Ulster standoff after new IRA threat

Michael White and Angelique Chrisafis
Friday February 4, 2005
The Guardian

The renewed political crisis in Northern Ireland intensified last night when the IRA brushed aside British and Irish allegations of criminality and warned the two governments: "Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation."

Twenty-four hours after the Provisional IRA withdrew its long-stalled promise to decommission weapons stockpiles, London and Dublin refused to be impressed. Convinced that the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin, are bluffing, they also insist that the IRA's ceasefire will hold.

There was some comfort for Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern when administration sources in Washington confirmed that that the Bush administration is considering excluding Sinn Féin's president, Gerry Adams, from the annual St Patrick's Day celebrations at the White House on March 17. The move would be a gesture of support for the tough Anglo-Irish stand against the IRA's alleged £26.5m robbery at the Northern Bank in Belfast on December 20.

Last night neither side was prepared to blink. London and Dublin insisted that the focus must be maintained on the real issue of paramilitary "criminality".

Sinn Féin again denied the bank robbery charge and the IRA appeared to hint at an end to the ceasefire.

In a menacing two-line statement, a senior republican source said: "The two governments are trying to play down the importance of our statement because they are making a mess of the peace process. Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation."

That statement echoed comments by Mr Adams yesterday that the peace process could be "as transient as Tony Blair's time in Downing Street." Asked whether the IRA ceasefire would last, Mr Adams had refused to interpret the IRA's overnight statement. Instead he and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, accused his critics of seeking confrontation.

Unionists called their tactics a "temper tantrum". They appealed to voters to stop supporting a political party that threatened to "embed" criminal violence in their society.

Republican sources in Belfast suggest that their bluff is being called by both governments. As a result they are warning them that they are in deadly earnest, that their authority is not being respected, and that they must be heard as they were earlier in the peace process, rather than being grilled and ridiculed.

The Independent Monitoring Commission's report on the robbery, delivered yesterday and to be published next week, is expected to endorse the guilty verdict and may recommend that Sinn Féin be suspended from any power-sharing cabinet for six months.

Last night the IRA accused Mr Blair and the taoiseach of deliberate confrontation after mishandling the peace process before Christmas when the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, insisted on photographic proof that IRA stockpiles were being blown up. Yet ministers remain adamant that the advice of police and intelligence services in both countries is that the ceasefire will hold and that the IRA is not facing a split.

London is considering ideas being floated by the mainstream parties in the province that they should try to restore devolved government at Stormont, suspended two years ago, without Sinn Féin, now the largest nationalist party.

"We do not want to go down that road," said one senior official. "But if the IRA persist in criminal activity we may have no option."

After talks at No 10, the Northern Ireland secretary, Paul Murphy, said: "We told Sinn Féin that they are to go back and reflect upon the points that the governments have made to them - in many ways the ball is in their court - to stop the criminality which is associated with the IRA."

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