BELFAST, Feb. 21 -- The decade-long peace process in Northern Ireland has been built in part on the tacit agreement of its main sponsors, the British and Irish governments, to ignore the link between Sinn Fein, the legal political party representing a majority of the province's Catholics, and the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
But the theft of more than $45 million from a bank here in December, which police blame on the paramilitary IRA, has shattered that understanding. On Monday, Ireland's highest-ranking law enforcement official, Justice Minister Michael McDowell, declared for a second day running that Sinn Fein's political leaders were also the top leaders of the IRA, and he insisted it was up to them to somehow restore faith in the damaged peace process.
McDowell told reporters he was confident that the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, as well as his deputy, Martin McGuinness, and Martin Ferris, a Sinn Fein representative in the Irish Parliament, were members of the IRA's ruling army council. He indicated that they must have been aware of plans for the robbery even while they were negotiating the next step in the peace process with Britain, Ireland and leaders of Northern Ireland's Protestant majority.
McDowell said he had based his judgment on intelligence briefings. When pressed by a reporter about his level of certainty, he replied: "What part of the word 'confident' do you not understand?"
McGuinness, who has admitted publicly that he was once an IRA member, has denied membership in the army council. On Monday night, before an audience of more than 500 Sinn Fein supporters, he accused McDowell and other Irish leaders of defaming the republican movement because they feared Sinn Fein was gaining political support both in the Republic of Ireland and in British-ruled Northern Ireland, where elections are expected in early May. The republican movement seeks to unite Northern Ireland with its southern neighbor.
"At all costs they want to stop the growth of Sinn Fein," McGuinness told the party faithful, adding, "It has become clear to us that they don't want the peace process to succeed if it means the loss of power for them."
Adams and Ferris have not commented directly on the allegation.
British officials, who participated in the news conference with McDowell at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast, seat of the provincial government, were more measured in their remarks. The chief of police in Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, repeated his contention that the IRA was behind the robbery of the main Belfast branch of Northern Bank, but added, "I'm not clear in my mind who knew at what level" about the crime.
Paul Murphy, the British cabinet secretary in charge of Northern Ireland, said Sinn Fein and the IRA were "inextricably linked." He said that the peace process had been badly damaged by the robbery and that the burden was on Sinn Fein leaders to restore it.
"The reality is that trust and confidence which were building up before Christmas are gone due to that bank robbery," Murphy added.
The Irish national police chief, Noel Conroy, said his investigators were still examining the more than $5 million in cash they seized last week in a probe of suspected IRA money laundering to determine how much of the money could be traced to the robbery. Of eight men arrested, seven were reported in the Irish news media as having links with the republican movement, although only one remains in custody.
Adams and McGuinness have said IRA leaders assured them that the organization played no role in the robbery, and the two Sinn Fein leaders have condemned criminal activity. But they have walked a fine line in their rhetoric, avoiding direct characterization of the robbery as a criminal act.
More than 3,000 people were killed in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland over a 25-year period, but the province has been relatively peaceful since the 1994 IRA cease-fire and an ensuing agreement on local power sharing between majority Protestants and minority Catholics.
The news conference at which McDowell reiterated his accusations against Sinn Fein was held to mark the announcement by Irish and British officials of a new agreement to share cross-border policing duties. Officials said the agreement showed that progress and cooperation were continuing, despite the suspension two years ago of the power-sharing part of the deal.