Politics & Policy

Sicily Without Sunshine

Gangsterism in the land of saints and scholars.

“Sicily without sunshine.” That’s how friends of mine in Northern Ireland, nationalists and unionists alike, are now referring to their little corner of the world. Yet this typically rueful witticism, prompted by an unfolding series of bizarre and sinister events, also reflects potentially tectonic shifts in the political–and moral–landscape on both sides of the Irish border.

Few Americans follow developments in Northern Ireland except around this time of year, if at all. Most would be surprised to learn how little has changed over the past seven years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed–or how much has changed just over the last three months. While the wider world and the United States in particular are now fully engaged in the global struggle against militant Islamist terror, parochial Irish concerns have shrunk to their proper proportions, except in the minds of some Irishmen. For them Churchill’s celebrated acknowledgement of the integrity of the Irish quarrel, made in similar historical circumstances in 1922, unfortunately still holds true:

Then came the Great War. Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world.

But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.

To update Churchill’s observation, consider only how far the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone are now overshadowed by the minarets of Fallujah and Najaf.

While the wider world has moved on, Northern Ireland remains stuck in the same impasse that the Good Friday Agreement promised to resolve. That agreement is best understood as a resounding rejection of an unacceptable status quo and the agreed replacement of an open-ended “peace process” with a well-defined political process. Above all, it offered a “fresh start” based on a “commitment to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.”

Underlying the Good Friday Agreement were three basic principles: consent (Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom remaining unchanged at least until voters on both sides of the Irish border decide otherwise); “parity of esteem” within Northern Ireland between British and Irish traditions and identities, the one mainly Protestant and unionist, the other mainly Roman Catholic and nationalist; and the “total and absolute commitment” of all political parties “to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues.”

This final principle in particular acknowledged that political parties with illegal private armies are wholly incompatible with democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

Also underlying the Good Friday Agreement were extraordinarily difficult and painful moral compromises, especially the release of all paramilitary prisoners as part of a general amnesty for all “political” crimes (including hundreds of murders). But the two most contentious issues–paramilitary arms and post-agreement policing arrangements–proved impossible to resolve and were largely deferred to international commissions. These two issues have proven as inseparable as they are intractable. Both are at the heart of the ongoing political and moral crisis touched off by the dynamics set in motion by a robbery and a murder in Belfast.

The robbery in question was no less than the largest single bank heist ever committed in the British Isles. While masked gunmen held hostage family members of two key employees, a gang of thieves operating with military precision made off with $50 million from the Belfast headquarters of Northern Ireland’s largest bank last December 20.

To borrow a colorful Belfast phrase for undisputed matters of acknowledged fact, even the dogs in the street soon knew that this crime was the unmistakable handiwork of the Irish Republican Army, the so-called military wing of Sinn Fein, the Irish-republican political party. Confirmation came swiftly from the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, senior officials in Belfast and London, and an international commission charged with monitoring paramilitary organizations. Ahern in particular was aggrieved that at precisely the same time he was negotiating the latest failed political initiative with senior Sinn Fein officials, the same officials were signing off on the IRA bank heist. “What sort of eejits do they take us for?” asked Ahern.

Ahern’s outburst marked the end of the longstanding code of silence among the political elite of the Irish republic regarding the true relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA. “We are no longer prepared to accept the farce that Sinn Fein and the IRA are separate,” said Irish Defence Minister Willie O’Dea. “They are indivisible.” Justice Minister Michael McDowell went one step further by publicly naming Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and a fellow parliamentarian as among the seven members of the IRA Army Council, the shadowy politburo that holds sway over the so-called republican movement (including Sinn Fein). It was once unheard of but now routine for senior Irish politicians and government officials to refer to “Sinn Fein/IRA,” a politically incorrect but factually accurate turn of phrase formerly uttered only by unionist hardliners in Northern Ireland. Hence statements like O’Dea’s: “When Sinn Fein/IRA stole 26 million pounds from the Northern Bank, it also ’stole’ the peace process.”

