Sinn Fein once had an impeccable reputation for strategic nous and know how. That was as true amongst the loyalists of the lower Shankill as amongst their near neighbours on the lower Falls. But according to Brian Feeney, it was the strategic blunder of robbing the Northern Bank of more than £26 million that finally robbed the IRA of its paramilitary force. His argument is worth quoting at length and in detail:
For about 15 years before the Northern Bank robbery the IRA had a couple of squads dedicated to fundraising or criminality as the Irish and British governments called it. These squads raised millions of pounds each year for the IRA and as far as the IRA were concerned did not come under the terms of the ceasefire. Amazingly the Irish and British governments accepted that definition, that is until the Northern Bank heist. It was one step too far. The IRA’s own success required an end to the IRA as an operational organisation.
I came in a context where the British were making it clear to the Sinn Fein negotiating team that it was running outof patience with the IRA’s ‘fundraising through robbery’ tactics within its jurisdictional area:
All through the autumn of 2004 the British government in particular had been complaining privately to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness about IRA operations including a major cigarette robbery in September. Michael McDowell was the most outspoken on the Irish side, protesting about IRA robberies in Dublin docks. The governments warned Sinn Fein that the IMC would inevitably have to expose these ongoing activities.
Yet at the same time both governments were involved in intense negotiations leading to the Leeds Castle talks in September with the prospect of a deal with the DUP. It was when that prospect collapsed in December 2004 over Paisleys sackcloth and ashes speech and the DUPs demand for photos of decommissioning that the IRA decided to do the Northern Bank operation in the belief that there could be no political fallout.
Well, there was, much of it starting and ending in the Republic:
Loudest in his anger was Bertie Ahern who admitted in the Dail that his government was well aware of the continuing IRA operations in 2004. He referred to robberies, punishment attacks and, in the
mid-1990s, the killing of drug-dealers and said: This was tolerated in order to try to move the process forward. However 10 years on [after the ceasefire] we cannot continue to do that. Amazingly the taoiseach went on, I did not show anger regarding earlier events, and then listed heists at Makro, Gallahers and Strabane totalling several million pounds. We in this house took that coolly enough.
Mind-boggling isnt it?
Feeney points out what now looks like ‘the bleedin’ obvious’ (which was far from obvious to most mainstream opinion at the time):
Why did Ahern make most of the public running and not Tony Blair when the robbery took place in Britain? Think about it. If Blair had made the same kind of admission in Westminster, namely that hed known about continuing IRA operations for a decade the Daily Mail and The Sun would have gone into orbit. Crucially Aherns speech in the Dail in January 2005 was telling the IRA the governments no longer accepted the IRA definition of its ceasefire. Any future statement from the IRA about an end to activity would have to include a reference to an end to criminality.
The Northern Bank robbery exposed publicly that the two governments had been merrily negotiating for 10 years with Sinn Fein while the IRA had been merrily exploiting its own definition of a ceasefire. The Northern Bank job led to the IRAs demise.
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