IRA: We did not smuggle US weapons

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The Independent Online
THE IRA denied yesterday that it had been involved in a plot to smuggle weapons from the United States and insisted it had not breached its ceasefire over the recent murder of Charles Bennett in Belfast.

In a statement, the IRA said it had carried out its own investigation, which showed that the leadership did not sanction the US arms importation. In relation to the killing, it maintained, "there had been no breaches of the IRA cessation, which remains intact".

The development came a day after two men from Northern Ireland and a woman from the Irish Republic appeared in a court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, charged with illegally sending guns and bullets through the postal service.

In Belfast, the Royal Ulster Constabulary continued its investigation into the death of Mr Bennett, 22, whose body - bound and blindfolded - "bore all the hallmarks of a paramilitary-style killing".

The IRA statement, due to be published in the republican newspaper An Phoblacht, comes at a time of mounting reports of schisms within the organisation, with the threat of hardliners joining breakaway groups such as the Continuity and Real IRA to offer the threat of a renewed bombing campaign. It was seen as an attempt by the leadership to assert that it was in control and to distance itself from the dissident groups.

The Northern Ireland Office privately welcomed the statement. Publicly, a spokesman said: "The Secretary of State and ministers receive regular advice from security advisers. The situation is kept under constant review and everything must be looked at in the round."

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, welcomed the IRA statement and said it "should end recent speculation about the status of the IRA's cessation. The challenge remains for all of us in political leadership, but especially those of us who want a better future to oppose the rejections and the wreckers."

But the Ulster Unionist Party security spokesman, Ken Maginnis MP, declared: "Somebody once said there are ordinary lies and damn lies and I would place [the IRA's] statement in the second category. They were involved and I think that that statement should be treated with the kind of contempt that it deserves. Look at the end point, look where the guns were going and ask yourself, `Because it wasn't sanctioned, were these guns going to be sent back or handed over?'"

The former Irish prime minister John Bruton maintained that the Bennett murder was a breach of the IRA ceasefire and said Sinn Fein should be called to account. He said: "It would be interesting to know why [the IRA] haven't stated that none of their members were involved in, perhaps, an unsanctioned operation."

The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said: "It's not an unconditional ceasefire. If they want to exempt you from the ceasefire and murder you then they can do it. They are the judge and jury."

Continuing to echo loyalist scepticism of the IRA statement, the Ulster Democratic Party leader, Gary McMichael, said he had written to the US President, Bill Clinton, about the arms importation affair. He added: "I remain completely convinced that it was IRA personnel who organised the smuggling of arms and the murder of Charles Bennett. It would not be the first time that the IRA has denied involvement in events and then it was revealed that they were."

However, David Ervine, of the Progressive Unionists, which has close links with loyalist paramilitaries, said he saw the statement from the IRA as a positive sign. "What they are saying is that they didn't breach their ceasefire... by moving to clarify their position they are answering public opinion and that is no bad thing."

The senior Social Democratic and Labour Party negotiator Sean Farren said his party would not comment on the IRA statement. "We are monitoring the situation but are not in a position to pronounce on the state of ceasefires. We have to be guided by what the [British and Irish] governments say because they have the information of their intelligence services," he said.

Fergal Keane,

Review, page 3

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