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20 January 2005 Edition

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Stirring the pot

BY LAURA FRIEL

It was all crisis in the headlines this week, sparked by PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde's assertion two weeks ago that the Northern Bank robbery was the work of the IRA.

Subsequent clarification by the PSNI Detective Inspector actually in charge of the investigation, who when questioned more closely about the state of play admitted that the allegation was merely the Chief Constable's opinion and there was no evidence, did nothing to cool the enthusiasm of sections of the media.

"Rift widens between SF and Dublin," ran the headline of the Belfast Telegraph on Friday. Bertie Ahern had not been taking phone calls and had "ignored a Sinn Féin request to stop blaming the IRA for the crime without speaking to the Sinn Féin President first", wrote Chris Thornton.

On Saturday, the Telegraph was focusing on nationalist disunity emanating from the SDLP. "The IRA betrayed us," trumpeted SDLP MP Eddie McGrady, and it was now time for the SDLP to consider the option of a coalition that does not include Sinn Féin, he said. Alistair McDonnell reiterated McGrady's position.

"It's being considered. I wouldn't rule anything out. I don't think any of us have a divine right to be in government," said McDonnell.

"Inclusively is now a buzz word but it doesn't mean you have to stretch every parameter in every direction to include everybody," McGrady told the BBC's Inside Politics show.

Predictably, a call from a senior member of the SDLP to exclude Sinn Fein was immediately backed by anti-Agreement unionism. DUP leader Ian Paisley said McGrady's words could be "the genesis of a breakthrough that the people of Northern Ireland deserve".

"I welcome these comments and they deserve very careful consideration. The DUP will now be seeking a meeting with the [British] government to act expeditiously on this matter," said Paisley.

"Many nationalists will be horrified that Mr McGrady is prepared to contemplate the politics of discrimination and exclusion," said Sinn Féin's Caitríona Ruane.

Sinn Féin's spokesperson on Justice, Gerry Kelly, revealed that the PSNI Chief Constable's assertion had been based on a single British intelligence source. Kelly reminded the media that "the kind of people we are dealing with were involved in the killing of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane". British Intelligence had been working against peace for the last 30 years, said Kelly.

Meanwhile, McGrady was assuring the media that he "totally subscribes to the principle of inclusivity", but not necessarily in a situation where "people do not want to conform to the requirements of democracy".

But exactly what people and requirements did McGrady have in mind? Apparently not the PSNI Chief Constable, who is prepared to destabilise an entire political process without a scrap of evidence by operating on the basis of guilty until proven otherwise.

Perhaps at a time of dwindling electoral support, attempts by the SDLP to reinvent the notion of democracy is not so surprising. And of course the SDLP is not the only political party to feel the jaws of Sinn Féin's growing electoral success snapping at their heels. In the south, PD coalition partner Michael McDowell has been leading the reactionary charge in the vain hope of undermining Sinn Féin's growing electoral strength.

Writing in the Sunday Business Post, Vincent Browne accused the Minister for Justice of being unable to "pass up an opportunity to voice an opinion". By which he means McDowell can't miss an opportunity to attack republicans, regardless of the political consequences.

In a detailed article, Browne addressed a number of McDowell's accusations against republicans, exposing them as either irrelevant "non sequitors", untrue or wildly defamatory. Browne pointed out that to characterise Hugh Orde as an honest policeman and brand Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams as a liar and a hypocrite is irrelevant nonsense, which tells us more about McDowell's politics than anything else.

In other words, no matter how much McDowell likes Hugh Orde or dislikes Gerry Adams, it doesn't tell us a thing about the Northern Bank robbery and it certainly shouldn't be allowed to impact on the political process.

"The claim that Adams and McGuinness promised much but delivered little is grossly unfair," wrote Browne. Republicans have transformed the situation and "to refuse to acknowledge this is simply dishonest".

Browne pointed out that Ahern has made it clear that "it is government policy to advance the peace process". "Given that view, what contribution has McDowell made?"

Predictably, Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times gleefully announced the SDLP's Eddie McGrady was doing "battle with the Provos for the soul of nationalism".

But even Clarke had to acknowledge divisions within the SDLP, with the anti-republican wing pushing for a "high risk" strategy against Sinn Féin.

"The tougher SDLP approach has given the British and Irish governments a new card to play," wrote Clarke, and "suddenly they aren't firing blanks when they threaten Sinn Féin with sanctions".

But, "it's a high risk strategy for the SDLP, now that it is no longer the largest nationalist party, to take on Sinn Féin. This could see it [the SDLP] snuffed out in one fell swoop instead of slowly bleeding to death."

The problem, said Clarke, is that is isn't a level playing field. And just what are those unfair advantages identified by Clarke? Well unlike Sinn Féin, the SDLP "can't fill offices with full time workers in most big nationalist towns". And the SDLP can't match Sinn Féin's financing.

Clarke fails to mention this might be because SDLP MLAs and MPs draw all their salary, while Sinn Féin's elected representatives allocate a substantial proportion of their income to the party. He also fails to point out that Sinn Féin might be able to staff offices because, as the largest nationalist party, it is more popular and after 30 years of repression, its party members are more dedicated.

So there we have it. The problem with republicans is that they work too hard for less personal reward for a party underpinned by a more effective electoral all- Ireland strategy. It's criminal.

In the end it all comes down to a struggle about legitimacy. As the combined forces of British colonialism, unionist supermacism and reactionary nationalism attempted to undermine Sinn Féin's growing popular support by attempting to criminalise republicans and marginalise their electorate, Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin questioned the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland.

Responding to comments by British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy, McGuinness said he was "not going to be lectured by a British minister on criminality, given their record in Ireland.

"Many republicans will be very angry by remarks made by Paul Murphy. This is a man who has no mandate in Ireland, no votes in Ireland and in my opinion no rights to sanction any Irish political party," said McGuinness.

For Sinn Féin, the legitimacy of the republican struggle flows from the illegality of British colonial occupation. During television's Questions and Answers programme, McLaughlin confronted McDowell with the question, "Was Bobby Sands a criminal?" "He was convicted of a crime," replied McDowell.

To accept McDowell's position would be to criminalise the entire foundation of the Irish state. After all, Pearse and Connolly, in the eyes of the British, were criminals too.

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