They say the Troubles are unlikely to return to Northern Ireland. They say the Irish Republican Army doesn?t have the option of returning to war. The IRA has the guns, the IRA has the men, the IRA has the capacity ? but they Just Won?t Do It.
In a post-Sept. 11 world, so the thinking goes, no Western paramilitary organization wants to be lumped in with Osama bin Laden. Especially not the IRA, which after years of struggle has gained (one hesitates to say ?earned?) a certain badge of respectability ? a seat at the negotiating table alongside major powers. So don?t count on a ?spectacular.?
At the risk of sounding overly contrarian (not to mention alarmist) I wonder if circumstances might prove the conventional wisdom wrong here.
(A disclaimer: I’m no expert about Northern Ireland, Irish republicanism, or the peace process itself, so if it?s real expertise you want, turn to Slugger O?Toole. I?m just a guy on a website wondering out loud, pursuing the ideas I?ve read there and elsewhere and taking them to their logical conclusions. So don?t be freaking out or anything.)
Let?s start with the obvious: Why the hell did they rob that bank? Yes, there?s still a chance we could all be proven wrong on that one. Maybe the greatest peacetime cash heist in history was really the work of unemployed football hooligans, or better yet, British security services in a bid to frame the IRA. If that turns out to be the case, we?ll have a Seriously Huge Story on our hands and you can disregard everything you?ve read on the subject so far.
But let?s assume, for argument?s sake, that IRA-Sinn Fein is lying, and the rest of the world is telling the truth, and the IRA really did rob that bank. As for the reasons, here are some of the more convincing explanations I?ve come across. Most are not mutually exclusive.
1. The Bill Clinton reason: ?The IRA robbed the Northern Bank because it could.?
2. The really obvious reason: Because they wanted the money.
3 . One last grab for the old timers: The IRA is planning a retirement fund for its aging fighting force. Call it a pension scheme.
4. The long shot: The IRA did it alone, without Sinn Fein, and Gerry Adams no longer controls the Army Council, its governing body.
5. From a commenter on Slugger: ?Sinn Fein is rebooting the negotiation starting point to the initial position. DUH!! That’s why the IRA must appear to be more of a threat so that Sinn Fein can step in and cool the mad bastards down.?
6. The IRA wanted to send a message to both London and Dublin that they were still a force to be reckoned with, capable of doing a bit more than inflicting punishment beatings and Padro Pios on drug pushers and juvenile delinquents
7. The British in particular needed to be taught a lesson, but bombing the mainland would be a political disaster, so they pulled off the heist of the century instead.
8. They robbed the bank to raise morale among the rank and file ? a way of ?settling its troops? ? many of whom have seen little from the Good Friday Agreement and a whole lot of hectoring from Ian Paisley.
9. The republicans have abandoned the Good Friday Agreement and now have their eyes set on bigger goals: ?the balance of power in the Republic.? (I?m not sure how robbing a bank brings them any closer to that goal, unless they use the money to fund Sinn Fein’s campaign in the south.)
10. From the same article. Ian Paisley needed to be taught a lesson: Don?t be looking for sackcloth and ashes.
11. Finally, by far the most interesting explanation comes from Ed Maloney, author of The Secret History of the IRA. RTE?s Morning Ireland interviewed him recently (audio here, Real Player required, or you can read excerpts on Slugger). Maloney, who seems to know his stuff, says there may have been a ?secret motive? behind the robbery. If Adams-McGuinness supporters still control the IRA?s Army Council ? and elsewhere Maloney says they do ? then green-lighting the bank robbery may have been a devious tactic on the part of Adams to force his own people into finally accepting weapons de-commissioning. Maloney:
The SF leadership, Gerry Adams in particular, has very often used manoeuvring rather than straight-forward persuasion in order to get his people to a situation where they have to go and where he wants them to go. And if you look at where the IRA is now, there really is only one way out for them?
That ?one way out? is to put down their weapons once and for all and effectively disband as a fighting force.
That’s good news, right? So far, yes. But then consider the following.
It seems mainstream Sinn Fein were taken by surprise by the Irish and British governments? angry response to the robbery. It looks like they actually didn?t think it would become such a big deal. It?s doubtful, for instance, that Adams had expected the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to accuse Sinn Fein parliamentarians of personally (!) carrying out punishment attacks on the streets of Belfast.
Oddly enough, it looks like he didn?t bank on being branded a duplicitous crook by nearly every other political party, not to mention nearly every newspaper editorialist in Britain and Ireland, right and left.
Apart from clear-cut reasons of conscience and ire, Ahern?s attacks on Sinn Fein have a firm political basis: Sinn Fein is a threat at the ballot box to Ahern?s party, Fianna Fail, especially with the latter preparing to organize north of the border.
Gerry Adams? position ? laid out in this speech and in this testy and evasive radio interview (skip to 31:50 in the audio file) ? is that Sinn Fein?s legitimacy derives from its popular support, the same as with any other political party, and that it must be taken seriously by all other parties on the basis of its electoral mandate, regardless of any role it might play in the peace process or as a negotiator (facilitator? collaborator?) with the IRA.
You don?t have to wish to ever see the guy wearing anything other than an orange jumpsuit to see his point: Disenfranchising Sinn Fein means disenfranchising 342,000 Irish voters. And so far Sinn Fein appears to have emerged relatively unscathed from the bank robbery scandal. A January poll saw Sinn Fein support in the Republic holding steady, slipping just a wee bit from 11% to 12%.
But what if Ahern?s accusations start to stick, as they very well might? What if Fianna Fail starts to inflict serious pain on Sinn Fein in the polls, and the party?s popular support goes pear shaped? Arguably there would be one last chance for Adams to salvage his reputation as peacemaker (see reason #5, above), but even for such a master tactician, by then it might be too late. The bank robbery will have cost Sinn Fein dearly, albeit with the “benefit” of raising morale among the IRA’s rank and file. Adams?s gambit (reason #11) will have failed, and we?ll be left with an IRA that remains well-organized, able to get away with financial swindles of unprecedented proportions (arrests in the robbery investigation have been promised ?soon? but so far police have turned up little more than shoes and Christmas presents), and little to lose with a resumption of violence. They?ll also have a failed peace process, an energized base, a huge cache of guns and Semtex, and a few angry promises to live up to.
What then? Hey, I’m just asking.