This shattering of omertà is taking place against the backdrop of the largest criminal investigation in the history of the Irish republic. Bank notes from the December raid ($4.4 million and counting) are turning up in unlikely places as Irish police question accountants, bankers and lawyers suspected of involvement in laundering the proceeds of organized republican criminality, estimated at $400 million per year on an island with only 5.5 million inhabitants (see here for an overview). According to Irish police, what Justice Minister McDowell calls “a colossal crime machine laundering huge sums of money” has overtaken the Sicilian mafia in its success and sophistication. Hence such otherwise unbelievable allegations as the reported efforts to buy a bank in Bulgaria to handle the volume of funds from crime.

Organized republican criminality–cross-border smuggling (especially of oil, tobacco and livestock), armed robberies, protection and extortion rackets, moonshining, and pub ownership, and related activities, all in the name of “the cause”–hardly comes as news for the proverbial dogs in the street. What’s new is the belated recognition of the scale of republican criminality in the Irish republic and its likely political implications there.

According to the Irish Independent’s Jim Cusack, Ireland’s foremost journalistic expert on Irish paramilitarism, “the IRA now licenses all professional criminal activities in Dublin. But it generates even greater income from investing its criminal assets–it is now the largest pub owner in the state.” Far more ominous, however, is the likely purpose of the republican crime spree, summed up by the headline of Cusack’s piece: “Laundering operation was a SF/IRA conspiracy to overthrow this State.”

Cusack’s thesis, which is becoming widely held on both sides of the Irish border, holds that Sinn Fein/IRA is simply pursuing its traditional strategy of seeking power with a ballot box in one hand and an Armalite in the other. (An Armalite is an automatic rifle.) But nothing has hardened suspicions of republican intentions, especially in Northern Ireland, more than a particularly brutal murder in Belfast and its continuing repercussions.

On January 30, the same day that Iraqis were flocking to the polls, a gang of IRA “volunteers” and Sinn Fein “activists” attacked two friends in a downtown Belfast bar, leaving one dead and the other grievously wounded. By all accounts, Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old forklift driver, had sought to calm a dispute arising after words were exchanged between his friend, Brendan Devine, and a senior IRA figure (who bellowed, “Do you know who I am?”). But when the IRA man drew his finger across his throat, at least a dozen men attacked McCartney and Devine with broken bottles and knives taken from the bar kitchen. After being dragged outside, both victims were repeatedly stabbed, struck with iron bars, and left for dead. Devine miraculously survived; McCartney, who was disemboweled and nearly decapitated, did not.

As the two friends lay dying in the street, the killers locked in some 70 bar patrons, forbade anyone from summoning an ambulance, announced that “this is IRA business,” and threatened all present with death as the penalty for “informing”–giving evidence to the police. (So far, eyewitnesses reportedly claim to have been in the men’s room when the fight broke out, a claim parodied in this cartoon.) The gang then set about methodically destroying forensic evidence, removing closed circuit TV tapes, wiping surfaces clear of fingerprints, and disposing of weapons and bloodied clothing. As one of the murder victim’s sisters put it, “Their only concern while Robert lay dripping with blood was to clear up the mess and go and have another pint.”

Even by local standards, this was a singularly horrific crime. But it is nonetheless likely that it would have been dismissed as business as usual, but for the courage, dignity, and moral authority demonstrated by the five McCartney sisters and their brother’s fiancée, who raised a hue and cry still resounding across Ireland and the wider world.

To understand this remarkable phenomenon, a bit of local history and geography is essential. Robert McCartney and his sisters were raised in the Short Strand, a tiny nationalist enclave of 3,000 located in overwhelmingly unionist East Belfast. With its back to the Lagan River, this neighborhood of two-story red-brick rowhouses remains surrounded on three sides by the 30-foot-high “peace walls” that still mark sectarian divisions along so-called interfaces in volatile parts of Belfast. It was these tight-knit, working-class neighborhoods, nationalist and unionist alike, that bore the brunt of a 25-year civil war, which locals refer to with paralyzing irony as the Troubles.

Rightly or wrongly, it was in places like the Short Strand that the IRA came to be seen as defenders of a beleaguered minority, especially during the general mayhem of the conflict’s early years, when the police, the British army and loyalist paramilitaries were likewise seen by nationalists as working hand-in-glove as the armed wing of the one-party unionist state. Long after external threats had eased, however, the IRA has continued to dispense its own brand of law and order in areas where fear and distrust–on both sides–still separate residents from the police. In this lawless vacuum a ruthlessly-enforced code of omertà remains in effect. As the Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney once put it, “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

It is this code of silence that the sisters McCartney seek to shatter. These formidable women are authentic representatives of the republican heartlands, reliable Sinn Fein voters all, and therefore impossible to gainsay on grounds of religion, politics, or social class. Hard-working, well-educated, and transparently decent, the McCartneys have made clear from the start that they are reluctant public figures whose campaign for justice is not about politics or about themselves. Their single demand is for an end to the continuing intimidation of eyewitnesses to their brother’s murder, without whose evidence and testimony court proceedings are impossible.

