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Sinn Féin leaders were holding an emergency meeting today after the IRA was publicly blamed for the £26.5m (€38m) Northern Bank robbery.
Members of the republican party’s national executive will gather in Dublin amid a deepening political crisis following Chief Constable Hugh Orde’s assessment.
SF leader Martin McGuinness was left seething by the declaration, challenging Mr Orde to produce any evidence to back his claim.
But with unionists demanding that British Prime Minister Tony Blair ban republicans from any future devolved administration, hopes of any short term peace deal in Ulster seem dashed.
Despite the denials over the Christmas week raid on the bank’s Belfast headquarters, ministers in London and Dublin have conceded there is virtually no chance of power-sharing returning in the next six months.
Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy said in New York: “I think it is unlikely that we will be able to get a resolution along the lines of what we agreed back before Christmas.
“I do not think that it is realistic between now and the election.
“I do not think it is the end of the process, I don’t think for one second that is the case. We have gone too far down the line for that.”
At a news conference by Mr Orde in Belfast yesterday it was announced the Northern Bank would recall £300m (€430m) worth of its bank notes to minimise its losses and restore public confidence.
The Chief Constable, who briefed senior members of Northern Ireland’s Policing Board, said he had come to the view that the IRA was responsible for the raid on the evidence unearthed by his investigators.
The robbery was “violent and brutal… not some Robin Hood effort,” said Mr Orde.
“On the basis of the investigative work we have done to date – evidence we have collected and exhibits we have collected – in my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction".
Last month Mr Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern believed they had come close to achieving a comprehensive agreement to revive power sharing at Stormont and end paramilitarism forever.
During those talks, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin were considering going into a power-sharing executive.
But the deal collapsed after the IRA rejected DUP demands for photographic evidence of weapons decommissioning.
Mr Orde’s statement means the IRA was planning last month’s bank heist while Sinn Féin negotiators were discussing with Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern an end of physical force republicanism.
The Provisionals would also have been planning the raid while Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and party negotiators met Mr Orde in two ground-breaking Downing Street meetings.
Democratic Unionist leader the Rev Ian Paisley, who will press for republicans’ exclusion from the process when he meets Mr Blair next week, asked: “Why should the return of local, accountable devolution be delayed because of the actions of Sinn Féin/IRA?
“Both the Government and the SDLP are aware that we have offered the alternative of the immediate formation of a voluntary coalition consisting of the representatives of democratic parties.
“It is now up to both Tony Blair and (nationalist SDLP leader) Mark Durkan to take up our challenge and allow the people of Northern Ireland to have good government free from the taint of terror and criminality.”
Mr McGuinness has denied the IRA was involved in the robbery, which saw the families of two bank staff held hostage while the underground vaults were looted.
“He (Mr Orde) has not produced one scrap of evidence,” the Mid Ulster MP insisted.
Belfast -- Police in Northern Ireland blamed last month's $50 million bank robbery here on the outlawed Irish Republican Army on Friday, a development that is certain to derail peacemaking efforts in the British province.
Chief Constable Hugh Orde told a news conference that detectives investigating the Dec. 20 heist -- in which teams of robbers held the families of two Northern Bank employees hostage and forced the workers to cooperate with the theft -- were confident that IRA members had planned and carried out the biggest all-cash robbery in history.
Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, the Catholic political party allied with the IRA, rejected the charges as "nothing more than politically biased allegations" and said a senior IRA official had assured him the organization had not been involved in the robbery.
"This is more to do with halting the process of change which Sinn Fein has been driving forward than with anything that happened at the Northern Bank, " McGuinness said.
Protestant leaders, however, said Orde's statement would harden their opposition to attempts by the British and Irish governments, backed by the United States, to forge a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland between themselves and Sinn Fein.
"Bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold has been an abysmal failure," said Protestant hard-liner Ian Paisley Jr. "This crime of the century proves that. Now, we move on without them."
No arrests have been made, and Orde refused to discuss the evidence that led to his conclusions. A senior police official later said the robbery fit the method of operation of previous IRA crimes and that intelligence and other information gathered since the heist confirmed the IRA's involvement.
Orde also refused to comment on whether McGuinness and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had approved the robbery. In the past, police officials have insisted that Adams and McGuinness, who have been at the forefront of the peace process for the past decade, are effectively in charge of both the party and the IRA.
The IRA declared a cease-fire in 1997, and the number of killings fell to four in 2004, the quietest year since sectarian conflict erupted in 1969. Police contend that IRA leaders have made clear the truce applies to what they define as sectarian violence and does not include other activities.