What on earth is going on in the latest phase of the so-called Stormontgate saga? In October 2002, the Government announced that it had uncovered an IRA spy ring at the heart of the Northern Ireland Office and the devolved institutions.
Highly sensitive documents including conversations between President Bush and Tony Blair were discovered in Republican West Belfast.
Up to a few days ago, it was confidently assumed that three people were to face charges in court in this connection. Then it was announced that it was not in the public interest to carry on with the trial and the three defendants were found not guilty, with no stain on their character.
Sinn Féin was delighted, as it had denied all along that there had been any spy ring. Then, Denis Donaldson whose relationship to Gerry Adams is similar to that of Downing Street chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell to Tony Blair outed himself as a 20-year-long British spy. Sinn Féin immediately got out its narrative, and sections of the media gave it credibility.
Mr Adams insisted that this was further proof that the spy ring had never existed and that the whole affair had been got up by so-called securocrats senior officials in the Northern Ireland Office and elsewhere, who were working to undermine Tony Blair's agenda.
But is this even remotely likely? In the first place, those whom Sinn Féin named as securocrats gave every sign of being inconvenienced by the Stormontgate affair. It was their job, after all, to deliver the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and to keep Mr Adams locked into the peace process.
In that sense, there has been, for many years now, a profound commonality of interest between the British security establishment and Mr Adams.
Far from launching the Stormontgate affair to "save Dave" to give then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble an excuse to walk away from power-sharing the securocrats took the view that Mr Trimble should ignore the spying scandal and stay in government with Sinn Féin. Today, they take exactly the same view: that this current unfortunate incident should be forgotten about.
Think about it. Even if it is accepted, and it is strongly denied, that Mr Donaldson was an agent provocateur, he could never have launched such an elaborate operation on his own, and would have had to "go upstairs" in the Sinn Féin movement to get clearance.
In the last couple of days, the Sinn Féin narrative has begun to crumble, to be replaced by another question: how many more agents are there in the Republican leadership and what does this say about an agenda of tacit co-operation with the British state?
This, after all, is historically how Britain achieves peace in Ireland. In 1920-21, the police and army regularly made raids on leading Sinn Féin figures, only to discover that they were under the protection of other parts of the British state.
Those arrested were rapidly released even when incriminating material was found; in one famous case, that of Erskine Childers in 1921, a senior British official carried his bags out of jail.
What is the political fall-out? The Government continues to be optimistic about devolution, although it appears to be publicly assuming that it will not happen in 2006.
There is an element of rationalisation in this. Neither British nor Irish governments can afford to say that they were handed a political miracle the Good Friday Agreement and bungled it. Instead, it is so much more comforting to insist that a DUP-Sinn Féin deal is possible. In fact, it is possible because the modernising wing of the DUP is determined to marginalise Ian Paisley's family and gain office.
But, as the so-called comprehensive agreement document of the projected DUP-Sinn Féin deal of 2004 revealed, this is not the Good Friday Agreement, either in detail or in reconciling spirit. The Prime Minister is widely perceived to be in the grip of "legacy-itis" in Northern Ireland, and though he may not have noticed this, the local population certainly has.
The row over Stormontgate has intensified the lack of trust between the two communities. Unionists feel that the IRA still thinks it can get away with lying to them, as with the bank robbery. Emotions of anger on this score have now been sharply revived.
On the other hand, many nationalists believe that wicked British spies have perpetrated yet another offence against decent Irish patriots.
The point to note is that the current political agenda contains two issues, the amnesty-type proposals for the republicans' so-called "on-the-runs" and, more importantly, the issue of restorative justice which the SDLP sees as British Government willingness to hand the "hood" over to the "hoods", which will continue to poison the debate well into 2006.
Into this mix, the Government plans to devolve policing and justice and thus enhance Sinn Féin's power in this highly-sensitive sphere.
It is, in fact, possible, however, that Mr Blair is more realistic about Northern Ireland policy than Secretary of State Peter Hain and the Northern Ireland Office can afford to be.
Mr Blair may, in his heart of hearts, have grave doubts about the DUP's capacity to do a deal that is worthwhile. He may even believe that he has, in effect, achieved his Northern Ireland work by the "de-fanging" of the republican movement.
If devolution comes, it would be a bonus, but the big objective of British policy has already been achieved, and there is always the possibility of an Anglo-Irish Agreement mark two to complete the Northern Irish political settlement.
This does, however, leave a problem for Peter Hain, a naturally ambitious politician. Paul Murphy's recent removal broke the rule of thumb whereby every Northern Ireland Secretary who was not actually retiring moved on to another Cabinet position, usually a promotion, as a reward for a hardship stint.
Mr Hain was brought in to provide an activist contrast to Mr Murphy's genuine decency and more measured and cautious approach. He has certainly provided the contrast, but with a conspicuous lack of success. He must be worrying that the Prime Minister has landed him with an impossible task and that he will personally take the rap for failure.
Professor Paul Bew is Professor of Irish Politics at Queen's University, Belfast.