Ireland's justice minister launched a blistering attack on the Sinn Fein-IRA movement, accusing its leaders of lying repeatedly and deepening divisions within Northern Ireland.
Michael McDowell's 3,000-word statement Thursday sought to dissect decades of Irish Republican Army policy -- and explain why the IRA is lying now about robbing the Northern Bank in Belfast, the biggest cash theft in history.
Earlier Thursday, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a reputed IRA commander, repeated his denials of IRA involvement in the Dec. 20 robbery and criticized the Irish government for not believing him.
But McDowell said the IRA had had a lengthy track record of denying, then eventually admitting, responsibility for bombings and deadly robberies at politically sensitive moments. He quoted previous Adams denials that proved false, and said he was certain that senior Sinn Fein leaders also commanded the IRA -- and negotiated about ending IRA activity at the same time they were planning the latest, 26.5 million pound (US$50 million) robbery.
"Does any sane person believe that the IRA or Sinn Fein would now acknowledge that it had carried out the Northern Bank robbery?" McDowell said. "Sinn Fein and the IRA have lied repeatedly about criminality when it suited them."
Widespread acceptance that the IRA committed the raid has dealt serious damage to efforts to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration, the key goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998. Sinn Fein has grown in recent years to become the north's top Catholic-backed party.
But Protestant leaders increasingly argue that the IRA should have fully disarmed and disbanded by now as part of the deal. They are lobbying the governments of Britain and Ireland to back a new arrangement that would allow Protestants to share power instead with moderate Catholics from the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
In Belfast, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble -- a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led a previous power-sharing coalition that collapsed in 2002 -- said Sinn Fein and the IRA "only offer more process, not completion, and have repeatedly refused to reform themselves."
Trimble said Britain should not offer Sinn Fein "yet another `final' chance." Instead, he said, Britain and other parties should "draw a line under current experiments and go back to the basics of the [Good Friday] agreement."
The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair warned it planned to impose unspecified punishments on Sinn Fein if the IRA didn't come clean about the Northern Bank raid and promise to end all activities.
During past crises in Northern Ireland's peace process, Sinn Fein has been able to count on support from the Irish government -- but McDowell signaled this would no longer be the case. He said the IRA was still committing and threatening violence.