Ahern repeats IRA robbery claim

Irish police intelligence suggests that the IRA was responsible for last month's £26.5m bank robbery, the Taoiseach has insisted.

Bertie Ahern was speaking on Tuesday after his first face-to-face meeting with Gerry Adams since the chief constable blamed the IRA for the raid.

The IRA has denied involvement in the 20 December raid on the Northern Bank in Belfast.

Mr Ahern says he is standing by the Garda assessment.

"The Garda authorities which naturally I would look to in the first instance, their assessment is that this robbery was carried out by the provisional movement.

"It would not have taken place, an operation of the scale of this, without the agreement and sanction of the provisional leadership.

More than £26m was stolen from the Northern Bank

"That is advice I as taoiseach have to take."

However, Mr Ahern said he was opposed to sanctions against any party in the political process.

Speaking after the meeting, Gerry Adams said he had asked Mr Ahern to explain why he had claimed the Sinn Fein leadership must have had prior knowledge of the raid.

"We put it to the taoiseach that profound difficulties have been compounded by the accusation which he made, and we asked him to stand up that accusation and he could not stand up that accusation," he said.

"I also want to welcome other remarks that the taoiseach made where he said the government was opposed to sanctions, the government was opposed to exclusion, to demonising or criminalising or to in anyway excluding any section of people."

However, Mr Adams acknowledged that the process was "in profound difficulties".

Security briefings

The Irish Government said it had told Sinn Fein to go away and consider its position.

The SDLP and the Ulster Unionists also held talks with the taoiseach on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the BBC understands that the police have a list of suspected IRA figures whom they believe were involved in the bank robbery, names which have been included in security briefings given to government.

On Monday, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said he did not believe Mr Adams' denial about the Northern Bank raid.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is to hold talks with Mr Adams at Chequers on Thursday when Mr Blair is expected to reiterate demands for the IRA to cease all paramilitary and criminal activity.

Mr Blair is also due to hold talks next week with Mr Ahern and the SDLP.

Two days later, the prime minister will meet Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

Mr Blair also recently met Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley whose party has called for the removal of allowances and privileges at Westminster from Sinn Fein's four MPs.

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