By Thomas Carolan
As the 7th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) approaches, the work of seven years of constitution-making and Dublin and London structure-building to create a new interdenominationalist power-sharing government in Belfast, is rolling down the hill.
Efforts to bring the two political “extremes”, Paisley’s Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein-IRA, to partnership in government broke down on the seemingly trivial issue of whether, when the IRA puts the last of its weapons out of commission, the event will be photographed and the photographs published. Sinn Fein insisted to publish photos would be an intolerable “humiliation” for the IRA.
The £20 million Christmas bank-raid in Belfast, which both Dublin and London publicly insist was the work of the IRA, and done with the prior knowledge of the SF leaders, has once more put an issue of real — as distinct from contrived — substance into the political arena.
It may also shed light on the seemingly trivial but deal-breaking dispute about the IRA being photographed destroying its own guns.
It now begins to look as if Sinn Fein’s “we will not see the IRA humiliated” reflected serious opposition inside the IRA not to photographing the destruction of the IRA’s guns, but to destroying them at all.
That hypothesis makes sense of what otherwise seems utter nonsense.
The Sinn Fein leadership, Adams, McGuinness and others, have evolved into highly skilled, bourgeois politicians. They are very slick operators. They have made immense political gains from the 10-year IRA ceasefire and out of the GFA.
They have amongst other things become a small but important power in Dail Eireann. They are outspoken defenders and advocates of the GFA, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity in that. But an immense event like the £20 million bank robbery — whose military-style efficiency pointed to its perpetrators — could not but have had large political consequences for Sinn Fein. Could not but strengthen Protestant opposition to power-sharing and make that opposition seem reasonable. Could not but antagonise Dublin and London.
It is not as if the IRA-SF are in desperate need of money. They are known to be the richest political formation in Ireland. Their political opponents in the Catholic-Nationalist camp have taken to calling the opulent SF leaders the “Armani Republicans”.
In America, they could at need raise as much again as the bank raid produced. The raid and its political consequences may cost them American money.
Rule out the idea that the Republican leaders are plain stupid — they are anything but that — and you have to choose one of two explanations.
Either the Sinn Fein-IRA leaders wanted what, politically, has followed. That is not impossible. They are playing a long game, working towards a United Ireland. In this they are not ordinary bourgeois politicians, for whom immediate advantage and disadvantage is everything.
They might, for example, want to strengthen the Paisleyites against the “moderate” Trimble Unionists in the looming general election, believing that the more “extreme” and unreasonable Unionism becomes, the more they will make Northern Ireland unviable and thus strengthen the case for a United Ireland.
The “shogun” of Sinn Fein-IRA, Gerry Adams, and his lieutenant, Martin McGuinness, will not underestimate the importance of their own loss of credibility in Dublin, London and Washington.
Even so, the Sinn Fein-IRA leaders are capable of this sort of Machiavellianism.
They might calculate that they can eventually ride out the “collateral” political damage to themselves (and surely they can).
Or, the other possibility: a section of the IRA leadership acted, with or without the prior knowledge of the Sinn Fein leaders, deliberately to throw a big political scandal into the workings of the GFA political “process”, and thus at least slow down the disarming and dissolution of the IRA.
There are signs that may indicate that. Though Adams and MacGuinness deny that they knew about the bank raid and the IRA has officially denied responsibility for the raid, they are not making much of an effort to deny all “Republican” involvement.
Sinn Fein-IRA leader Gerry Kelly is also — An Phoblacht reports — on a tour of the USA, to “explain” events to Irish-American.
It is impossible to do other than speculate. In any case, the GFA is now in worse shape than for a long time. Nothing will change until after the Westminster general election.