The contrast couldn't have been greater. As Gerry Adams promoted the
Spanish translation of his latest book, Hope and History, in Barcelona,
back home gardai were uncovering a massive IRA money laundering operation.
Among those arrested was a former Sinn Féin councillor who stood in the last
general election and was a party election agent in the 2004 EU election. An
IRA source admits "the huge hit" the republican movement has taken over the
Northern Bank robbery, the Robert McCartney murder, and the arrests and
seizure of over £2.3 million.
It's certainly been an annus horribilis for the Provos and it's only
February. As the IRA blunders from disaster to disaster, the Teflon
Adams-McGuinness leadership no longer look infallible.
So are they losing control of the movement? Are hardliners, thugs and
criminal elements in the ascendancy, pushing aside those progressives who
have brought the IRA on a major ideological journey since 1994?
The answer is a resounding no. Until now, each 'strand' has complemented
the other. The IRA's 'policing' of republican areas means there is no
political or military challenge to Provisional control. Criminal activities
bring in vital funds, a proportion of which security sources insist, goes to
Urgent meetings of key Sinn Féin and IRA personnel are taking place to
discuss handling the political fall-out from the latest crisis. Sources say
several strategies are under consideration. If charges are brought following
the gardai operation, Sinn Féin could say discussing the matter would be sub
judice and decline to comment further.
The IRA could buy time by announcing its own internal investigation into
activities in Cork and Dublin. There is growing recognition it's no longer
enough to keep blaming "securocrats". Such arguments don't work against the
Until now, the case for IRA involvement in the bank robbery has been based
solely on police intelligence. Mobile phone records, surveillance material
from the bugging of meetings and movements of suspects, convinced detectives
"100%" of IRA responsibility.
This information hasn't been published for fear of prejudicing future
criminal proceedings and because the investigators are determined to keep
the robbers guessing about how much they know.
Security sources are keen to point out that the man who masterminded the
robbery is a key Adams' supporter and another prominent member of the gang
is the nephew of a senior Sinn Féin figure.
Senior republican and police sources have told Village there are no major
splits in IRA ranks, no new hard men at the helm, no freelance operatives
running wild. "It's the same people doing what they've always done," agrees
a Government source in relation to recent IRA activity, "except they've had
a run of bad luck and the political climate has changed against them."
The scale of the Northern Bank robbery meant the political establishment and
the media, which played down IRA violence and criminality for a decade in
order to bolster the peace process, are no longer prepared to do so.
That means IRA activity could increasingly become a hindrance for Sinn
Féin's political development. However, republican sources reckon it's still
possible for them to sit tight and ride out the storm.
"We get the election over, all this fuss dies down, and we re-emerge with a
strong mandate and the governments have to deal with us," says one. "It
might look bad now but republicans always take the long view. Who knows
what will have happened in a year's time?"
Digging up the remains of Jean McConville didn't affect electoral success in
the Republic but that murder had occurred three decades earlier. The
McCartney killing was three weeks ago. It can't be seen as residue from
darker, more brutal days. Today's republican movement is supposed to be an
entirely different outfit.
While many people don't care about the Northern Bank robbery, Sinn Féin
leaders repeated denials of IRA involvement have put their reputation on the
line. If any of the cash seized by gardai is part of the bank haul, their
credibility will suffer.
Similarly, if a Sinn Féin member is charged and convicted of handling stolen
IRA money, the umbilical link between the party and the IRA, which is
constantly denied, will be in the spotlight.
Also damaging is the exposure of the IRA's extensive wealth and criminal
empire. It makes it difficult for Sinn Féin to play the underdog. Even
among supporters, there is growing resentment that none of this money is
being used to benefit working-class communities.
There is nothing new about the robbery denials. In similar situations
throughout the peace process, Sinn Féin and IRA leaders have adopted an air
of injured innocence or angry defiance. The catalogue of lies is
In November 1994, just two months after the ceasefire, the IRA shot dead
post worker Frank Kerr during a robbery in Newry. Gerry Adams expressed
outrage "at the way in which the RUC has sought to blame republicans for
this killing". He declared: "The RUC is engaged in a transparent attempt to
damage the peace process."
This statement wasn't withdrawn, even after the IRA admitted responsibility.
After the arrests of the Colombia Three in 2001, Gerry Adams said:
"Efforts to make Sinn Féin accountable for these three Irishen are totally
Sinn Féin strenuously denied Niall Connolly was it's man in Havana until the
Cuban government stated: "Mr Niall Terence Connolly is the official
representative of Sinn Féin for Cuba and Latin America." Gerry Adams then
claimed the appointment had been made without his knowledge.
