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Police blame IRA for bank heist

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, JAN. 8. The now-on-now-off Northern Ireland peace process is in free fall again after the police claimed that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was behind last month's 26.5-million bank robbery in Belfast, said to be the biggest heist in the U.K. in living memory.

`Exclude Sinn Fein'

The police claim prompted calls from Unionists of all hues to exclude the IRA's political wing, the Sinn Fein, from the talks currently being held to restore the Provincial Assembly and the Government. The local institutions were suspended more than two years ago following allegations that the IRA had been running a "spy ring'' in the Secretariat, and their restoration hinges on the IRA pledging to give up its arms and cease all "criminal'' activity.

Minutes after the Northern Ireland police chief, Hugh Orde, said at a press conference on Friday that "in my opinion, the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime'', leaders of both hardline and moderate Unionist parties ruled out any dealings with Sinn Fein, saying there was no question of sharing power with it until the IRA stopped its activities.

Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is the biggest Unionist group in the Assembly, said that the IRA's alleged role in the robbery had put the Republicans "outside the present political initiative''.

David Trimble of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party called for Sinn Fein to be banned from the Assembly.

Jolt to peace process

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, admitted that the police claim was "deeply damaging'' to the peace process, and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, who has been coordinating peace talks with his British counterpart, Tony Blair, said it was upsetting that "an operation of this magnitude was obviously being planned at a stage when I was in negotiations with those (Sinn Fein leaders) that would know the leadership of the Provisional (IRA) movement''. Both the IRA and Sinn Fein denied the allegation. Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, dismissed the police claim as politically motivated..

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