The chief constable of Northern Ireland Friday blamed the UK's biggest-ever bank robbery on the Irish republican paramilitary group the Provisional IRA, sending the already tortuous Northern Ireland peace process into a tailspin.
Hugh Orde said the US$50 million theft from Northern Bank in Belfast last month, in which the families of two bank workers were held hostage, was in his opinion the work of the IRA.
"This was a violent and brutal crime. It was not a Robin Hood effort," he said.
In Northern Ireland, banks print notes of their own design. As Northern Bank announced it would withdraw its notes from circulation and replace them with ones in different colors, in effect making the money useless, Orde said it was "the biggest theft of waste paper in the living history of Northern Ireland."
But although the bulk further US$7.5 million in other notes. No one has been arrested for the raid, on Dec. 20, and Orde said 45 detectives were working on the case.
Yesterday it seemed any hope of an imminent power-sharing agreement between unionists and Sinn Fein had been scuppered, with virtually no chance of restoring devolved government with the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein before the UK general election, or in the next six months.
Tony Blair will come under increased pressure to exclude Sinn Fein from any devolved government when he meets the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, next week.
Paisley said he had been "vindicated" in not taking the IRA "on trust alone" when negotiations for a power-sharing arrangement collapsed in December.
He asked why Sinn Fein continued to deny the involvement of the republican movement in the robbery -- the chief constable's revelations proved that "at the climax of the negotiations, Sinn Fein/IRA were involved in the planning of the crime of the century."
He asked: "Why did Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness allow the IRA to engage in the biggest bank robbery in British history? Their words no longer have any currency."
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said Orde had failed to produce a scrap of evidence for "nothing more than politically biased allegations." He said that within days of the robbery, following media speculation and police briefings suggesting IRA involvement, he had asked the IRA about the robbery.
"I was assured they were not involved," he said. "We are witnessing a renewed attempt to undermine the peace process. We need to think long and hard about who is setting the agenda and why."
London said political institutions could only be restored with a "complete end" to all paramilitary activity.
The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, said: "It is of concern to me more than anything that an operation of this magnitude was obviously being planned at a stage when I was in negotiations with those that would know the leadership of the Provisional movement."
Paul Murphy, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said the revelations were "deeply damaging" for the peace process and caused "enormous difficulties." But he added: "I do not think it is the end of the process. We have gone too far down the line for that."