The crisis in the Irish peace process was reflected on the streets of Irish cities and towns last night as republicans protested against accusations that Sinn Fein's leaders sanctioned the UK's biggest bank robbery.
The protests came as Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, angrily challenged the Dublin authorities to arrest him and Martin McGuinness if they believed they knew in advance about December's £26.5m bank robbery in Belfast.
This followed a new official report, which repeated allegations that Sinn Fein leaders knew in advance about the robbery and recommended sanctions against the republican party. The events of the day deepened the atmosphere of confrontation and deadlock that has permeated the peace process since the robbery. In particular, relations between Sinn Fein and the Dublin government have reached an icy low.
Demonstrators disrupted traffic in west, north and south Belfast, Dublin, Derry, Newry and Strabane last night.
The IRA and Sinn Fein have repeatedly denied involvement in the robbery, but have convinced almost no one. The latest quip in Belfast is that "10 out of nine people don't believe the Provos". Yesterday's report by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) declared that some senior figures in Sinn Fein are also senior members of the IRA, and that Sinn Fein was "in a position to exercise considerable influence on [the Provisional IRA's] major policy decisions".
Although Commission members yesterday refused to name the Sinn Fein members concerned, security sources on both sides of the border maintain that the IRA's seven-man "army council" includes three prominent Sinn Fein figures.
They point the finger at Mr Adams, the Westminster MP for West Belfast, Martin McGuinness, the party's chief negotiator and Mid-Ulster MP, and Martin Ferris, a member of the Dail (parliament) in Dublin.
The security sources believe Pat Doherty, MP for West Tyrone, was also a member of the army council and stepped down some time ago to be replaced by a purely IRA figure. Although the reasons for this are unclear, one view is that it was an amicable adjustment designed to give the IRA a 4-3 balance on the army council, possibly to reassure the grassroots that the military men were in the majority.
In recent weeks, Sinn Fein has been given a verbal savaging by Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, and Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice. In the Dail, Mr Ahern glared at Mr Ferris and other Sinn Fein members as he spoke of "the kind of tactics in which you and some of your friends engage".
Mr Adams said: "I feel a particular sense of betrayal by the Taoiseach. I think the Taoiseach has crossed the line and the line that he has crossed - and I took legal advice on this - was to accuse Martin McGuinness and I of conspiracy to rob, and of withholding information. I feel particularly angry about that.
"He has no option but to have us arrested; to shut up or to put up on this issue."
Mr McDowell, declaring that some of the "household names" in Sinn Fein were also members of the army council, said: "As long as Sinn Fein is linked to the IRA and the IRA is carrying out illegal activity, then Sinn Fein can't be admitted to an exclusively democratic process."
In its report, the IMC said the IRA had carried out a £2m robbery of cigarettes in Belfast in October, a £1m supermarket robbery last May, and a bank robbery in Co Tyrone in September.
"In our view Sinn Fein must bear its share of responsibility for all the incidents. Some of its senior members, who are also senior members of PIRA [the Provisional IRA], were involved in sanctioning the series of robberies," it said.
The commission said that, had the Belfast Assembly been in existence, it would have recommended removing Sinn Fein ministers from office.
It added that the Government should consider fines. The Government is to respond to its recommendations later this month.
ARE THESE MEN ON THE IRA ARMY COUNCIL?
Sinn Fein's chief negotiator was a striking success as Northern Ireland's education minister. He served a jail sentence in the Irish Republic for membership of the IRA in the Seventies. He denied the charge but, under pressure during the inquiry into Bloody Sunday, he said he had been the organisation's second-in-command in early 1972. He has said he left the IRA "for personal reasons''.
Arrested on a trawler carrying guns for the IRA in 1984, he spent 10 years in prison in the Republic. After his release he became a senior Sinn Fein negotiator, dealing with Tony Blair and others. He built a strong political base in County Kerry, where he was elected to the Dail in 2002. Has a local reputation as an assiduous politician who gets things done in areas such as health and housing.
A well-known figure internationally, Mr Adams is unchallenged as the movement's principal thinker and strategist. After taking control of Sinn Fein in the mid-1980s he has fashioned it into Northern Ireland's largest nationalist party. He was interned without trial in the 1970s but was acquitted of a charge of IRA membership and has steadfastly maintained he was never a member of the group.Reuse content