17 February 2005 Edition
Hall of mirrors
BY LAURA FRIEL
At one time a hall of mirrors was a standard funfair spectacle as familiar as the ghost train and helter-skelter to our parents and grandparents. Anyone entering a hall of mirrors faced multiple distorted images of themselves and others. Faces were elongated or squashed flat, thin people became fat, tall would be transformed into small, beautiful into ugly. Mirrors reflected into mirrors reflecting into mirrors until everyone became lost in a maze of images and no one could be certain of the way out.
Of course, at the funfair such manipulation of our perceptions is amusing and harmless and outside, the world has not been turned upside down and everything reverts back to normal when you leave the hall.
But when such a spectacle is applied to a political process, particularly when it professes to be a process of conflict resolution, then it is far from funny and decidedly more dangerous. But this is what has been happening to the Peace Process in recent months.
Since the DUP collapsed negotiations in December and scuttled the return to power sharing by demanding the public humiliation of republicans, the Peace Process has been turned upside down to facilitate anti-Agreement unionism by attempting to undermine the largest pro-Agreement party in the North. And at the centre of it all has been a hall of mirrors involving the PSNI, Special Branch, IMC and British and Irish governments.
Ian Paisley Jnr was the first to deflect his party's culpability in the collapse of negotiations before Christmas by claiming that republicans were responsible for a multi-million-pound bank robbery. As James Kelly of the Irish News pointed out, whether Paisley jnr "had consulted his dad's crystal ball or the tea leaves was not clear but he had no doubt who was guilty".
Paisley Óg was not only speedily off the mark to apportion blame, he was equally quick to link his assertion with his party's political aspiration of excluding Sinn Féin. It was all very convenient for the DUP. The media ran as hard as it could with the story but without further input an unsubstantiated assertion by the DUP against their political enemy was hardly credible.
The next mirror to add to the distortion came from PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde. The media had already anticipated what he would say and then he said it. Orde 'believed' the IRA was to blame. It wasn't much to go on but within the media's hall of mirrors, Orde's 'opinion' was quickly transformed into something apparently more substantial.
We were led to believe that Orde's opinion was based upon 'intelligence' and that 'intelligence' was somehow 'evidence'. Intelligence sources, by their very nature, cannot be attributable, substantiated or evaluated and are largely based on what an unknown set of people imagines to be the case. Within the PSNI, 'intelligence' is the work of Special Branch.
Special Branch has a long and ignoble history of anti-republican activity and political interference with policing in the north. Shoot-to-kill, collusion, torture, the suppression and manipulation of evidence have all been a part of Special Branch's role in the northern conflict. Telling a few porkies to meet the objectives of their anti-republican agenda is hardly going to cost them a night's sleep.
But in the hall of mirrors, so-called intelligence is treated with the same reverence as the word of God. If 'intelligence sources' say it's the IRA, it is the IRA. Of course the thinking public might wonder how the same mysterious sources, who are now so sure who carried it out, knew absolutely nothing about the robbery prior to its prosecution? One moment knowing nothing, the next All Knowing. It is nothing less than miraculous.
And it's clear that for sources now claiming to know-it-all, they appear remarkably ill-equipped to translate that knowledge into any serious leads, let alone arrests. But we were already into a thinking process worthy of RD Laing. It goes something like this.
Intelligence by definition is very clever. Intelligence did not know about the robbery so the robbers must have been very clever. The IRA is very clever, therefore they must have carried out the robbery. I knew nothing, so I know everything.
Of course none of us knows what Hugh Orde actually told the British Prime Minister and Irish Taoiseach. If we did we might be able to judge for ourselves but that's not how a hall of mirrors works. A single source must bounce off a myriad of mirrors to create the illusion of many. Hugh Orde, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and the IMC were all drinking from the same 'intelligence' well and yet the similarity of their responses was seen as somehow amounting to further confirmation.
Thus the Irish News dismisses the IMC report, which the editorial accuses of "entering familiar territory by drawing direct conclusion without placing firm evidence in the public domain" and suggests the Commission has an undue influence on the political process. But at the same time it accepts the IRA is to blame for the Northern Bank robbery, not because there is any evidence but because of Bertie Ahern.
