Police in Northern Ireland say the Irish Republican Army committed a $50 million bank robbery in Belfast last month. The announcement has cast new clouds over Northern Ireland's peace process.
The chief constable of the Northern Ireland police service, Hugh Orde, made the announcement at a Belfast news conference.
"On the basis of the investigative work we have done to date, the evidence we have collected, the information we have collected, the exhibits we have collected, and bringing that all together and working through it, is that in my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction," said Mr. Orde.
Mr. Orde denies any political motivation behind his announcement, but says the speculation about which group had committed the December 20 robbery had been hampering the investigation.
"There is no political bias in my organization in terms of how we investigate this crime. We are following leads,” he said. “It's as simple as that."
There has been a sharp reaction from Northern Ireland's biggest pro-British political organization, the Democratic Unionist Party. Ian Paisley, Jr., whose father leads the DUP, says his party will have nothing more to do with the IRA's political wing, the Sinn Fein.
"Sinn Fein are not sincere about peace,” said Mr. Paisley. “They are not sincere about a political process. They are not sincere about a way forward. They want their crime and they want to be able to go into politics. Well, they can't have both. It's over for them. And I believe that the process is now over for Sinn Fein and we must move on without them."
Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, denies the IRA robbed the bank. He accuses Northern Irish authorities of trying to demonize the Irish republican movement, which wants to end British rule over the province. "Sinn Fein has a substantial electoral mandate achieved at the ballot box, and we will resist any attempt to marginalize or criminalize our party," he said.
The DUP and Sinn Fein came close to a deal last month to set up a power-sharing government and revive local rule in Northern Ireland, which has been suspended since 2002. Negotiations collapsed over a DUP demand that photos be published of the destruction of the IRA's last cache of weapons.
Political observers see little hope of renewed political dialogue now. "It's going to make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, in the foreseeable future for unionists to be able to say, 'We will go into government with Sinn Fein,'” said Jonathan Moore, who lectures on Irish politics at London Metropolitan University. “And if Sinn Fein is not in government, in practical terms there can be no devolution [of power] to Northern Ireland."
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair says the prime minister is taking the IRA's alleged involvement in the bank robbery very seriously. He points out the prime minister has insisted that paramilitary groups must end all criminal activities.
In a move intended to thwart the robbers, the Northern Bank of Belfast says it will withdraw 300 million pounds of bank notes it has in circulation and replace them with new currency in different colors. Police say that will make the stolen money worthless.