The identity of the killers is no mystery to anyone, including the police. “All of Ireland knows who they are, says Catherine McCartney. “But people know what the IRA is capable of. They butchered a man and slit his throat. I would be afraid, too.” But she and her sisters–Claire, Donna, Gemma, and Paula–are themselves unafraid and unimpressed by the killers’ republican credentials. “Republicanism is not what happened to Robert. They can’t call themselves republicans if they did that.” Adds Paula: “Some of these guys are psychopaths, but no one does anything to stop them. They’re likened to the Mafia–but frankly that’s an insult to the Mafia.”

Again and again, the McCartneys have made the ultimate stakes crystal clear. “They can murder you, clean it up, cover it up, and walk away,” says Catherine. “If these men walk free from this,” adds Paula, “then everyone in Ireland should fear for the consequences. Only when justice has been achieved can we feel that humanity and decency have been restored and we the people can be free of being murdered by those who claim to work in our name.”

“Those who claim to work in our name”–Sinn Fein/IRA–are reeling under the lash of the sisters’ righteous anger. In fact, the McCartney sisters have done what the Irish and British governments have repeatedly proven unable or unwilling to do, namely to face down Sinn Fein/IRA.

For almost the first time since 1998, Sinn Fein/IRA has forfeited the political initiative and claimed moral high ground. In their reactions to this latest crisis, the republicans appear to have lost the run of themselves, the apt Irish expression indicating disconnection from reality and self-exile to a parallel universe. In response to the Northern Bank heist, Sinn Fein predictably denied any involvement and characteristically began issuing threats. According to a February 3 IRA statement: “We do not intend to remain quiescent within this unacceptable and unstable situation. It has tried our patience to the limit.” In case anyone missed the point, “P. O’Neill” (the pseudonym under which all IRA statements are issued) added this reminder a few hours later: “Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation.”

In the McCartney case, however, Sinn Fein/IRA has desperately pursued the limited, modified hang-out route that proved notably unsuccessful for its authors in the Nixon administration. The automatic initial denial of responsibility for McCartney’s murder was followed shortly by the unprecedented expulsion of three IRA “volunteers” and six Sinn Fein “activists.” Two further statements from P. O’Neill culminated with the bizarre March 8 revelation “that the IRA was prepared to shoot the people directly involved in the killing of Robert McCartney,” an offer the McCartneys of course declined in a face-to-face meeting with IRA representatives.

“The IRA was prepared to shoot the people directly involved.” What could they possibly have been thinking? Why on earth were republicans publicizing this grotesque proposal to shoot their way out of the mess they made? Why confirm that they still presume to act as judge, jury, and executioner in their fascist state within a state? All are no doubt fair questions, but there is another message as well, one fully consistent with the ruthless internal logic of the republican movement. After the first IRA ceasefire (1994), Gerry Adams–in an uncharacteristic outburst of candor–famously said of his IRA comrades, “They haven’t gone away, you know.” A decade later, the message remains the same: We’re not going away, you know.

Not surprisingly, Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone” in Irish) now stands isolated and rightly reviled at home and abroad. (For extensive links to Irish and international press commentary, see the invaluable Newshound, an online clipping service.) As St. Patrick’s Day approaches and international interests peaks, Sinn Fein/IRA is increasingly donning its ill-fitting garments of victimhood. Gerry Adams has taken to dark mutterings about “witchhunts” in “these McCarthyite times”; and Martin McGuiness professes to discern an “enormous gap between the media–the establishment–and ordinary people on this issue”(i.e., Robert McCartney’s murder). Expect more of the same as Sinn Fein/IRA hunkers down in hopes of weathering the storm and resuming business as usual.

Two questions remain. What went wrong? And what is to be done?

