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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Observations from the peanut gallery....

Northern Ireland politics has become even more interesting than usual in recent days. The rhetoric seems to have taken a new turn since the infamous £26m robbery of the Northern Bank before Christmas. It may just be my uninformed imagination at work, but it does look like that episode has put Sinn Fein on the rhetorical defensive while breathing new life into the SDLP. No doubt, it has strengthened the position of the Unionists in their opposition to sharing executive powers with Sinn Fein, but that might not be as important as the possible turnabout in the fortunes of the coalition of moderate nationalists.

All this was especially evident in tonight's Hearts and Minds broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland. Earlier in the day, the International Monitoring Commission issued a pretty blunt confirmation of the charge that has been made by law enforcement on both sides of the border: the robbery was an operation planned and carried out by elements of the IRA with the knowledge of that organization's command leadership. And since it is an open secret that some Sinn Fein leaders are part of the IRA command structure, there seems little reluctance on the part of public officials to accuse Sinn Fein's leadership of knowingly supporting criminal activity. "Criminality" is the term being used to characterize Sinn Fein without qualification by Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, police officials in the Republic as well as in Northern Ireland, leaders of both the DUP and Ulster Unionists, and representatives from almost every other nationalist party on both sides of the border.

It is all pretty damning, and the response of Sinn Fein spokespersons has been surprisingly ineffective in stopping the uproar. They are relying on three approaches. First, there is indignation expressed not only by Sinn Fein, but also by the IRA. This reached a new level today when Gerry Adams challenged the police in the Republic to arrest him if they were so certain of his role in the robbery. (This seemed a rather bizarre challenge since the crime was committed in Northern Ireland. I must've missed something.) Second, there is the threat of a return to violence by the IRA implied by both their withdrawal from the decommissioning process and the strong statement that followed that action when the statement drew nothing more than a yawn from the other parties involved in the Agreement. The third approach has been the constant refrain by Sinn Fein leaders that any action taken against them would amount to punishing and disenfranchising the 300,000 plus voters who supported them in the last election. As I said, none of these approaches have been very effective.

But most interesting has been the debate over the meaning of "criminality." On Hearts and Minds, the Sinn Fein spokesperson was challenged to declare that the bank robbery was indeed a crime -- a point he was willing to concede (under considerable pressure), but in a way that implied that not all such actions should necessarily be considered criminal. If I understood his position correctly, what is criminal or not criminal is a political question. In defense of this position he cited several acts of violence by Loyalists and British agents which went unprosecuted and unpunished in the past, and thus (by implication) arguing that some violent actions taken by the IRA should also go unpunished -- perhaps even this particular robbery....

On the surface, the situation seems to be spiraling downward. But there is also the sense that things are not likely to deteriorate to the level of violence. Sinn Féin is definitely faced with the crisis of legitimacy, and the only way out is one they seem reluctant to take; that is, dissociating themselves from the IRA entirely. At the moment it doesn't look like they are capable of taking that step, and that leaves the door open for the self proclaimed "democratic" nationalists (a phrase used frequently and effectively by the SDLP spokesperson on tonight's show) to mount a comeback on the political scene.

In earlier blogs I mentioned how much more complicated Northern Ireland politics was than I had imagined before coming here 15 months ago. And these recent developments have in one sense made the situation even more complicated for an outsider to understand. At the same time, the crisis that seems to be brewing ath the moment has also clarified things to the point where we might see some interesting and surprising changes in the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

It's nice to be sitting in the "peanut gallery" in times like these.
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