13 January 2005 Edition
Intelligence, opinions and illusions
BY LAURA FRIEL
Illusionist Derren Brown on TV last week demonstrated how easily people's perception can be manipulated by someone telling them what they are already predisposed to believe. It's been a bit like that here this week.
There is no evidence, no arrests, no significant finds, but for those people who already view all republicans as criminals, no further proof is required. Indeed, the very fact that there is no evidence appears sufficient to leave no doubt in their minds. And the chief magician in all of this? Hugh Orde.
"On the basis of the investigating work we have done to date, the evidence we have collected, the information we have collected, the exhibits we have collected and putting that all together and working through it, it is my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for the crime and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction," Orde told the media.
Evidence, information, exhibits; it sounds impressive to those who want to believe but in the end all we are left with is the opinion of the PSNI Chief constable. And this is not the first time Hugh Orde has impacted on the political process by virtue of an opinion, his opinion.
Of course, there is another way of viewing this.
PSNI caught with its pants down
No matter what way you look at it, the PSNI was caught with its pants down. According to the media, a traffic warden reported 'suspicious' behaviour outside the Northern Bank involving a 'white van'. At the height of the Christmas shopping season, with banks and retail outlets heaving with cash, the PSNI's response to a tip off about a possible robbery at a bank was to do almost nothing. They sent two uniformed officers on foot patrol to 'take a look'. They saw nothing suspicious and no further action was taken.
It's just before Christmas and Hugh Orde is watching the prospects of his £25,000 performance related bonus fade into oblivion, along with the reputation of his force. And there are no leads and no prospects of arrests, little hope of recovering the stolen millions and even less hope of securing convictions. Well, what can a PSNI Chief constable do?
Simple. Employ the old tactics of the RUC. Begin with a series of raids in nationalist areas at the homes of high profile republicans. Bring the media with you, handpicked journalist hacks who won't mind if there are no facts to support the accusations and won't ask too many difficult questions about the status of the PSNI 'investigation'. Peddle the notion that the very fact that there is no evidence linking republicans to the robbery is indisputable 'evidence' of their involvement.
Pitch it high. Confronted with an adversary so ruthless, professional, disciplined, experienced, intelligent and rigorous as the IRA, how can any criticism be attached to the PSNI? Surely any fair-minded member of the Policing Board would not seek to penalise the Chief Constable and his less than efficient force?
The words of the Belfast Telegraph must have been music to Orde's ears. "With their usual gall, republicans are challenging Mr Orde to produce his evidence, but few will now accept the IRA's claim that it was not involved," said the Telegraph. "What other group would have the organisational skill and cold blooded ruthlessness to pull off such an audacious and violent robbery?" the newspaper continued.
The old RUC was never hot on investigation. In fact, they were often not even allowed to pursue an investigation by Special Branch, who intimidated and bullied the CID into accepting the primacy of a counter insurgency anti-republican agenda. The RUC rounded up the usual suspects, tortured and beat detainees into so called confessions, tampered with 'evidence' or, when it suited their political agenda, saw nothing, heard nothing and said nothing.
Of course, the PSNI is supposed to be a part of the new political dispensation, new policing for a new beginning. But with Patten yet to be fully implemented, Special Branch still in place and many former RUC officers within its ranks, given the slightest encouragement, the PSNI appears all too ready to revert to type.
True to form, the leadership of the Dublin Government did not contest Orde's baseless accusations. Just after the Chief Constable's press conference, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced his disappointment with the IRA. There were no queries as to the evidence behind the PSNI claim. All Ahern had to say on the matter was that the whole event was a setback for the peace process and that he was concerned the IRA could have been organising the robbery while he was in talks with Sinn Féin. His response was similar to the one following the suspension of the Stormont Assembly in October 2002, after the PSNI uncovered an alleged IRA spy-ring. Over two years later, most of the 'evidence' in that case has been thrown out of court. But the Taoiseach has not learned anything from that — blind acceptance of the British line is still the order of the day.
Meanwhile, the media were working their magic, somehow knowing what the PSNI Chief was going to say even before he said it. "Orde will blame the IRA," screamed the front-page banner headlines of the British Daily Mirror, hours before Orde was due to brief the media.
