BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 8 December 2005, 18:21 GMT
Stormont conspiracy theories continue
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

It led to the collapse of the NI executive - but hardly anyone was at Stormont when perhaps the most dramatic day of the 1998 assembly's brief history unfolded.

The police officers who arrived found it was practically deserted on the morning of 4 October, 2002.

Police raided Sinn Fein offices at Stormont
Police raided Sinn Fein offices at Stormont

Typical of most Fridays, most assembly members were in their constituency. What was not typical was the line of PSNI Land Rovers heading up Prince of Wales Avenue.

One minister who was on hand to witness this was Dermot Nesbitt, who as environment minister, was having his photograph taken on the steps of Parliament Buildings.

Curious about the police presence, he despatched his aide, Stephen Barr, to find out what was going on.

"It was basically my last act as adviser," said Barr, who gleaned that the police were at Stormont to raid Sinn Fein's offices.

Soon, Stormont was flooded with reporters, cameras and the curious.

There were almost comical scenes as Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, and the party's health minister, Bairbre de Brun, arrived to hold an impromptu news conference.

Sinn Fein argued "Stormontgate" was designed to get unionism off the hook and escape the blame for the impending collapse

At one point, Mr Kelly crushed into a lift with reporters and when the lift stalled, an excited voice suggested the power had been cut.

It was the first of many conspiracy theories that have flourished since that day - and will no doubt continue despite the charges being dropped against the three accused.

Sinn Fein has always claimed that "Stormontgate", as it became known, was the work of police Special Branch and other so-called "securocrats" determined to undermine the peace process.

'Watergate'

The party rejected republican involvement in spying allegations - and any claims that the IRA was behind the break-in on 17 March 2002 at Castlereagh police station in east Belfast.

That allegation was among the events which were undermining confidence in the political process and the executive - prompting Ulster Unionists to vow to pull out of power-sharing by January 2003 if the IRA's ongoing activity and weapons decommissioning were not addressed.

Sir Reg Empey spoke of "this seething resentment"
Sir Reg Empey spoke of "this seething resentment"

Sinn Fein argued "Stormontgate" was designed to get unionism off the hook and escape the blame for the impending collapse.

"Spooks, spies and Special Branch" was how the newspaper Republican News put it - alleging a witch-hunt against Catholic civil servants.

Unionists, however, were convinced that both Castlereagh and "Stormontgate" were the work of the IRA - and David Trimble referred to political conspiracy by republicans of massive proportions on the scale of the infamous US scandal, Watergate.

Mr Trimble, in the wake of the Stormont raid, gave Prime Minister Tony Blair one week to act and to exclude Sinn Fein or he would pull the plug - "the nuclear option", as he put it.

Mr Blair met the SDLP deputy first minister and party leader, Mark Durkan. He wanted to sound out the position of the party leader - and to know if Mr Durkan would be prepared to join with the Ulster Unionists to exclude Sinn Fein from the executive.

On the unionist side, suspicion of republican intentions soared and trust, which was already thin, evaporated

In a bizarre conversation, Mr Durkan asked the prime minister directly if he was going to put the motion before the assembly.

"I asked you first," was how Blair responded - according to Durkan.

He told Blair it was not on when the prime minister not only refused to put the motion himself, but refused to say what evidence there was as a basis for exclusion.

Now that the case against the three accused has collapsed, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence. But questions persist about the manner in which the case was handled.

A statement from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, while reflecting the innocence of the accused, goes on to claim the IRA was involved in spying.

David Trimble referred to political conspiracy by republicans
David Trimble referred to political conspiracy by republicans

What is clear is that "Stormontgate" killed the executive, undermined faith in the political process and poisoned the political process: nationalist suspicion of the police escalated - indeed the SDLP faced some pressure from within the ranks to withdraw from the Policing Board.

On the unionist side, suspicion of republican intentions soared and trust, which was already thin, evaporated.

Amid all the fallout, and the fog of suspicion, there is no mistaking the stillness that is Stormont, still frozen in time - with no devolution.

When it did end in October 2002 - with the stroke of a pen - there were no street demonstrations, no rows at the executive table, just, in the words of the then enterprise minister Sir Reg Empey, "this seething resentment".

SEE ALSO
'Solidarity' over church clean up
12 Aug 05 |  Northern Ireland
Murdered boy was 'shining beacon'
12 Aug 05 |  Northern Ireland
Crowds state revulsion at attack
11 Aug 05 |  Northern Ireland



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific