**If you are republican, you are guilty until found innocent, and guilty even AFTER you are found innocent.

Ahern stands by claims on SF knowledge of bank raid

25/01/2005 - 18:47:12

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stood by his allegations that Sinn Féin leaders knew the IRA was planning Britain’s biggest ever bank robbery tonight even though republican chiefs insisted he could not substantiate his claims.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said Mr Ahern had only made difficulties in the Northern Ireland peace process worse by making claims he could not back up after a showdown meeting in Dublin – their first since the raid.

“We asked him to stand up those accusations and he could not stand them up,” Mr Adams said.

“There can be no intelligence or no evidence because we simply didn’t have any knowledge.”

But Mr Ahern said he stood by his earlier claims after the bruising two-hour meeting.

“We had made it clear in the government that this meeting wasn’t going to be about sharing intelligence or about giving explanations,” he said.

“We repeated that in the meeting and repeated it again after the meeting.”

Justice Minister Michael McDowell and Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern backed the Taoiseach’s view and warned Sinn Féin to consider their position in the wake of the £26.5m (€37.4m) Northern Bank raid in Belfast.

The men said the Government had not ruled out political sanctions against republicans following the December heist.

Mr McDowell said: “Sinn Féin in victim mode isn’t helpful to the process. This was not a meeting for intelligence or information to be shared with them.

“We made it clear that they would have to go away and consider their position, as long as it takes.”

Mr Ahern added: “There may well be consequences for them in the next Independent Monitoring Commission report.”

Mr McDowell said Garda intelligence had confirmed the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s view that the IRA were behind the robbery. He also said the organisation’s leadership must have been aware of the plans.

“An Garda Siochana has clearly stated and briefed me that in their professional assessment of the present situation.

“Firstly the Northern Bank robbery was carried out by the IRA. And secondly that the nature and skill of the operation was such that the carrying out of that operation must have had sanction and approval by the leadership of the Provisional movement.”

He added: “There is no mandate for Sinn Féin to pursue a political path with violence.”

Mr Adams refused to speculate on who carried out the heist after the explosive meeting but claimed the truth will out.

He also said the Taoiseach had assured him the Government was not in favour of excluding his party despite calls from unionists to push on with powersharing without Sinn Féin.

“He (Bertie Ahern) sought to assure us and he said a number of times in the course of the meeting, and I took a note of it, that the Government is against exclusion, is against trying to criminalise, demonise any party and is against sanctions,” he said.

Sinn Féin leaders are to travel to London on Thursday to meet Prime Minister Tony Blair – their first face-to-face talks since the raid.

Last month Mr Ahern and Mr Blair believed they had come agonisingly close to achieving a comprehensive deal to revive the Stormont Assembly and end paramilitarism forever.

During talks, the DUP and Sinn Féin – traditionally sworn enemies – were considering going into a power-sharing executive.

But the deal collapsed after the IRA rejected DUP demands for photographic evidence of weapons decommissioning.

The IRA also failed to give an undertaking that all criminality would come to an end.

On December 20, hopes of a lasting settlement were shattered after a gang masterminded one of the biggest heists ever, stealing £26.5m (€37.4m) from the Northern Bank in Belfast.

Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Hugh Orde blamed the IRA for the theft, a move which was backed in London and Dublin, but denied by the republican movement.

The nationalist SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party also travelled to Dublin today to hold talks with Mr Ahern.

Ulster Unionist negotiator Sir Reg Empey said the Northern Bank robbery was the straw that broke the camel’s back and urged the British and Irish Governments to impose sanctions on Sinn Féin.

“You cannot do business with the political wing while its paramilitary wing is still in operation,” he said.

“If they (both governments) do nothing they punish the democrats and the elected Assembly on this island will be effectively destroyed because of bank robbers.”

Party leader David Trimble said there was no question of the old game continuing as he entered Government Buildings.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan said Mr Ahern made it clear during their meeting that he continued to believe the IRA had carried out the robbery, a belief confirmed by Irish intelligence.

Mr Durkan also called for the British and Irish Governments to take action to move the process forward when Mr Ahern and Mr Blair hold talks at the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary body meeting on February 1.

“The two governments have to act in the current situation and exercise good authority,” he said.
“Drift and stalemate isn’t an option.”

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