As the media swung into action, what one moment was mere opinion devoid of any demonstrative facts became pure assertion. "The Provos unmasked," ran the Belfast Newsletter. And suddenly we were no longer dealing with a specific incident, as the politicking began. This was no longer a police investigation but a political witch-hunt.
"Peace in the balance as Orde points the finger at IRA," said the Newsletter. "The Provisional IRA stood accused last night of stealing any chance of an early peace settlement," wrote Gemma Murray.
"Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under increased pressure to exclude Sinn Féin from any future devolved government," wrote Murray. "IRA link to robbery blows peace process out of the water," ran the editorial of the Belfast Telegraph.
"Northern deal scuppered after IRA bank robbery," declared Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune. "The current talks process is effectively over after the statement from the Chief Constable Hugh Orde. Stephen Collins went further: "the involvement of the IRA does more than cast doubt on the sincerity of Sinn Féin's commitment to democratic politics. It raises fundamental questions about the strategy pursued by the Irish and British governments for the past few years."
And the media knew exactly where to look to reinforce their position. "DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson said if the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) reaches the same conclusion [as Orde], Sinn Féin should be excluded from government for a year," recorded Breen. "In any future negotiations, the DUP would demand even greater proof than before," said Robinson. "The pressure will not be on my party to lower the bar. The pressure will be for a higher bar."
For anti-Agreement unionism, Orde's opinion had become the talisman not only to undermine any prospect of a power sharing agreement emerging out of the current talks process but also any future negotiations. Meanwhile, Ian Paisley announced he would be visiting Downing Street to urge the British PM to fulfil that unionist dream of "a devolved administration to be set up without Sinn Féin".
NIO Secretary of State Paul Murphy said there would be no rush to meet unionist demands and immediately exclude Sinn Féin from taking part in a power sharing government.
"I believe all parties have mandates and we have to respect them. But all of us have to respect the mandate of the Good Friday Agreement," said Murphy.
Addressing the British House of Commons, Murphy backed Orde's assessment but said the British Government still believed that power sharing provided the best long-term guarantee of peace and stability and would not abandon that ultimate goal.
Murphy said decisions and responses were now needed from Sinn Féin and the IRA. Without responses, the British Secretary of State said he could not see how it would be possible to reinvigorate the political talks. The governments would be considering how best to bring pressure to bear on the Republican Movement to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
Sinn Féin responds
Speaking at a Westminster press conference, Sinn Féin chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin said his party's participation in the process and in any government was based entirely on its substantial electoral mandate and nothing else.
"We are the largest nationalist party in the Six Counties and the third largest party on the island of Ireland," said McLaughlin.
"In contrast, Paul Murphy has no mandate from the Irish people and we will not tolerate attempts by him to sanction or demonise the Sinn Féin electorate," he said.
Jumping to conclusions
Meanwhile, Vincent Browne of the Irish Times admitted, although he initially believed the robbery must have been the work of the IRA ("what other organisation has the capacity, the military precision, the logistical know-how and manpower?") that now he's not so sure.
"Now it emerges that £41,000 was being laundered in Craigavon over the last few days and, apparently, this has nothing to do with the Northern Bank robbery. Where did this money come from?" asks Browne. According to the media, the Craigavon arrests involved the seizure of high denomination Northern Bank notes but the PSNI were quick to announce that the arrests had nothing to do with the Belfast robbery. Could that have something to do with the fact that those arrested were not republicans?
It's sufficient to compel Browne to ask: "Is it good enough to put the whole political process on hold on the word of a police officer? Do we not know that police officers and intelligence chiefs get it wrong again and again?"
On the letters page of the Irish Times, a reader from County Laois put it better. "I was quite surprised at the unseemly and unquestioning haste with which most people, including yourself, accepted the word of Hugh Orde that the IRA was responsible for the Northern bank robbery.
"His report was based on 'intelligence'. Could this be related to the British Intelligence that was responsible for the report on Iraqi WMD that was used as an excuse for the illegal war on Iraq that has so far resulted in the slaughter of over 100,000 Iraqis?"