Peace process in crisis after £26.5m bank raid

The British and Irish governments will this week begin picking up the pieces of the Northern Ireland peace process following the Belfast bank robbery.

The announcement by police in Belfast that the IRA had carried out the £26.5m pre-Christmas heist has plunged the process into crisis and ruined any possibility of an early political breakthrough.

The IRA's action has angered London and Dublin, as prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern now realise the raid was being planned as they were negotiating with Sinn Fein leaders. Sinn Fein continues to insist the IRA was not responsible for the raid.

The police remain under pressure; despite allocating around 50 officers to the investigation, they have failed to recover any of the stolen money or even the large van used in the robbery.

Houses and premises in republican areas of Belfast were searched in four waves of raids carried out by detectives. About 100 people have been interviewed, with 100 more still to be questioned.

The Northern Bank has announced a reissue of notes, which it is hoped will render much of the haul unusable. However, it may still be possible for the thieves to use £9m of the money.

Republicans came under attack from the Rev Ian Paisley's political party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), who called on Mr Blair to move the peace process on without Sinn Fein. But the early signs are that London and Dublin have concluded they have little alternative but to persist with the present format, which means working towards an accommodation between both sides.

New judgements will have to be made on the question of how much influence the Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have over the IRA and whether they knew of the robbery.

Hopes of an early political solution have been dashed as much time will be needed before the DUP considers doing business with republicans.

Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin denied IRA involvement when the party met yesterday in Dublin and blamed the police announcement on "reports from securocrats who have been working to undermine the peace process".

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