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Sally Watson examines the current dilemma facing the Sinn Fein leadership in the aftermath of the Northern Bank raid, and poses the question: why would the republican leadership risk the significant political and electoral progress made in the past decade, by engaging in criminal acts?

The challenge of peace for Irish Republicans

Cessation of armed struggle has enormous significance for the IRA, who regard themselves as defenders of the 1919 Dail with a clear mission to secure Irish freedom from British colonialism through physical means. Indeed, this armed force tradition is reflected in the annual rituals taking place over Easter, which serve to remind republicans of the death of 1981 hunger striker Bobby Sands and of their ideological roots.

Political progress

The memorial of Bobby Sands also marks the massive politicisation of Northern republicans, and the emergence of a radical political agenda as an alternative to armed struggle. In the early `80s, hunger striking became an alternative front in which activists could engage that indicated a more complex link between republicans and their past than a simplistic romanticism.

Bobby Sands became a republican martyr and his death 24 years ago pre-empted a seismic shift in the republican stance on electoral politics. The strategy of “Armalite and Ballot Box” --made famous by Danny Morrison --emerged at the republican annual gathering, the Ardfheis, later that year. The foundation was laid for a republican political agenda that would evolve and sustain over two decades through new dis courses that explored peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

This enabled the Northern republican leadership, at the time, to make a subtle change in their political strategy . An alternative battlefront opened up that enabled IRA volunteers in prison to remain soldiers engaged in a “noble struggle”. The hunger strikers accelerated the political mobilisation of republicans and resulted in the eventual and dramatic political change in the republican attitude to abstention. My own interviews with two of the first hunger strikers confirm the importance that republicans place on the political shift affected by the current leadership.

Given the significant political progress made by the republican movement, it is important to consider alternative explanations of December' s Northern Bank raid and more importantly the implications for the peace process.

Alternative explanations

The crudest explanation is that with declining US support in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, parts of the republican movement are now starved of funding. However, reactions to11 September have also made it more important to republicans that the IRA is not perceived as a violent group. Interviews I conducted with republican activists in Belfast and Armagh in September 2001 confirm that many republicans are keen to present their struggle as a political project designed to achieve Irish freedom and self determination. Thus it is difficult to conceive why the IRA would jeopardise two decades of devising strong moral arguments for securing justice for Northern Ireland.

The second explanation points to a reduction in the influence of the Sinn Fein leadership across the broader republican movement. My research suggests that the term “dissident” is being used to describe republicans who do not share the current political position held by the Sinn Fein leadership. This is an interesting use of language to categorise republicans who still espouse the traditional ideology and refuse to accept the pragmatism of the current political position. The label of dissident appears to have emerged in response to the embarrassment caused by IRA projects and the subsequent impact on Sinn Fein' s electoral position in Northern Ireland.

The third explanation is that the raid was an unauthorised project from within the republican movement. The Sinn Fein leadership is perceived, by some republicans, as trading too much away to the British government. To traditional IRA activists the image of Sinn Fein politicians sitting in a British parliament represents a betrayal of the 1916 legacy, a betrayal of the republican struggle in the North and certainly a betrayal of what Bobby Sands died for.

The challenge

The tension between the republican political agenda and continued violence gives clues as to how the republican movement is managed. Sinn Fein leader ship is clearly influential amongst grassroots and political activists and appears to have the power to veto IRA opera tions. The latest crisis brings into focus the decision-making process within the IRA that legitimises projects at an operational level.

Republicans have tended to claim political moral high ground by explaining key events as alternative fronts in the long struggle for Irish freedom. The leadership has become skilful at generating fresh messages to secure moral ground and the peace agenda is a good example of this development. In the1990s a new language of peace represented a radically new political path and new alternative front for a traditional struggle. It is interesting that warrior talk and battle themes still operate within republican dis course alongside the peace agenda. The emergence of the peace agenda further consolidates the moral high ground for republicans and the electoral successes are a testimony to the significant political support in the North and the emerging support in the South.

The latest scandals to affect the Sinn Fein leadership involve a bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney. The bank raid is, allegedly , one of many violent incidents in a long list of republican political history and the treatment of the story in the press is indicative of the media's need to interpret the political agenda of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness as a question of opposing forces within there publican movement.

The Irish republican project has survived nearly a century of political crises pre-empted by physical violence. During this time, the republican message has evolved and adapted to secure a form of moral high ground. Indeed, Irish republicans have developed an impressive linguistic ability to create narratives about themselves that disguise the highly complex nature of their community. Multiple narratives of peace, politics, tradition and transition co-exist and offer explanations to a range of audiences both inside and outside the movement.

The latest IRA operation may be an attempt to bank roll IRA activity and members of other IRA groups may be involved. My research questions why the IRA would engage inactivity that could derail the republican goal to secure Irish freedom. Both idealists and pragmatists operate within there publican movement. Having researched 30 years of republican discourse, it is clear that the Sinn Fein leadership is skilful at managing political crises and retaining the support of the grassroots.

What is more interesting is the signals that are thrown up by the activity of IRA groups and their relationship with a Sinn Fein leadership that has clearly nurtured a peace agenda for 10 years, engineered an IRA cessation and navigated around the demands for decommissioning since 1997. It could be argued that a bank raid is an act of defiance to remind the world that republican muscle has not gone away . The murder of Robert McCartney, allegedly an act of drunken violence, has not as yet affected voting patterns.

There is a need to consider alternative explanations because of the clear gap between badly advised and executed operations, criminal acts and the political agenda of the Sinn Fein leadership. Republicans have established their moral high ground for social, economic and political freedom consistently through political means and the peace process is both well established and well publicised across the world. This is not the time to destabilise the republican movement. Sally Watson is Director of the Management Development Division at Lancaster University, and a Member of the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies . She continues to research and write about Northern Ireland. This article is part of a series of three by Sally Watson on the political crisis facing the republican movement. The next two will be available at Peace News Online to Peace News web subscribers. See http://www.peacenews.info/websub/ for details.