- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

LONDON — The fallout from one of the most spectacular bank robberies in Britain’s history has brought the Northern Ireland peace process to a halt and thrown the Irish republican movement in the province into acrimonious turmoil.

Accusations by police in London and Dublin that the Dec. 20 heist at Belfast’s Northern Bank that netted the bandits more than $50 million was pulled off by the Provisional Irish Republican Army has focused the public spotlight on the IRA as never before.

In Belfast, John Grieve of the Independent Monitoring Commission told reporters on Feb. 10 that Sinn Fein, one of the key players in the stalled Northern Ireland peace negotiations, was behind the Northern Bank robbery — the biggest in British criminal history.

Sinn Fein is generally described as the political wing of the IRA, and has steadfastly sought to distance itself from IRA bombings, killings, robberies and beatings, but now Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell has called it a “colossal crime machine.”

It was Mr. McDowell, with the almost certain acquiescence of his boss, Ireland’s Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who stunned politicians and veteran Ulster experts by naming Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and his de facto deputy leader, Martin McGuinness, as full-fledged members of the IRA’s council.

The claim, which implies their complicity in — or at least advance knowledge of — the Belfast bank holdup, is seen as a shocker for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who welcomed Sinn Fein into the negotiations aimed at restoring peace in Northern Ireland on the basis of the so-called Good Friday agreement nearly seven years ago.

No less embarrassed could be the United States, where Mr. Adams has been a White House guest of both President Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Mr. Adams already is planning another U.S. trip, a multicity tour during the St. Patrick’s Day period next month.

A major shift that could help sway American opinion has come in Dublin, where Mr. Ahern’s government, once a staunch proponent of the Northern Ireland peace process, now appears to regard both Sinn Fein and the IRA as threats to their own existence.

Mr. Ahern “believes that Gerry Adams … stabbed him in the back,” reported the Times of London, “and Adams is now paying the price for his duplicity.”

Veteran analyst and journalist Stephen Glover said “mainstream Irish politicians believe [the Sinn Fein-IRA combination] is in the process of trying to destabilize the elected government in Dublin, and that it is using money gained from various illegal scams to further its aims.”

Another analyst said: “There is a real risk that Mr. Adams’ party will hold the balance of power in the Dail [Ireland’s parliament] after the next election in the republic.”

The furor caused by the Northern Bank robbery caught both Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA off guard. Mr. Adams and his deputy, Mr. McGuinness, have flatly denied the Dublin defense minister’s accusation that they are IRA command members.

“It’s not true,” Mr. McGuinness said. “I reject it completely. What he has alleged is totally and utterly false. I’m not a member of the IRA. I’m not a member of the IRA army council.”

He and Mr. Adams issued a joint statement, insisting that, “We are not members of the IRA or its army council. Our involvement in the peace process is as leaders of Sinn Fein and as elected representatives…. As part of this, we have met with the army council to put propositions regarding the peace process.”

The denials have met widespread disbelief, not least because both are confessed former IRA men.

“I was a member of the IRA many years ago,” said Mr. McGuinness, who previously admitted he was the paramilitary organization’s commander in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in the 1970s.

Sinn Fein, the two insist, “is totally committed to the peace process and to engaging with the Irish government in these difficult times to find a way forward.”

But what has become clear is that the Irish government is more than a little fed up — and that, coupled with similar disenchantment in Britain, means the Northern Ireland peace process is derailed, with no signs that it will get back on track anytime soon.

If anything, matters are getting worse. Mr. Blair’s government in London wants to abolish the $950,000 worth of parliamentary allowances that the four Sinn Fein members of the British Parliament currently receive. That is expected to happen Tuesday, when Parliament votes on the issue.

It was as a concession to Sinn Fein to try to keep the Irish republicans onside in the Northern Ireland peace negotiations that the British Parliament agreed four years ago to give the four Sinn Fein members the same access to office and travel allowances as other members of Parliament.

Even at the time, it was a controversial step because the Sinn Fein four remained adamant in refusing to take their seats in Parliament and refusing to swear allegiance to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

It was Mr. Blair’s secretary for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, who delivered the message: The government wants the allowances cut because it “agreed entirely” on the purported links between Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, and that Sinn Fein must “bear its share of the responsibility” for the Northern Bank holdup.

Still more embarrassment has surfaced with press reports quoting British intelligence sources that the IRA has used Sinn Fein’s headquarters in Northern Ireland to hold high-level meetings for planning terrorist operations and the finances for them.

The same headquarters has been used by Mr. Adams to host international peacemakers ranging from U.S. congressmen to the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu.

In London, the Times quoted one senior source as saying that at meetings in the Belfast headquarters, prominent IRA figures assembled to discuss “everything from forthcoming operations to who was moving to what position.”

The bottom line is that these are tough times for Sinn Fein and the IRA. However, London and Dublin have stopped short of completely breaking contact. For the British government, Mr. Murphy, Britain’s minister for Northern Ireland, insisted that dialogue must continue if ever an “inclusive power-sharing executive” it to be built in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ahern echoed that sentiment, saying: “I welcome what Paul Murphy said. The British clearly believe that inclusive means is the only way — and isolationism is not the way.”

Nor is there any clear indication that the IRA, in reaction, will resume the bombings and killings that were its tactics in years gone by.

“They [the IRA] have everything to lose and nothing to gain by going back down that old road again,” one security expert said.

But former Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds warned that the ongoing waves of accusations and recriminations mean the current situation remains “very, very dangerous.”

What is needed, he said, is for the Sinn Fein leadership to “make a big move forward to convince everybody that they are for real in relation to the process and that they always were.”

And a good step for the IRA, he added, would be to once and for all “decommission” its weapons and disband.

But there seems little, if any, hope for that in the foreseeable future.

As newspaper analyst Mr. Glover put it, the men that Mr. Blair has been dealing with over Northern Ireland “are the leading lights of a former terrorist organization that … has not renounced violence.”

One wrong turn, he and other experts warn, and the IRA could return to its old, violent ways with the potential for destroying any hopes of a lasting peace in the dispute over Northern Ireland for perhaps decades to come.

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