YESTERDAY’s Irish Times carried an article by Anthony McIntyre. He argued that the Northern Bank raid may have put “peace” on hold but it will breathe new life into the peace process, and the process is what keeps Sinn Féin growing.
The response of the British and Irish governments to the announcement by the PSNI boss, Mr Hugh Orde, that the Provisional IRA was behind the robbery of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank was anger tempered by weary resignation.
Anger that they had been misled by the leadership of Sinn Féin pretending that it genuinely wanted a conclusive deal with the Rev Ian Paisley’s DUP; resignation to the fact that in spite of everything the peace process has them transfixed, like the relationship between the moth and the flame.
They know they will go back and, as surely, will be scorched again. There is no avoiding it. They have succumbed to an iron law of the peace process – that the process must always undermine the peace.
The world’s greatest bank robbery came to the accompaniment of the sanguine words of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that there was only 10 hours’ work needed in order to secure a deal that would see both an end to IRA activity and the restoration of the North’s power-sharing institutions.
“Ten hours from peace” is an accurate characterisation if we are prepared to accept an hour this year followed by another hour the year after, and so on. In between those hours there can only be more of what we have now – strategically induced crises.
Such crises are what maintain the peace in a state of process rather than allowing it to come to fruition as a solution. The Sinn Féin leadership, playing by its own rules, benefits from the permanent state of instability. Its primary strategic goal is not an agreement in the North but expansionism, North and South. The attainment of any deal in the North is evaluated within this over-arching strategic framework and never on its own merits.
Sinn Féin’s ability to expand in the Republic is primarily the result of the statesman-like profile of its leader, Mr Gerry Adams. He is its most powerful asset. What puts real wind in the sails of Mr Adams and makes him different from leaders of other minority parties in the Republic is the peace process.
The accruing exposure has made him a celebrity politician with an international reputation. At times opinion polls indicate that he is the most popular political leader on the island.
Central to maintaining that peace process as a “work in progress”, and consequently the profile of Mr Adams, is the continued existence of the IRA. With the IRA off the scene, the peace process comes to the end of its shelf life and beds down as a solution.
But to be of benefit to Sinn Féin’s strategic designs the IRA has to do more than merely exist. It must – employing plausible deniability – continue to disturb the peace, upset the unionists, and allow Sinn Féin to promote the need for a process through which “peace” can be pursued against the wishes of agenda-setting “securocrats and recalcitrant unionists”.
If, however, Sinn Féin was serious about reaching an accommodation with unionism based solely on conditions in the North, it would not have allowed David Trimble to go into the Assembly elections of 2003 without a deal that he could sell to the unionist electorate.
Sinn Féin fully appreciated that the type of unionism to emerge victorious the other side of that election could only be one that would offer terms to it much less generous than those offered by Mr Trimble. This signalled the impossibility of Sinn Féin ever reaching an accommodation with the DUP either at the Leeds Castle talks last September or as a result of the subsequent December negotiations.
For the only deal acceptable to the DUP was one which would bring the peace process to a conclusion. And to conclude the peace process before the Republic’s electorate had been milked for all it was worth never featured in Sinn Féin’s intentions.
By continuing to deposit the capital accrued from the peace process in the hearts and minds of the Republic’s electorate the party’s Dáil representation may well double at the next election. The election after that, possibly in 2010, may be an optimum moment for Sinn Féin to trade in the IRA in return for handsome electoral dividends. From such a strong springboard base Mr Adams will be poised to make a bid for the Republic’s presidency in 2011.
Senior Sinn Féin member Mr Jim Gibney has argued that the peace process has stood the IRA on its head, evidence that the Sinn Féin leadership is in total control. There was little in the way of internal opposition. The organisation could quite easily be put out to graze, but the time is not yet right. Too large a hiatus between concluding the peace and the 2011 presidential bid could seriously arrest the forward momentum of the party.
When commentators wail that the peace process has been destroyed by the robbery, they miss the point. On the contrary, it has been given even more life. It will smoulder but will never be extinguished. After the British general election, almost certain to occur this year, the embers will be fanned, the governments will proceed tentatively at first as they try to bridge the gaps. Then they will move to announce yet more ultimate deadlines, which will be put back endlessly.
At that point the peace process will be back to where it was before the December heist. And banks will continue to be robbed until Sinn Féin’s ability to expand is thwarted by such activity.
Why give up a winning formula?
Anthony McIntyre is a writer and former IRA prisoner