Police set to blame IRA for record £22m bank heist

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The Independent Online

Hopes for political progress in Northern Ireland are set to receive a body blow today when police are expected to blame the IRA for a huge pre-Christmas bank robbery in Belfast.

Chief Constable Hugh Orde is due to point the finger at the IRA this afternoon for the December raid in which £22m in cash was stolen from the Northern Bank in Belfast city centre.

Last night, it was unclear whether Mr Orde would unequivocally say that the IRA carried out the raid, one of the biggest in the UK, or would leave some element of doubt in his pronouncement.

Several weeks after the raid the police have yet to charge anyone, or recover any of the stolen money, or indeed to locate the sizeable van used to transport the cash away.

The official blaming of the IRA for the robbery will send shock waves through the political process. The British and Irish governments had hoped that a breakthrough would be made this year leading to a power-sharing government being reinstated in Belfast.

But such an advance is dependent on a new agreement between Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and laying the robbery at the door of the IRA would render this impossible for the foreseeable future.

An intensive round of talks involving the governments and the two parties failed last year when Mr Paisley insisted on seeing photographs of IRA weapons being decommissioned.

The potential deal also involved an understanding that the IRA would commit itself to giving up criminal activity. All of this will therefore be undermined if the organisation is seen to have carried out a huge bank robbery during a break in talks. IRA responsibility has been denied both by the organisation itself and by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who said he would not countenance any attempt to "demonise and criminalise" his party, accusing elements in the British system of trying to undermine the peace process. He added: "From the beginning I held the view that the IRA was not involved. The IRA has said it wasn't involved. I believe that to be the case."

As the weeks have passed, however, the assumption that the IRA was involved has grown steadily in Belfast, as the police investigation has yielded no obvious results and as the sophisticated planning and execution have become obvious. The police have themselves been embarrassed and placed under pressure despite interviewing more than 100 people and carrying out many searches in republican areas.

The DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, said IRA involvement would be a lethal blow to Sinn Fein's position in the peace process.

Tony Blair said: "There can be absolutely no place, not merely for terrorist activity, but for criminal activity of any sort by people associated with a political party."