- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

A spectacular bank robbery in Belfast last month, in which thieves netted nearly $50 million, has cast a pall on Northern Ireland peace negotiations and thrown Catholic-Protestant political relations in Northern Ireland into a tailspin.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has accused Irish Republican leadership of knowing about the robbery before it took place. The charge puts the Catholic Republican politician on the side of the British government and against his fellow Irish nationalist, and could lead to prosecution of Irish Republican leadership by the police on conspiracy charges.

The British government has said that it won’t act against the Irish Republican leaders, which includes Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams, unless it has the agreement of Mr. Ahern’s government.

After the Dec. 20 record heist, which carried the IRA signature of detailed planning and brutality, speculation was rampant that a paramilitary group was involved. Last week, this was confirmed by the police.

“In my opinion the Provisional IRA is responsible. My assessment may have wider political implications, but that’s a matter for the politicians, not the police,” said Hugh Orde, chief constable of Northern Ireland.

The Irish Republican Army has a long history of supporting its underground military activities with bank robberies. But as part of the ongoing peace process, the IRA and Sinn Fein have refrained from such illegal activities. Sinn Fein, a political party linked to the IRA, has denied any knowledge of Irish Republican involvement in the heist.

“I can’t understand this robbery and its timing,” said Irish parliament member Ollie Wilkinson. “It’s an extraordinary development. How did the leadership of the peace process allow this announcement to be made without providing evidence?”

But Mr. Ahern’s Irish government refused to back Sinn Fein this time, a move almost unprecedented in Irish history. The Irish prime minister went further than the British authorities and accused the leadership of Sinn Fein of knowing about the robbery before it took place.

“I was in negotiations with senior Republican leaders whilst their associates were planning to rob a bank,” said Mr. Ahern, who later refused to withdraw the allegation of conspiracy.

Mr. Wilkinson, a member of Mr. Ahern’s party and a staunch supporter of his leader, is cautious of Mr. Ahern’s stance.

“I was very surprised by his comments. Personally, I would not have taken the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s word for it. Not while they are connected to the British,” said Mr. Wilkinson. “But I understand that Mr. Ahern has had further information from the Gardai [Irish police], and he made his comments in the light of this information.”

The British government is resisting calls from the opposition Protestant Unionist parties for sanctions to be imposed on Sinn Fein.

The British authorities said they will do nothing without the agreement of the Irish government. At this point, no one knows which way the Irish government will go. Privately, it is said that Mr. Ahern is furious at what he sees as a stab in the back from the IRA.

But Unionists continue to demand that Sinn Fein be excluded from the peace process and call on the police to arrest their leaders. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was a regular visitor to the White House during President Clinton’s administration, and usually attends the speaker’s dinner in Washington for St. Patrick’s Day. Should Mr. Ahern give the go-ahead, his arrest would be a major reversal in Republican political fortunes and would send the peace process into reverse.

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