Northern Ireland bank robbery blamed on IRA, heist could derail talks – ISN

DERRY — Politicians and the public in Ireland and the UK have spent the weekend coming to terms with accusations that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was responsible for a massive Belfast bank robbery on 20 December 2004.

Last Friday afternoon, Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), stated that he thought that “[…] the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction’.

Orde was speaking after meeting key members of Northern Ireland’s policing board. Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator for Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the IRA, reacted to Orde’s comments by telling press that the IRA had told him that the group had not conducted the robbery, and that Orde’s comments were part of a politically-motivated campaign to undermine Sinn Féin and the peace process.

Sinn Féin convened a weekend gathering of their executive in Dublin to assess the potential damage the allegations might do to the party.

These developments come just weeks after Northern Ireland’s politicians failed to agree on a deal brokered by the Irish and British governments to restore devolved government to Belfast – a key aspect of the 1998 peace agreement. That deal floundered on the failure of the two main parties – Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – to agree on the means  destroying IRA weapons and the proof. The IRA had agreed to destroy or hand over its arsenal, but the DUP wanted photographic evidence of this, which Sinn Féin regards as an attempt at humiliation.

According to British media reports, it appears that the IRA were in the final stages of planning Europe’s biggest-ever bank robbery even as these political negotiations were at their most delicate stage. In all, £26.5 million in bank notes were taken from Northern Bank’s headquarters just outside Belfast, in an operation involving about 20 people. The sophisticated nature of the robbery had immediately prompted speculation that one of the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland was responsible, possibly with insider help from bank staff.

Newspapers in Ireland and Britain reported that the Northern Bank plans to reprint and reissue all its banknotes within eight weeks. Orde said the bank’s decision to reprint about £300 million worth of bank notes made the robbery “the largest theft of wastepaper in living history,”  prompting speculation as to whether the IRA, if guilty of the robbery, had enough time to launder millions of pounds through its network of pubs and clubs and other methods.

In the aftermath of Friday’s allegations, DUP leader Reverend Ian Paisley has urged UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to proceed with creating a devolved government without Sinn Féin. Speaking on BBC TV on Sunday, Blair stated that paramilitary involvement in criminal activity would have to cease if there was to be any progress in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Meanwhile in Dublin, Irish PM Bertie Ahern spoke of his “disappointment” that the robbery was being planned while he was negotiating with Sinn Féin and others to try restore devolved government to Northern Ireland. If Orde’s allegations are proven true, then this represents a grave setback to the political process in Northern Ireland, which has moved slowly since the 1998 peace agreement that ended 30 years of civil conflict.

Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed, most of them civilians, as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans paramilitaries, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalist counterparts who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded into Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force and were regularly targeted by the IRA.

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