despite all the evidence pointing to an inside job. Three years later no one has been charged in relation to the break in. A similar pattern accompanied the high profile, and conveniently televised, raid on Sinn Fein's offices at Stormont in October 2002. The pretext on this occasion concerned allegations of an IRA spy ring.

As with the Castlereagh incident, high profile, well publicised raids were carried out on the homes of known republicans. Of the four people who arrested, one was released without charge, while the remaining three, after being detained for several months, had the most serious charges of 'spying with possession of documents' dropped. Two computer software disks, the only items removed from the Stormont office during the police 'raid' were returned within days.

It is this context that questions must be raised in connection the nature and intention of the high profile raids on republican homes in the wake of the recent bank robbery, the exact nature of the 'intelligence' on which the chief constable claims to be acting, and the extremely prejudicial nature of the allegations themselves.

At the very least, the nature or 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 any of us know for sure? However, it does suggest that there is good reason to treat the chief constable's 'opinion' with extreme caution.

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, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams predicted that the truth about the robbery would evenually come and that when it did it would not be his party which would be embarrassed. There are plenty of reasons why supporters of the Good Friday deal should hope his assessment to be correct.

It was a former Irish government advisor, 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.

This continues to rest firmly with the refusal of Ian Paisley's DUP to sign up to power sharing in the six counties. That is the task that the government of Tony Blair and his ministers need to return with a degree of urgency. The above article originally appeared in the Morning Star on 31 January 2005

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-02-08 12:19:09.
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