IRA threat triggers war fears

Harry McGee, Political Editor

THE IRA last night made a veiled threat to return to war with an ominous statement warning the Irish and British Governments: “Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation.”

In what was described as a deeply sinister development for the unravelling peace process, the two-line statement accused the governments of playing down the importance of the statement issued the previous night, where the IRA said its offer to decommission all its weapons was off the table.

It also allegedly both Governments were "making a mess of the peace process".

The statement was issued to RTÉ just before 6pm last night. Although not appended with the usual P O'Neill signature, it came through established IRA channels.

The only public response from the Government was made by Finance Minister Brian Cowen who said the Government fully understood the seriousness of the situation. "I do not know what (the statement) means. The signatories of these statements are not amenable to any form of democratic accountability."

However, reliable Government sources last night said the statement was worrying as it was as close as the IRA have come to threatening a return to violence and could signal a dangerous change in dynamic.

The sources did not dismiss the possibility that the IRA was merely reasserting its credentials and authority to its supporters after being antagonised by the widespread downplaying of its previous statement.

Speaking earlier in the day, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he didn't read the statement in a negative fashion and portrayed the withdrawal of the offer to destroy weapons as a fact that followed the breakdown of negotiations. It is also believed that the Provisional movement was influenced by PSNI chief constable Hugh Orde's comments that the IRA had the capability of returning to war but not the intent.

The sources went on to say that the second statement allied to the harshness of criticism made earlier in the day by Sinn Féin representatives sent out mixed signals that were hard to interpret but might signal Sinn Féin putting some distance between the party and the Provos. It is certain that there are divisions within the republican movement in the current climate. In the worst scenario, it could mean the political side of the movement can no longer control the situation or, worse, it may indicate a possible return to violence.

The statement followed a day of unusually hard-hitting comments from Sinn Féin, even in the context of the recriminations following the Northern Bank robbery. In several interviews, party leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness declared that Sinn Féin would no longer be willing to act as a conduit or interpreter for the IRA a departure that some interpreted as the party placing a clear gap between itself and the IRA.

"The IRA will speak for itself and Sinn Féin will speak for ourselves," said Mr Adams and, in a stark message to both governments, he warned that confrontation was "not the way forward, otherwise the peace process could be as transient as Mr Blair's time in Downing Street".

Mr Adams labelled Mr Ahern's linking of Sinn Féin politicians with criminality as a "disgrace", while Martin McGuinness lambasted the Taoiseach as Michael McDowell's "poodle".

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said last night that the statement was "tantamount to a threat against the Irish people and our State".

He called for political parties to stand firm against "this attempted intimidation".

Labour leader Pat Rabbitte condemned what he called "IRA belligerence."

Last night, a Government spokesperson rejected one view being posited that the IRA statement was actuated by a new tone of moderation by Mr Ahern yesterday, which flew in the face of his previous stern criticisms of the Republican movement. The spokesperson said that while Mr Ahern had been critical, he had persistently argued against Sinn Féin exclusion from the process.

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