Few Americans have the inclination or patience to reflect on the dismal state of affairs in Northern Ireland, especially at a time when our best and bravest are fighting and dying in Iraq, and the broader Middle East stands poised on the verge of democratic transformation. Northern Ireland’s plight may well engage our sympathies, but it does not in any way involve our national interests. Nonetheless, the two questions posed above may well suggest some lessons for U.S foreign policy at a time of unprecedented struggle to reconcile interests and ideals.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed of Jimmy Carter that being “unable to distinguish between our friends and our enemies, he has essentially adopted our enemies’ view of the world.” That in a nutshell is the besetting flaw of the British and Irish governments’ whole handling of the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation. Their error, which far exceeds granting moral equivalence to terrorists, was to treat Sinn Fein/IRA as the sole indispensable party throughout the peace process. “Sinn Fein holds the key to peace,” said Tony Blair. By appeasing the republicans at practically every turn, the two governments empowered the extremes at the expense of the moderates. The entirely predictable result was the political collapse of moderate nationalism and moderate unionism. Asked why his government repeatedly undercut the moderates, one party leader was reported advised by Tony Blair: “You have no guns.”

Indeed, this political–and moral–failure is clearest in the matter of guns. Every effort was made to avoid any hint of surrender and submission in the agreed handover of all paramilitary weapons to an international body. A deliberately neutral term–”decommissioning”–was applied to the process of “putting arms beyond use” in hopes of bypassing the ancient quarrel over who won and who lost, and who was right and who was wrong. Such decommissioning as has occurred (nobody knows how much) was even carried out in secret, under terms dictated by Sinn Fein/IRA and supinely accepted by the two governments.

But the single-minded focus on guns and bombs was too narrow. The real issue was not disarmament alone, but rather the root-and-branch demobilization of a lethal and disciplined force in being. It is no excuse that it is easier to quantify weapons than to verify that the paramilitaries are going away for good, you know. This is the classic error of the theology of arms control, with its obsessive focus on numbers and deliberate blindness to the character and intentions of adversaries (often carried to the point of denying that real adversaries in fact exist).

Worse yet was the blind eye turned to the pattern of republican violations of the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means, especially in the unlawful use of force and intimidation against ordinary citizens. As early as 1999, the senior British official in Northern Ireland flippantly dismissed so-called punishment beatings carried out by republican vigilantes as merely “internal housekeeping.” Such amorality inevitably institutionalized wholly unacceptable practices that the agreement was meant to eliminate.

This same amorality carried over into the post-agreement debate over policing a divided society. The agreement reflected a hard-won consensus that one community could not carry on policing the other, the old Royal Ulster Constabulary being 93 percent Protestant. In the ensuing debate, nearly every segment of Northern Irish society–except Sinn Fein/IRA–offered thoughtful, concrete and detailed proposals aimed at achieving the agreement’s goal of “a new beginning for policy in Northern Ireland with a police service that is capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole.”

The result was a painful but workable compromise that left no one entirely satisfied. Many nationalists felt the reforms did not go far enough, while many unionists saw the abandonment of the RUC name and symbols as slighting the sacrifice of some 300 police officers killed in the line of duty. But nearly all of Northern Irish society ultimately came to support the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, thanks in large measure to the success of religious groups in putting the disputed specifics into a larger moral perspective.

At a time when nationalist support of the new dispensation was uncertain, the Roman Catholic bishops of Northern Ireland made clear that “policing is a noble vocation in the service of the common good” and that “the time is now right for all those who sincerely want a police service that is fair, impartial and representative to grasp the opportunity.” Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh, the Irish Primate and leader of the Northern Catholic community, recently reiterated and updated that point explicitly in relation to relation to Robert McCartney’s murder:

The courage and determination of the McCartney family to ensure justice for their brother, Robert, has been an outstanding example of how the power of love–the love of another person, the love of noble ideals such as justice, fairness and freedom–can rise up and render transparent and weak the efforts of others to bully, frighten and control whole communities. It is time for Catholics to set aside their historic reservations about the police, and to assume full civic responsibility for an agreed and representative system of law and order.

On another recent occasion Archbishop Brady made the same point still more plainly:

No cause, no sense of alienation from the state, no warped moral logic can ever regard activities such as armed robbery, racketeering and maiming as anything other than gravely contrary to the common good and therefore criminal, sinful, and a constant threat to peace and justice.

