The IRA did it. That’s what Hugh Orde, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern say. That’s what some of the dogs in the street in west Belfast are saying. They could be wrong.
Other scenarios are possible:
• it was done by the people who would benefit most from the robbery: those opposed to Sinn Fein being in government. There are few better ways to achieve this than to borrow a few million from the Northern Bank and blame the IRA. After Orde’s statement it is going to take some mighty footwork to persuade unionists to share power with Sinn Fein
• Hugh Orde is trying to set up the IRA to distract attention from the failure in police intelligence.
• it was done by an IRA unit without leadership approval
• a smart group of loyalists or ‘ordinary decent’ criminals did it because they wanted the money.
The IRA blamers have been wrong in the past. Or, if not, they produced no evidence. The police blamed the IRA for the Castlereagh break-in which meant knowing sensitive codes, being able to turn off CCTV cameras and finding highly classified files quickly.
The PSNI said the IRA were involved in the Tohill kidnapping and Stormontgate but failed to win convictions in either case so far. The security forces are certainly capable of dirty tricks.
Tony Blair told us Saddam had weapons of mass destruction when he didn’t and Gordon Brown is not impressed by his commitment to the truth.
Bertie Ahern heads a government with questions to answer about the Monaghan and Dublin bombs.
Also, why would the IRA do this? They don’t need the money. Estimates of their income from smuggled cigarettes and drink, ‘local taxes’, dodgy diesel, cds, dvds and other paraphernalia vary from £60 to £300 million a year. (These figures are probably gross, so costs need to be subtracted). But on top of this are the profits from investments of the proceeds of crime in legitimate businesses.
Republicans deny IRA involvement in crime. This would mean, however, that they had gone out of business and that some new group is now running areas previously dominated by the Provisionals. That would be breaking news.
If they have a steady income already what would they gain from this bank raid? The political costs are obvious: an end to the prospect of devolved government for quite some time and increased difficulties in joining a coalition government in the south, both of which are important to republicans.
Nonetheless, the bluntness of Bertie Ahern’s statement on this occasion is very striking. There was none of the usual fudging. He said the IRA were involved, that the job was sanctioned by the leadership. He said that Sinn Fein leaders must have known about the robbery when they were negotiating with him before Christmas.
By emphasising this last point he rejected the idea that the robbery was done by IRA mavericks. He also said he had sources other than Hugh Orde. On top of this, the van involved in the raid was seen coming from the south.
Sinn Fein have accused Bertie Ahern of electioneering. That makes no sense in this instance. He has invested enormous time in the peace process. He surely would not want it to collapse and he knew the impact of blaming the IRA.
Further, Fianna Fail could gain another five years in government if they go into power with Sinn Fein in the south after the next election. Mr Ahern’s accusations against the IRA make this highly unlikely.
Secondly, for Hugh Orde to deliberately try to set up the IRA seems unlikely. The fuss created by his statement may well lead to an inquiry in the near future. Of course he could have been misled by false intelligence. Again this could be exposed by an inquiry.
Thirdly, if the robbery was done by loyalists or ‘ordinary’ criminals they have reached a new level of competence.
If the IRA blamers have a credibility gap so also does Sinn Fein. The IRA denied for a long time that they were involved in the killing of Garda McCabe. But they changed their minds when the issue of early release came up.
Sinn Fein thought the so-called ‘Columbia Three’ had no connection with them until they did some research and found one of them was their representative in Cuba.
Gerry Adams denies he was ever in the IRA and republicans regularly deny any involvement in crime. Many of us don’t believe them.
Mr Ahern’s statement was far more blunt than any similar statement in the past.
Whatever the outcome of this row, one positive result is that greater attention will now be focused on paramilitary criminality. That is a good thing. We don’t need hoods – which is what bank robbers are – in Northern Ireland. (The proper response to the allegation that banks are robbers is to make better laws). For too long the two governments have turned a blind eye to crime (crime was not mentioned explicitly in paragraph 13 of the Governments’ Joint Declaration of April 2003). They should massively increase funding for the Assets Recovery Agency and drop the distinction between paramilitaries and ordinary decent criminals.
We don’t know who carried out this robbery. It is important that we find out, otherwise judgments may be made on false assumptions.
Sinn Fein and others have called for the publication of Hugh Orde’s evidence. The taoiseach has dismissed this because an investigation is on-going. Future publication may not be possible because doing so might expose informers. If that is the case there is an alternative: ask the Ombudsman to conduct an inquiry. In fact, given the importance of finding out whether or not Mr Orde’s statement was reliable this should be done immediately.
There will be no devolved government in Northern Ireland unless both unionists and republicans agree to it. Until we learn who carried out this robbery the political process is going to remain polluted.
Brian Lennon SJ is a Jesuit priest who works with Community Dialogue.