No future for North

  • 28 January 2005
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The fall-out from the bank heist continues, but the North's biggest nationalist party are unlikely to find themselves out in the cold.
Suzanne Breen reports on developments since the robbery

For a party with lots to crow about, the DUP has been remarkably subdued in recent weeks. Post-Northern Bank, its stance on Sinn Féin's fitness for government, once regarded as sectarian and extremist, has become mainstream.

Both governments privately admit there isn't the slightest chance of a power-sharing administration being set up at Stormont this year.

When any new negotiations begin, Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA will have to travel much further than before. Rigid DUP demands for complete decommissioning, photographic evidence, and a proven end to all paramilitary and criminal activity are now widely accepted as reasonable.

Yet the DUP's "we told you so" hasn't been too in-your-face. The DUP doesn't want to give Sinn Féin any opportunity to claim the Taoiseach and Tony Blair are merely doing the Rev Ian Paisley's bidding.

But attitudes to Sinn Féin have significantly hardened within the DUP, particularly among those elements regarded as more pragmatic and modern.

"The DUP will now take some convincing to believe the IRA will ever give up terrorist and criminal activity," says a senior party source. DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson speaks of mistrust of Sinn Féin and the IRA never being greater among unionists.

Politically, nothing will happen until after May's Westminster election but even then, it's not a case of a new round of talks opening where the last one finished in December.

The DUP wants the governments to explore the possibility of a "voluntary coalition" at Stormont, comprising a SDLP-DUP administration. SDLP elements are willing to consider this but party leader Mark Durkan is not. Neither London nor Dublin wants to exclude Sinn Féin.

A DUP source is angry that "the democratic process can be brought to a halt by terrorists and bank-robbers". But he is pleased the two governments are "raising the bar" on the conditions for Sinn Féin's inclusion in any future administration.

"They will be expecting an awful lot more of Sinn Féin than before. DUP conditions will no longer be resisted in the way they were. The IRA won us that argument with the Northern Bank robbery," he says.

Regarding penalties for Sinn Féin, the DUP is less satisfied. The Independent Monitoring Commission, which reports on paramilitary activity, could recommend the withdrawal of the party's Westminster facilities. The IMC will meet the Taoiseach on Monday.

There is disagreement on whether financial penalties can be imposed on Sinn Féin when the Stormont institutions aren't in operation. But a DUP source thinks this would be inadequate anyway: "It's not as if the IRA doesn't have the money to pay token fines."

The DUP wants the two governments to ask the US administration to refuse Sinn Féin politicians visas and to ban them from fundraising in America.

"We are told it isn't a problem from the US end. George Bush will do whatever his chum Tony Blair asks. Bush has nothing to lose in terms of support among the Irish-American community anyway."

But both Irish and British government figures say Blair won't issue such a request. "Getting visas for Sinn Féin people was a major part of securing the 1994 ceasefire. Stopping visas just isn't on the agenda. It would do immeasurable damage to the peace process," says a source.

The DUP believes such official "weakness" encourages Sinn Féin to believe it can get away with anything. "Gerry Kelly led a delegation to Washington this week," says a DUP figure. "He is prancing about, meeting congressmen and State Department officials. "Would the political wing of any other terrorist organisation which had just carried out a £26 million bank robbery be able to do that? Its representatives wouldn't get further than their domestic airports."

Both Dublin and London are determined to deny Sinn Féin the photo opportunities of high-profile talks which have become such a regular occurrence in recent years. Dublin sources said the Taoiseach's meeting with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness last Tuesday wasn't "likely to be repeated much in future". Tony Blair deliberately decided to meet Sinn Féin at Chequers, not Downing Street. "It is much less advantageous to the Sinn Féin delegation to address the cameras in a country lane than against the backdrop of Number Ten," says a source.

Over coming months, both governments agree there should be more focus on the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, set up under the Belfast Agreement, allowing for regular primeministerial summits and ministerial meetings. While both governments might want to cold-shoulder Sinn Féin leaders, jilting them isn't an option. "There is nothing the Shinners love more than playing the victim," says a source.

"When they were excluded before, they had their picture taken locked out in the cold. There were some very dramatic images, bringing back sympathetic memories of their days as the men behind the wire. We're determined not to give them the chance to do anything like that again."

On Tuesday, the Taoiseach told Adams and McGuinness all IRA activity must end and they should reflect on ways of breaking the political impasse. "Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and party colleague Martin McGuinness were told that, when they come back, "it has to be offering solutions," says a Government source.

However, even if Gerry Adams and party colleague Martin McGuinness refuses to do so, it will be difficult for the Government to continue ignoring a party with such a substantial mandate from Northern nationalists.

"They can tell us to do A, B, and C but they can't actually make us do anything," says a Sinn Féin source. "Bertie Ahern is an important voice within nationalism but he isn't the only voice.

"He must listen to and respect us just as much as we have to listen to him."

Sinn Féin aren't bit players to be dismissed by a wave of a Taoiseach's hand.

"If he treats us badly, he treats our voters badly. They can wish all they want that the SDLP was the biggest nationalist party in the North but those days are over. We represent 26 per cent of the electorate and we're not going away."

Sinn Féin is unlikely to lose votes in May's Westminster elections. Indeed, it is poised to take at least one seat (Newry/Armagh) from the SDLP, and possibly two more (Foyle and South Down), potentially leaving the SDLP with no Westminster representation.

The worst-case scenario for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, in the North, is that it loses some second preferences from hardened SDLP voters in the local government elections, likely to be held on the same day as the Westminster contest.

The big test in the Republic will be the Meath by-election for John Bruton's old seat. Sinn Féin candidate Joe Reilly has long been expected to perform strongly.

Sinn Féin sources are unconcerned by last week's Irish Times poll. At 11 per cent, the party's share of the vote has fallen only one per cent since the Northern Bank raid.

Gerry Adam's personal rating fell nine percentage points. That was "very small, given all we've been hit with in recent weeks", according to a party insider. He stressed that the real level of Sinn Féin support was traditionally under-estimated in opinion polls anyway.

The SDLP is next week due to present a paper to the governments on how the implementation of the Belfast Agreement can continue despite the political stalemate.

The British government is keen to restore the Stormont Assembly without an Executive. The DUP is interested in this idea but Dublin remains undecided. There are concerns it would be just a talking-shop, like the Prior Assembly in the 1980s, or the Northern Ireland Forum in the 1990s.

To have credibility, any such development would have to be tied to a new talks initiative to restore the Executive and, long-term, no Executive will work without Sinn Féin. The two governments and the DUP know this. That is why, despite the fall-out from the heist, the Northern Bank robbery will ultimately not be a make-or-break event for the peace process.