In what is just under two weeks, Northern Ireland has seen a tremendous amount of journalistic and political activity since the announcement by the PSNI’s Chief Constable that he suspected the IRA was behind the UK’s biggest bank robbery.Although Sinn Fein was emphatic from the beginning that the announcement was politically motivated, commentators were quick seize on the indirect nature of the IRA’s denial. The SDLP asked, given the areas in which the operations took place, who else could it be?
At first most nationalist commentators stayed onside with the Sinn Fein line, with others taking a variety of positions. But, pressure was building, firstly on the fringes, with a questioning of the media’s general reluctance to put Sinn Fein on the spot. Then the weekend brought a remarkable change in tone – particularly in Kevin Toolis’s question as to which “political dunderhead on the IRA Army Council” was responsible for authorising an action that would inevitably bring fingers pointing back at the Republican movement.
Others began to question the terms of reference of Sinn Fein’s substantial democratic mandate. One interesting, but so far fruitless, twist in the road was the idea that an ex British soldier may have done it. Even steadfast supporters of Sinn Fein’s role in the peace process began to question why the governments were still talking to them?
Finally the taoiseach backed Hugh Orde’s accusations. There were other accusations that gross inefficiencies in the police response, were the direct result of political concessions extracted from the British government by Sinn Fein. The Economist noted concerns that the party and the IRA were playing the same game in parallel.
With the body politic in semi-shock, only a few were prepared to speculate on what the governments’ next step might be. The Guardian, appeared to turn its back on Sinn Fein. Tony Blair questioned whether Sinn Fein was providing political cover for the robbery.
The credibility vacuum, caused by the lack of hard evidence, actually seemed to play against Sinn Fein. Tom Kelly used the metaphor of monkeys and organ grinders to describe their relationship with the IRA. Despite concerns about dangers of losing the principle of innocent until proven guilty, or the party’s impressive mandate, the critics kept the floor.
One argued that if literally read, Sinn Fein’s mandate meant a majority of Catholics voted for bank robbery as a legitimate act. Most worryingly for Sinn Fein, the party’s most eloquent independent adovate, Brian Feeney, argued that Sinn Fein cannot expect to re-enter the process until its armed wing is stood down.
In the Irish Times, Fionnuala O’Connor noted that the party had not even begun to prepare its constituency for peace, but hoped “some dual-purpose Provos [will] hear how bad they sound”. In the same paper, Republican commentator Anthony McIntyre argued that the only thing sustaining the IRA’s existence, is the peace process itself.
As the week went on we saw some of the humour which was such a feature in the US election, with mock emails, forged bank notes and film trailers hitting inboxes in Northern Ireland and further afield – with Sinn Fein the consistent butt of all the jokes.
Unionists called for the process to move on without Sinn Fein, and in some quarters of the SDLP there were signs that message might find a credible answer.
And so the party continues. As yet, there is little sign of any tangible public evidence of IRA authorship of the raid arising. Nor indeed, any sign of a credible defence from Sinn Fein over the many questions raised by the crisis – not least its apparently anomalous position viz a viz law and order.
As reader James from Silicon Valley might put it: party on!
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty