Getting Michael McDowell to shut up


It is, of course, possible that we have all been duped. That what we thought was a peace process was a front for a long-term war strategy. That those we thought had brought the republican movement to the verge of democratic politics were deceiving us. That the excited expectations of a conclusion to the Irish troubles were misplaced, writes Vincent Browne

It may be that the recent indications of IRA money-laundering on a massive scale are signals of a malign plan to equip the IRA with weapons of great destruction for a resumption of a new and more devastating war. That the arrest of an IRA gang outside Bray and their conviction for IRA membership on Monday is a further sign of malign intent. That the murder of Robert McCartney in east Belfast and the intimidation of witnesses to that murder is proof of criminal intent on the part of the whole republican movement. Likewise, the massive robberies in Northern Ireland, the Florida gun-running, the other murders, the punishment beatings, the spying expeditions. Not given to absolute certainties, I do not know. But when you put them all together the sum certainly seems menacing.

That is until you stand back a little.

Fifteen years ago more than 100 people were being murdered every year in Northern Ireland because of the conflict. Thousands were being maimed. There was mass destruction of property. There were regular sectarian outrages on both sides. People were afraid to go into the centre of towns and cities. There seemed no prospect of a resolution to the conflict.

Yes, the prevailing circumstances now are not "normal". Yes, there are murders nowadays. Yes, there is criminality and intimidation and maiming and there is fear again. But has there not been a vast improvement? The number of killings is now less than five a year. The maimings are horrific, but are on a far lesser scale than 15 years ago. We didn't notice the criminality much then, but is it any worse now? Did all of Ireland not gain a great deal because of that "peace process"? But, more than that, there was a prospect of a final resolution or there seemed to be as recently as 11 weeks ago.

It could be that prospect was a mirage, that the IRA had no intention of finally signing up to a deal that would have required of it total decommissioning, an end to all criminality, an acceptance of a policing arrangement in Northern Ireland and, as a consequence, the extinction of it as an organisation. And perhaps the Northern Bank robbery of 12 days later was a sign that it was a mirage.

But perhaps not.

Maybe there remains a chance of securing the engagement of the republican movement in policing in Northern Ireland, and, as I have argued repeatedly here, this is where it is at. That would deal with the issue of criminality. It would not end it immediately, but it would establish a process for ending it. It would deal with decommissioning. Again, not achieve it instantly, but establish a process. Ditto regarding punishment beatings and murder. All this would see the return of power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and all-Ireland institutions.

This might not work. It might be that the trust between the parties is now so fragile that any "event" would cause the collapse of the arrangement. It might be that the IRA would scuttle the whole enterprise after it had got what it wanted, although what possibly could it want to get out of a temporary agreement that would be to its long-term benefit? It might be that a section of the IRA would peel off after a while or even immediately and the prospect of engaging the whole republican movement in the enterprise would end.

But isn't it worth another try?

If the IRA was responsible for the massive robberies in Northern Ireland in the recent past and if it is now engaged in money-laundering this could signal that there is no point in dealing with the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness for they are duplicitous and could not be trusted again.

But it might be that Adams and McGuinness did not know of the robberies or at least if they did know did not approve, that they have lost control temporarily of the situation and need a while to get the movement back in line. I know I don't know but I also know Michael McDowell does not know.

The security forces had no advance knowledge of the huge operation involved in the Northern Bank robbery so how come the intelligence is now so good that they know the IRA did it, that the IRA is now laundering money, and that Adams and McGuinness know of this all along?

So given all these imponderables, is there not a case for one more go at doing a deal, especially given the upside of such a deal and the downside of the absence of one.

And if so, could Michael McDowell be instructed, if not by Bertie Ahern then by Mary Harney, to shut up?