No explanation was given as to how Sinn Féin leaders were unaware of the
identity of James Monaghan, given that they had sat on a platform inches
from him as fellow ard chomhairle members at an ard fheis. The third man,
Martin McCauley, had been the party's director of elections in Upper Bann in
The Colombia escapade hasn't damaged Sinn Féin because there is little
sympathy for the Bogota regime and most people don't care what the IRA is up
to thousands of miles from home.
The same was true of the Florida gun-running. In June 2000, three men were
convicted of illegally buying and exporting over 120 weapons to Ireland.
The IRA leadership attempted a Pontius Pilate hand-washing act. "The Army
Council hasn't sanctioned any arms importation operation," a statement said,
suggesting Conor Claxton and his co-defendants were mavericks acting alone.
Claxton told the court he had been an IRA member for eight years and an
international representative for it and for Sinn Féin with trips to meet IRA
supporters in South Africa, Kurdistan and Sierra Leone.
He said he had been sent to Florida by a senior IRA figure and he wouldn't
have been able to carry out such an arms mission without higher approval.
Another of those convicted, Martin Mullan from Dunloy, Co Antrim, had signed
the nomination papers of a Sinn Féin candidate in the 1997 council
Some of the Florida guns had reached Ireland, including three pistols which
were later found with balaclavas, baseball bats and an iron bar in a car
stopped by gardai outside Mitchelstown, Co Cork.
The four men inside, including Sinn Féin activist Sean Kind, were convicted
of possessing firearms for unlawful purposes. Afterwards, Sinn Féin
spokesmen declined to comment saying they hadn't yet read the court reports.
Before Christmas, Niall Binead, a Sinn Féin activist and associate of Aengus
O Snodaigh TD was jailed for IRA membership. Documents in his home relating
to the movements of prominent politicians and others suggested the IRA had
political figures under surveillance.
In the North, three men are currently facing charges of possessing documents
likely to be useful to terrorists following the Stormont spy-ring
allegations which brought down the Executive.
Denis Donaldson, Sinn Féin's head of administration at Stormont; his
son-in-law Ciaran Kearney; and Stormont porter William Mackessy could face
prison sentences of 10 years if found guilty.
Charges of possessing documents of a secret, confidential or restricted
nature originating from the Northern Ireland Office were withdrawn. In
raids following the spy-ring claims, the PSNI recovered a huge haul of
material the IRA had collected including the personal details of 1,426
Sinn Féin dismissed it all as a dirty tricks' operation. "Special Branch
doesn't like republicans and will use any chance to kick us in the teeth.
It's like those Japanese soldiers in the Second World War who stayed in the
jungle for 40 or 50 years. They couldn't accept the war was over - just like
Special Branch," a spokesman said.
Ironically, it has been the unauthorised murder of Robert McCartney which
has caused an outcry. But the Provos have carried out up to 20 authorised
killings since 1994 including Andrew Kearney, Christopher O'Kane, Brendan
Fegan, Paul Downey, Ed McCoy, Paul Daly, Patrick Quinn, Eamon Collins,
Gareth O'Connor, Joe O'Connor, and Charles Bennett.
The victims have been dissident republicans and alleged informers and
drug-dealers. The IRA didn't admit any of the killings and managed to escape
Charles Bennett (22), a taxi driver who allegedly passed on information to
police, was found in July 1999 in west Belfast blindfolded and shot in the
head with his hands tied behind his back.
The family appealed for the truth. An IRA statement didn't deny or admit
involvement but said: "There has been speculation about the recent killing
of Charles Bennett. Let us emphasise there have been no breaches of the IRA
cessation which remains intact."
This was interpreted as meaning that the IRA didn't view such matters as a
ceasefire breach. Gerry Adams welcomed the statement and condemned the
"rejectionists and wreckers" of the peace process.
Neither London or Dublin paid much attention to such killings, encouraging
the IRA to believe it get away with murder so long as the victims were
nationalist civilians and not security force members.
Last February, the Provisionals abducted dissident republican Bobby Tohill
from a Belfast bar. In a statement, the leadership denied sanctioning the
abduction. Four men, who were later charged, entered the republican wing in
In the Republic, former Fine Gael leader John Bruton was often a lone voice
in raising ceasefire breaches. "I don't believe truth should become a
casualty of the peace process," he said after the Bennett murder.
IRA punishment attacks have also continued throughout the peace process,
although they've been conveniently suspended for elections and negotiations.
Since December, there have been four 'Padre Pio' style shootings where the
victim is ordered to clasp his hands together in prayer and then shot
through both palms.
Despite the leadership's current difficulties, they have powerful strategic
reasons for retaining the IRA as a military force in republican areas. It
keeps a check on the growth of the Real and Continuity IRA.
Sinn Féin will not sign up to supporting the PSNI in the absence of an
overall political deal with the DUP and recent developments mean that's
further away than ever. In the interim, it remains to be seen whether the
republican movement will stick to its, until now very successful
combination, of crime, limited violence, and constitutional politics.