Compare that moral clarity with the evasions whereby Sinn Fein/IRA has been allowed to hold hostage the new policing dispensation and to indulge its presumption to define criminality. “We know that breaking the law is a crime,” intoned Gerry Adams at the March 5 Sinn Fein annual meeting. “But we refuse to criminalize those who break the law in pursuit of legitimate political objectives.” Same story with the IRA itself. “Our leadership is working to create the conditions where the IRA ceases to exist,” said Adams in the same speech. “But I do not believe that the IRA can be wished away, or ridiculed or embarrassed or demonized or repressed out of existence.” Of course not; the proper conditions do not yet exist, and so on and on forever. This is nothing less than an Irish parody of St. Augustine’s famous prayer: Lord, make me law-abiding–but not yet.

The juxtaposition between Archbishop Brady’s forthright moral clarity and Gerry Adam’s pathetic moral evasions is meant to suggest the current crisis in Northern Ireland is not amenable to a purely political fix. The Good Friday Agreement’s celebrated “constructive ambiguities” stand revealed as rank hypocrisy; and the separation of politics from morality for the sake of expedience is nothing less than the denial of truth about the nature of things. Again, consider the judgment of Archbishop Brady:

What is certainly becoming clearer every day is that a fundamental shift is taking place in the peace process. The language of constructive ambiguity and moral murk has had its day. People want the real thing. They want transparency and accountability. They want prosperity and freedom. They want local power and effective law and order. They want actions, not words.

A period of sustained moral reflection is clearly in order.

Here the churches of Northern Ireland have a unique and vital role to play. This is a society that is (at least nominally) almost entirely Christian, one where church attendance rates remain among the highest in the world, and one where the language of faith resonates nearly everywhere. The role of the churches in the Troubles is a complex issue that is not well understood elsewhere, but a thoughtful and theologically literate unionist politician recently summed up part of the reality as follows:

Without the churches, for all their faults … the period of the Troubles would have been much worse. Although the ‘two communities’ are now highly segregated in terms of where they live, work or go to school, on the whole there is probably more civility between them than there would have been without the presence of the churches. The churches have been one of the factors that have prevented Northern Ireland from following the path of Kosovo or Bosnia.

While the contribution of the churches to this process of moral reflection is necessary, it is not sufficient. The hard men in both communities have proven notably immune to appeals by religious leaders. This is unfortunately true of the core of the republican movement, which is a kind of secular religion akin to Nazism with its own creed, code and cult. (This same core is also implacably hostile to the Catholic hierarchy for its unequivocal condemnation of the “armed struggle” as morally illegitimate by just-war standards.) But Irishmen in general have been raised hearing that none of us is without sin, and that conversion of heart necessarily precedes forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. These concepts form part of the fabric of daily life for believers and nonbelievers alike.

The current crisis offers the first opportunity for a new beginning since the late summer of 1998. That was when the general euphoria of the referenda approving the Good Friday Agreement was dashed by two dreadful sectarian atrocities: the firebombing murder of three young children and the Omagh bombing that killed 31. There arose at once a nearly universal moral consensus in favor of any principled institutional formula for healing Northern Ireland’s wounds. But the moment was let slip, leading to yet another round of political triviality and score-settling that has persisted until today. It was an unforgivable lapse measurable in wholly needless human suffering, like that of the McCartneys.

This may be Northern Ireland’s last chance, at least for a generation, to make hope and history rhyme.

The beginning of wisdom lies in acknowledging things as they are, beginning with the inseparability of the political, military, and criminal dimensions of the republican movement in its current incarnation. As it happens, some Italian lessons may be in order for an island becoming known as Sicily without sunshine. When the modern Mafia was taking shape in postwar Sicily, a minor local brigand on trial for murder famously called attention to the complex reality of an institution whose existence others flatly denied. This simple man, Gaspare Pisciotta, quite naturally resorted to Christian theology to define the Mafia in terms every Italian could grasp. Exasperated with smooth evasions, Pisciotta interrupted his trial and shouted: “We are all one body–brigands, police, Mafia–just like the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

What was true in Palermo in the 1950s remains true in Belfast today.

John F. Cullinan, who formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser for the U.S. Catholic bishops, worked extensively with Protestant and Catholic religious and political leaders on policing and human-rights issues at the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. These views are entirely his own.


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