BELFAST, March 9 -- The Bush administration told the Irish Republican Army on Wednesday that the outlawed paramilitary group should disband following its offer to shoot four men -- including two recently expelled members -- responsible for killing a Catholic civilian. It was the bluntest U.S. criticism of the IRA to date.
The call from the U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, came a week ahead of St. Patrick's Day, when leaders of the IRA-affiliated Sinn Fein party won't be guests of the White House for the first time in a decade.
This year, the invitations are going to the five sisters of the IRA's most recent victim, Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old forklift operator and nightclub bouncer.
Political leaders throughout Ireland excoriated the IRA for offering to shoot McCartney's killers. Some said they initially thought it must be a sick joke. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said it dealt "a shock to the system."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the IRA's rationale "frankly defies any description."
"It's time for the IRA to go out of business," Reiss said in an interview with the BBC. "And it's time for Sinn Fein to be able to say that explicitly, without ambiguity, without ambivalence, that criminality will not be tolerated."
Reiss questioned Sinn Fein's claim that most IRA activities -- including robbing banks and shooting petty criminals in the limbs -- shouldn't be considered crimes. He said Sinn Fein should begin cooperating with the Northern Ireland police, a mostly Protestant force that once suffered heavily from IRA attacks and today is being substantially reshaped with support from moderate Catholics.
McCartney was killed Jan. 30 in a brawl at a Belfast pub. By most accounts, the fight started after a friend of McCartney's made a crude comment to a table headed by a senior IRA figure. "Do you know who I am?" the figure thundered upon hearing the remark.
After the killing, the IRA men allegedly mopped up forensic evidence, stole tapes from a surveillance camera and warned more than 70 potential witnesses in the pub not to say anything to police -- or face the IRA's traditional death sentence for informers.
The IRA statement Tuesday night purported to offer the truth behind the killing, based on an internal investigation. It said IRA representatives twice met with members of McCartney's family and offered to shoot the men who attacked him. The family declined the offer.