Crisis as IRA vows to keep weapons

Key points

• IRA withdraws offer to disarm after being accused of Belfast bank robbery

• Blair and Ahern defiant that Northern Bank raid was down to the group

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• No threat of return to violence but say they will protect republicans' rights

Key quote

"The IRA statement is obviously a direct consequence of the retrograde stance of the two governments. It is evidence of a deepening crisis and I regret that very much." - Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams.

Story in full THE Northern Ireland peace process was plunged back into crisis last night after the IRA issued a dramatic statement withdrawing its offer to disarm.

The paramilitary group said that its patience had been tested "to the limit" by accusations that it was responsible for the 26.5 million heist on the vaults of the Northern Bank in Belfast seven weeks ago.

But 10 Downing Street said the IRA was indeed responsible for the bank raid - and, through its intransigence, had become the sole obstacle to its aim of restoring devolution to Northern Ireland.

In its statement last night, the IRA said it bitterly resented Mr Blair’s claim - made jointly with Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach - that the Ulster Unionists had fulfilled expectations and that the IRA was now to blame for the failure of the peace talks.

It angrily accused the British and Irish governments of withdrawing their commitments and obligations - and, although not threatening a return to violence, said it was no longer able to offer to put arms "verifiably" beyond use.

Mr Blair met Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader last week and made it clear he has no doubt that the IRA was responsible for the bank raid - and that he would not tolerate criminality.

10 Downing Street defiantly repeated this last night. "The fact remains that it was the IRA that did carry out the Northern Bank robbery," said a spokesman for Mr Blair.

Mr Adams, who has never admitted his widely-known status as a member of the IRA ruling Army Council, said that London and Dublin are to be blamed for the setback.

"The IRA statement is obviously a direct consequence of the retrograde stance of the two governments," he said. "It is evidence of a deepening crisis and I regret that very much."

Mr Blair is understood to have been expecting the IRA statement - on the ground that Mr Adams will need to retrench his position, and assess the damage done by the bank raid.

The British and Irish governments are understood to have intelligence reports proving beyond doubt that the IRA was responsible for the Northern Bank heist on 20 December - carried out days after talks broke down last December.

This has led both Mr Blair and Mr Ahern to harden their positions on the IRA. Both made this point after an hour of talks on Tuesday evening, and have taken pains to stress they are united in condemning the paramilitaries.

All sides were on the cusp of a breakthrough in December, but talks collapsed after the IRA said that its offer to produce "verifiable" evidence of disarmament would not extend to producing photographs.

Such a provision, it said, would be a "humiliation". Ulster Unionists said they would refuse to share power in the devolved Stormont assembly without such proof, and the talks collapsed.

British officials suspect the Northern Bank raid was intended by the IRA as a reminder of its credentials as a force to be reckoned with, even after its 1994 ceasefire.

This tactic, they believe, has backfired badly - leaving the IRA out in the cold and forfeiting the diplomatic progress it had made over the course of the last year.

For its part, Sinn Fein has focused on allegations of involvement in a raid on UK special branch officers in Belfast and the operation of a spy ring inside government buildings at Stormont to say that the British government has violated the spirit of the peace process.

Meanwhile, Mr Ahern has been forthright in saying that Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness, his deputy, were well aware of the planning of the Belfast raid and other robberies.

The Taoiseach said he was convinced of their complicity in the crime after being briefed by Dublin and Belfast police chiefs when he held talks with Mr Blair in London.

"They believed that a number of operations that took place during 2004 - not just the Northern Bank robbery - were the work of the IRA, had sanction from the Army Council and would have been known to the political leadership of the IRA," he said.

"There is no doubt that the planning and operation of these issues was going on last year and obviously we were in negotiations then."

The statement last night signalled a significant hardening of IRA resistance to the criticism which has been lead by Mr Ahern, his justice minister, Michael McDowell, and unionists in Northern Ireland.

The Irish Government refused any official comment on the IRA statement. A Government spokesman would say only: "Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has made his position clear on the matter."

The Northern Bank raid has shattered hopes in London and Dublin that efforts last year to restore power sharing at Stormont - involving unionists, republicans and nationalists - could bear fruit early this year.

DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley said the IRA statement would be treated with contempt by all right thinking people.

"Not for the first time, the IRA has withdrawn its cooperation on decommissioning. This will be another attempt to bargain with the Government in order to take the pressure of them."

Senior Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey called on both governments to make progress without republicans.

"It is now eight years since Republicans agreed to commit to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The people of Northern Ireland are still waiting for them to do so.

"The IRA are attempting to throw down the gauntlet to both governments with this statement."

How Provisionals said they were taking all proposals off the table

"THE political institutions have been suspended for years now, and there is a political impasse.

At this time it appears that the two governments are intent on changing the basis of the peace process. They claim that ‘the obstacle now to a lasting and durable settlement ... is the continuing paramilitary and criminal activity of the IRA’.

We reject this. It also belies the fact that a possible agreement last December was squandered by both governments pandering to rejectionist unionism, instead of upholding their own commitments and honouring their own obligations.

We do not intend to remain quiescent within this unacceptable and unstable situation. It has tried our patience to the limit. Consequently, on reassessment of our position and in response to the governments and others withdrawing their commitments:

We are taking all our proposals off the table.

It is our intention to closely monitor ongoing developments and to protect to the best of our ability the rights of republicans and our support base.

The IRA has demonstrated our commitment to the peace process again and again. We want it to succeed.

We have played a key role in achieving the progress achieved so far. We are prepared, as part of a genuine and collective effort, to do so again, if and when the conditions are created for this.

But peace cannot be built on ultimatums, false and malicious accusations or bad faith. Progress will not be sustained by the reinstatement of Thatcherite criminalisation strategies, which our ten comrades died defeating on hunger strike in 1981."

Despite the bluster, statement reveals a weakened force



IT TOOK years of ceasefire for Gerry Adams to make it to the guest list at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country residence - a symbol of the negotiating power which the Sinn Fein leader coveted.

But his visit last Friday was less cordial. The IRA had pulled off the biggest bank raid in British history: Tony Blair made clear he was not going to tolerate criminality, or pretend Mr Adams did not know about the raid.

On Tuesday, after only an hour of talks in Downing Street, Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, delivered a joint verdict: the IRA alone is to blame for the failure of the peace process.

Both men agreed that the Ulster Unionists had made every concession expected of them last Christmas, when they were all within a hair’s breadth of agreement after the IRA agreed to put its weapons "verifiably beyond use".

But the IRA refused photographic proof, and talks broke down. Then the 26.5 million bank raid happened. And from that moment Mr Adams and Sinn Fein have been rapidly losing bargaining power.

Hugh Orde, the head of the Northern Ireland police service, blames the IRA for the raid. Intelligence reports in London and Dublin prove it beyond doubt for either Mr Blair or the Taoiseach.

The IRA felt it was being pushed back to criminality status - so last night, it hit back in the best way it could.

But the statement pointed to much more, including a schism within the ranks of the IRA - between those who believe it should have robbed the bank and those who consider it an error.

"Progress will not be sustained by the reinstatement of Thatcherite criminalisation strategies, which our ten comrades died defeating on hunger strike in 1981," it said. This is a reference to Mr Blair and Mr Ahern treating them as bank robbers, without having produced proof. Then: "We will not betray the courage of the hunger strikers either, by tolerating criminality within our own ranks".

This may well be a message to the IRA, it could be a swipe at Mr Ahern - who recently said that the IRA army council could start and stop punishment beatings at any time.

It may have Mr Ahern in mind when it refers to "petty politicians motivated by selfish interests, instead of the national need for a successful conclusion to the peace process". It clearly means pro-Dublin forces.

The IRA doesn’t do bombs any more. The bank robbery may well have been the equivalent: an audacious statement of its power, and a reminder that it is a force to be reckoned with. If this was the logic, then it has gone badly wrong. Instead of making itself feared, the IRA has felt itself being pushed back into the untouchable status it was confined to under the Conservative government.

Painfully aware of this status, its statement last night was the noise of the IRA taking stock of its new, weakened position. With Mr Blair and Mr Ahern speaking with the same voice - and neither blaming the Ulster unionists - the IRA has little choice but to crawl back to the negotiating table.