Northern Ireland political crisis deepens as IRA denies robbery – ISN

DERRY — In its first official statement since the head of Northern Ireland’s police accused them of stealing £26.5 million (nearly €38 million) from a Belfast bank, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) last night denied that it took the money.

The denial comes amid a growing political crisis in Northern Ireland. The failure by Sinn Féin, the party linked to the IRA, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to forge a deal to restore the devolved government to Belfast has been compounded by the widespread belief that the IRA planned the heist, which is thought to be the largest in European history

Speaking at Westminster today, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy described the robbery as a violation of the 1998 peace agreement. On 7 January, Hugh Orde, the head of Northern Ireland’s police said he believed that the IRA had carried out the robbery. He was backed by the Irish and British governments, as well as the other political parties in Northern Ireland, including the nationalist Social, Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Sinn Féin rebutted Orde’s statement, citing a “securocrat” conspiracy to undermine the peace process. Sinn Féin leaders have received assurances from the IRA that it did not carry out the robbery. Last night was the first time that the IRA commented publicly.

The DUP has called for the governments to move on with a devolution plan without Sinn Féin – a move backed by the SDLP. However, any devolution plan excluding Sinn Féin would be difficult and dangerous to implement. Sinn Féin is the second largest party in Northern Ireland and attracts over 60 per cent of the nationalist vote. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Sinn Féin remains linked to the IRA – which would not take kindly to exclusion of their political wing from power-sharing in Belfast.

The nature of the Sinn Féin-IRA relationship has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of the robbery. Plans for the heist were underway while Sinn Féin was negotiating with parties and governments on securing a deal. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern believes that Sinn Féin knew about the planned raid while negotiations were taking place – and either agreed with it or could not prevent it.

This belief has spread across the Atlantic, where US President George Bush spoke to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams as the pre-Christmas political talks came to a climax. He is now considering denying Adams’ entry to the US and freezing Sinn Féin’s prolific fund-raising operation in a country where 70 million people claim Irish ancestry.

Any further marginalization of Sinn Féin could have serious ramifications for the IRA’s pledges to destroy its weaponry and commit to peace. However, with such a decline in political trust apparent, it is difficult to see a way out of the impasse anytime soon.

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 republican 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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