"There are many reasons for this belief but the most compelling has been the unequivocal stance taken by Bertie Ahern," says the Irish News. In sharp contrast, SDLP leader Mark Durkan told the Belfast Telegraph that for him it was the IMC report that "verifies" Ahern's claims. And so it goes around and around. As if amplification of the message is sufficient to make it more real.
The IMC was set up by the British Government with the acquiescence of Bertie Ahern outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and at the behest of anti-Agreement unionism. It has no independent means of investigation and is almost wholly reliant upon Hugh Orde and Special Branch for its information. It was set up specifically as a mechanism to vilify republicans and sanction Sinn Féin. It remains dormant until the possibility of such an opportunity arises. In other words, its conclusions are a foregone conclusion.
As James Kelly of the Irish News pointed out, the "ten-page report came the day after another unsuccessful police and army descent on Beragh, County Tyrone, involving helicopters, numerous vehicles and police divers searching duck ponds, but still no arrests".
But as far as the political process is concerned, republicans had "been found guilty without the assistance of judge or jury, a remarkable new twist to the administration of law and order", said Kelly.
Meanwhile, the determination to turn the political clock backwards momentarily overcame Hugh Orde's determination to present 'intelligence' as an implacable source. The media reported the PSNI Chief Constable was engaged in a drive to reinstate former members of RUC Special Branch "to bridge the serious intelligence deficit currently existing".
"The move, which the PSNI declined to discuss, underlines the scale of the problem facing the force's intelligence gathering section, now known as C-3 Intelligence," said the Sunday Life.
"Mr Orde has strenuously denied the fact police had no prior hint of the Northern Bank heist revealed shortcomings in its intelligence gathering. But subsequent searches of homes and business premises have so far failed to uncover the trail of the stolen cash."
Former RUC "Intelligence veterans" are being lured out of retirement with "lucrative five-figure contracts". "Orde-hopes the former Dirty War spymasters can reactivate their street-corner touts," says the Sunday Life. So much for Patten, the SDLP's participation on the policing boards and the promised new beginning to policing.
And now here's a curious thing. The IMC report claimed that senior members of Sinn Féin "sanctioned" the Northern Bank robbery while Hugh Orde maintains that he has "no idea" if the Sinn Féin leadership knew. But such flaws at the heart of the accusation doesn't worry the Sunday Times.
McGuinness and Adams 'approved raid' ran the front-page story. And just in case their readership doubted the veracity of the claim, the Times ran an opinion poll amongst Sinn Féin's political rivals for the nationalist vote in the forthcoming elections. Predictably, opinions were hostile to Sinn Féin and, given the SDLP's position on policing, favourable to the PSNI.
Of course, the results tell us more about the SDLP than Sinn Féin. SDLP delegates attending their party conference were asked, "who do you trust?" Apparently, the SDLP trusts Ian Paisley more than Gerry Adams but the individual to command the single greatest endorsement was Hugh Orde, with a massive 80%, outstripping Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair by well over 20%.
Well, as everybody knows, you can always trust a policeman. Where were the SDLP during the last 30 years? Clearly, to borrow Gerry Adams' phrase, their heads must have been up their arses. The next largest endorsement at the SDLP conference was the IMC, which attracted 71%. You might be starting to detect a political agenda.
Perhaps the SDLP are hoping the PSNI and IMC will win the election for them.
But even the delusions of the SDLP did not extend to any overt optimism about their likely performance during the coming elections. While the vast majority of delegates clung to the hope of "staying the same", only a paltry third believed the SDLP could actual gain any seats at all.
That's the problem with a hall of mirrors. It becomes almost impossible to avoid the illusions. Illusions that suggest Irish President Mary McAleese is a sectarian bigot for recognising an irrational anti-Catholic hatred within the Six Counties. Illusions that have forced an Irish President, with an unblemished personal record, to apologies because her comments upset the Orange Order. The Orange Order, an organisation whose anti-Catholic ethos and sectarian anti-Catholic violence is a matter of public and historic record.
"O brave new world."