The conundrum facing anyone wishing to untangle the events of the last three months is that when all the smoke clears, there is no one else the British or Unionists can do business with but Sinn Fein. The SDLP shows no real signs of being ready to punch back. And even if Fianna Fail were prepared to organise in Northern Ireland it would require serial political stupidity on the part of Sinn Fein to throw away its leadership position in Northern Irish nationalism.
That does not mean that the current crisis does not have the potential to cause the movement serious damage.
The bad headlines around the world are not good to read. It puts limits on Sinn Fein’s provenance as a legitimate political party. It’s certainly not good for a domestic audience that’s become accustomed to much richer pickings in the post ceasefire world. But, so far as it is possible to see, it has not actually damaged the party’s standing with it’s own substantial support.
So far the party has ridden a viciously turning tide reasonably well. Much to the consternation of its many critics, it clearly has a deep well of good will to draw upon. The Northern Bank robbery (if indeed it was an IRA operation) has a high degree of tolerance on the lines of the old Robin Hood myth. The McCartney case is different.
In the same way we know nothing definate about the bank robbery, we have nothing definative in the public domain about the events that night. The one account we have is an IRA statement that recounts all the lethal events as having happened outside the bar.
There is currently no evidence available directly from Brendan Devine although, significantly, the McCartney sisters claim that his throat was cut inside the bar. And to be fair, the IRA’s statement doesn’t directly rule it out: “…after the initial melee in Magennis’s bar, a crowd spilled out onto the street and Robert McCartney, Brendan Devine and two other men were pursued into Market Street”.
The details of exactly who was in Magennis’s Bar is emerging on a painfully slow drip feed, which is not entirely under the control of the Republican movement. With two former candidates and a former Belfast City Councillor, now placed inside the bar, it appears this killing is far from a simple military matter.
Martin McGuinness’s warning may have simply been a legitimate response to an electoral threat should one or more of the McCartneys decide to stand in the coming council elections. In these circumstances, it is (and has been) open to other interpretations. It may not be the best way to handle that threat in the context of a worsening PR situation.
All the information we have come across suggests that both the party and the IRA have told witnesses to testify, to the police if necessary. But the longer the ambiguity hangs over this case, the more damaging it is likely to be for the credibility of the whole movement.
In the meantime Ian Paisley’s notorious sack cloth and ashes remark seems less and less like an unreasonable pre-condition and more and more like an accute form of prescience.