The IRA and Sinn Fein are in trouble. So where does Gerry Adams go from here?
On the face of it, there's nothing terribly remarkable about Magennis's Bar in central Belfast. Tourist guides praise the home-cooked food, especially the bangers and mash. On a recent visit to Belfast, the only outward signs of the bar's grim recent past were a few flowers strewn on the pavement. It was here that Robert McCartney, a local working-class Catholic father of two, lay dying in a pool of his own blood after a Jan. 30 bar brawl, an event that may have sealed the fate of the Irish Republican Army once and for all. McCartney's family—lifelong supporters of the Catholic struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland—say IRA members stabbed McCartney, left him for dead, cleaned up the crime scene, and menacingly told up to 70 witnesses not to speak to the cops. McCartney's family, friends, and neighbors are now leading a popular revolt against an IRA culture of thuggery.
The McCartney murder is the second of a self-inflicted one-two punch that has ratcheted up pressure on the IRA to disband, and on its political wing, Sinn Fein, to break all links with the terrorist group. The first blow was the spectacular pre-Christmas bank raid at the head office of the Northern Bank in downtown Belfast—about five minutes' walk from Magennis's, in fact—in which robbers made off with the equivalent of $51 million in cash, one of the largest cash heists in history. The Irish and British governments openly fingered the IRA, sending Northern Ireland's already foundering peace process completely off the rails. Worse, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, says Sinn Fein leaders knew about the planned bank robbery even while negotiating a deal to decommission the IRA's weapons. The IRA responded angrily, withdrawing its offer to disarm and stating ominously that it will not "remain quiescent."
Things have taken a turn for the strange on both sides of the border. There was, for instance, the puzzling story of the Cork man caught burning Northern Irish bank notes. (He was arrested, then released.) This week, the IRA released a bizarre statement in response to the McCartney murder: Ostensibly in damage-control mode, it said IRA representatives had met the McCartney family and had offered to shoot those responsible. This failed to impress anybody.
Many now say the McCartney murder—by all accounts a sordid pub brawl that had nothing to do with the IRA's elusive revolutionary aims—will damage the reputations of the IRA and Sinn Fein far more than the heist. An anti-Sinn Fein campaign led by McCartney's sisters has compared the current IRA to the reviled Shankill Butchers, the Protestant gang that terrorized Catholic West Belfast in the 1970s. Born in the late 1960s from a genuine need to defend Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant loyalist pogroms, the Provisional IRA has never employed the noblest methods in its war, but even once-stalwart partisans now say the group has degenerated into a mafia-style criminal racket.
At the center of all this stands Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein and an architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland. Though he has long denied IRA membership—understandably, since mere membership in the banned organization could land him in jail—he is widely believed to be a member of the IRA's Army Council, its secretive seven-member ruling body. Once the most popular politician in the Republic of Ireland, Adams' approval rating has nose-dived. Politicians in once-friendly parties like Ahern's Fianna Fail and, in the north, the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party, have turned on him. They see a rising Sinn Fein, which contests elections on both sides of the border, as a threat at the ballot box. They are also faced with increasingly hard-to-ignore evidence of Adams' cold duplicity and links to criminality.
Adams has also lost a friend (if he ever had one) in President Bush, who was phoning him in December, talking peace, while Adams was allegedly greenlighting the bank heist of the century. No surprise, then, that Adams was not invited to the White House St. Patrick's Day party this year. The McCartney sisters, on the other hand, made the guest list.
Still, despite talk of excluding the party from politics altogether, Sinn Fein is unlikely to go away. Despite its faults and a dip in popularity, the party has a loyal republican support base. A recent poll shows the SDLP and Sinn Fein neck-and-neck even after all the bad press. And at this point, imagining a Sinn Fein without Gerry Adams—who made the party what it is today—would be a bit like Blondie re-forming without Debbie Harry.
If Adams really approved the bank raid, it's hard not to ask: What was he thinking? One fascinating theory says the bank robbery might actually be part of Adams' covert strategy to force a recalcitrant IRA to lay down its weapons once and for all. Ed Moloney, an award-winning journalist and author of A Secret History of the IRA,says Adams may have sanctioned the robbery knowing the ensuing outrage would force the hand of the hard-liners in his midst, leaving them with a stark choice: Either go back to war, a political non-starter in the post-9/11 world, or, if republicans are to preserve the credibility they have gained both on the island and in London and Washington, lay down their arms for good. In other words, republicans can run a major political party, or they can be ostracized and lumped in with Osama Bin Laden.
This theory may sound far-fetched, but Moloney arguably knows more about the IRA than even many of its members. His book, which plumbed IRA sources to tell the story of Adams' long-denied militant past and his drive for peace, shows how the leader has moved his people to do his bidding not by straightforward persuasion but by orchestrating events—often with Machiavellian duplicity and guile—so that his desired outcome is inevitable. (Moloney can be found advancing this theory in Scotland's Sunday Herald and in an Irish radio interview partially transcribed on the blog Slugger O'Toole.)
If this is correct, we should be rooting for Adams, even if we'd rather see him in an orange jumpsuit. This may partly explain why British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who views the Good Friday Agreement as one of his greatest achievements, is still talking to Adams. In Dublin, an angry Ahern has conceded that future peace negotiations will have to include Sinn Fein. Even Bush has tempered his reaction: Sinn Fein was denied an invitation to the St. Patrick's Day bash, but so were the other Northern Irish parties, even those without bank-robbing affiliates.
The biggest problem with Moloney's theory is that it presumes Adams will remain in control of events. It's one thing to manipulate your allies into doing your bidding when they are members of a famously disciplined organization like the IRA. But democracies are different. They're messy and unpredictable. Adams could hardly have predicted McCartney's grisly murder outside Magennis's Bar, and he could not have foreseen the popular anger over the IRA's cover-up. As anti-Sinn Fein momentum builds, it's looking more and more like things are spinning out of control for the master tactician. If Adams brought the peace process to this tenuous point thinking it would inevitably lead to IRA disarmament, one can only hope that at least that part of his master plan remains on track.
Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.
Photo of Gerry Adams by by ShowbizIreland/Getty Images.