Patrick Murphy: Should Saoradh members be denied banking services because of their political beliefs?

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Dissident political group Saoradh said the car was burned by 'republic activists'
Dissident political group Saoradh said the car was burned by 'republic activists'

What do you think of Nigel Farage? You would presumably say that he is a right-wing, pro-Brexit populist with whom you fundamentally disagree.

So, because of his views, should he be denied a bank account? NatWest bank thought so, but wrongly claimed it was for commercial reasons. The decision prompted government intervention, which led to the resignation of NatWest’s chief executive and the head of its private banking subsidiary, Coutts.

A man passes by the Coutts bank on the Strand, central London
A man passes by the Coutts bank on the Strand, central London

Meanwhile, on this side of the Irish Sea, Saoradh claims that six of its members have had their bank accounts closed in the past month. There has been no government intervention, no banking resignations and no comment from our political parties.

Saoradh (Liberation) describes itself as a revolutionary, republican socialist party, which advocates abstention from Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House, opposes EU membership and describes the police as occupying crown forces. Think of Sinn Féin in 1970 (without the socialism).

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The PSNI says the party is linked to the New IRA. Saoradh denies this and the rest of us just don’t know.

However, we do know that the New IRA killed journalist Lyra McKee in Derry in 2019.

The New IRA shot dead Lyra McKee in Derry in 2019
The New IRA shot dead Lyra McKee in Derry in 2019

So should Saoradh members (or some of them) be denied banking services because of their political beliefs? If they have links to the New IRA, there is a raft of criminal legislation to deal with them, or maybe we should return to the pre-civil rights days when political beliefs warranted indefinite internment?

In today’s increasingly cashless society it is almost impossible to function without a bank account. We need one to gain online entry to major GAA matches and using large amounts of cash to buy a car raises investigations about money laundering.

So denying access to banking services is a form of economic internment.

Banks do not keep information about their customers’ political beliefs. So we must assume that the PSNI decided to suspend the accounts. Did they ask, advise or instruct the bank to act?

Would someone on the PSNI Policing Board like to ask? Would any of the five main parties on the board like to comment? If not, can we assume their silence indicates support for withdrawing bank accounts for political reasons?

Following defeat in the Irish Civil War, many republicans were denied jobs and were forced to emigrate. (The anti-Treaty side were called “Irregulars”. Saoradh are called “dissidents”. When you control the vocabulary, you shape public opinion.)

Last week Sam Maguire’s name was on everyone’s lips. Following an active role in the War for Independence, he took the pro-Treaty side in the civil war.

However, expressing sympathies for the anti-Treaty side in the early years of the Free State led to his dismissal from the Irish civil service without a pension. (Being a Protestant probably did not help.) He died in poverty at the age of 48 in 1927.

Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage

Nearly a century later we are witnessing something similar. You do not have to agree with Saoradh to argue for equality of treatment and their right to freedom of speech. If we wish to deny them equality, where do we stop? Should we deny bank accounts to those protesting against the Pride march last week in Belfast?

Have members of loyalists paramilitaries had their accounts closed? If the police can close bank accounts for selective political reasons, have we returned to the days of political policing?

We might learn from a famous comment in post-war Germany: “First they came for the communists and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist." It goes on to describe how, at intervals, they came for socialists, trade unionists and Jews, but the writer did not speak out, because he was none of them. “Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

In Britain, the Tory government spoke out about Farage. So far no one has spoken out here. Why not?