IRA withdrawal threatens peace process

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The crisis in the Northern Ireland peace process deepened last night when the IRA declared that it was withdrawing its offer to decommission its weaponry.

The crisis in the Northern Ireland peace process deepened last night when the IRA declared that it was withdrawing its offer to decommission its weaponry.

The move was seen a significant unravelling in a peace process which has been in deep trouble since the failure of political negotiations last year, and the £26m pre-Christmas bank robbery in Belfast, blamed on the IRA.

The IRA had previously declared itself willing to put all of its armoury beyond use in the context of a deal which would see a government dominated by Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists.

The IRA's formal announcement that its guns were no longer up for negotiation represents another serious setback in a process which a few months ago appeared to be on the brink of a breakthrough.

Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, will have their work cut out to try to restart meaningful negotiations.

In its statement the IRA made its traditional criticism of the British Government but went further than usual in attacking the Irish government. Mr Ahern has not only accused the IRA of staging the Belfast bank robbery but has also alleged that Sinn Fein leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness knew of the raid's plans.

The IRA and Sinn Fein have indignantly denied involvement, but the fact that the two governments are united in pointing the finger at republicans means few have accepted their denials.

The IRA statement said: "In 2004 our leadership was prepared to speedily resolve the issue of arms, by Christmas if possible, and to invite two independent witnesses, from the Protestant and Catholic churches, to testify to this.

"These significant and substantive initiatives were our contributions to the peace process. Others, however, did not share that agenda. Instead, they demanded the humiliation of the IRA. At this time it appears that the two governments are intent on changing the basis of the peace process.

"They claim that 'the obstacle now to a lasting and durable settlement ... is the continuing paramilitary and criminal activity of the IRA'. We do not intend to remain quiescent within this unacceptable and unstable situation. It has tried our patience to the limit. We are taking all our proposals off the table."

The statement made no mention of a return to war, but it has increased the sense of crisis in the peace process. A stand-off has developed, with republicans denying all involvement in the robbery while the governments is demanding explanations and guarantees that the robbery will never be repeated.

Earlier Mr Ahern said "a number of operations that took place during 2004 ­ not just the Northern Bank robbery ­ were the work of the IRA, had sanction from the Army Council and would have been known to the political leadership of the IRA".

A Downing Street spokesman said they were not surprised by the IRA statement, adding: "The IRA did carry out the Northern Bank robbery and, as the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said yesterday, therefore it is the IRA that is the sole obstacle to moving forward."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams described the IRA statement as "a direct consequence of the retrograde stance of the two governments".

He added: "The two government have opted for confrontation. They are engaging in the sterile politics of the blame game without any regard for the consequences."

Democratic Unionist party leader Ian Paisley said the statement proved the IRA never had any intention of decommissioning in a credible, transparent and verifiable way, adding: "They never had any intention of giving up their criminal empire."