BELFAST, Jan. 7 -- The biggest bank robbery in British history -- the Dec. 20 theft of almost $50 million from a Belfast vault -- was the work of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, the Northern Ireland police said Friday in an extraordinary declaration that cast an immediate chill on peacemaking efforts in the British province.
Chief Constable Hugh Orde said he hoped to clear the air of speculation by taking the unusual step of publicly blaming the IRA for the pre-Christmas theft, in which teams of robbers held hostage the families of two employees of Northern Bank, who then helped in the theft. Police have made no arrests and recovered none of the stolen money.
The IRA is intimately allied with Sinn Fein, the province's largest Catholic political party, whose leaders have been seeking to negotiate a local power-sharing agreement with Protestants. The goal is a permanent cessation of the IRA's 36-year violent struggle against British rule here, together with the organization's disarmament.
Sinn Fein's leaders immediately denied that they or the IRA were involved in the robbery, and they accused Orde of playing politics. "This is more to do with halting the process of change which Sinn Fein has been driving forward than with anything that happened at the Northern Bank," said Martin McGuinness, the party's deputy leader, who in the past has acknowledged that he once was a senior IRA operative.
Speaking at a news conference, McGuinness said he had had a "conversation with a very senior person in the IRA" who told him "they were not involved."
But to many people here, Orde's declaration suggested that Sinn Fein's leaders had engaged in talks with the British and Irish governments, backed by the Bush administration, at the same time that its paramilitary affiliate was planning the robbery.
Protestant leaders said the police statement would harden their resistance to any political deal involving Sinn Fein. "Bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold has been an abysmal failure," said Ian Paisley Jr., son of the province's hard-line Protestant leader and a member of the civilian review board that oversees policing here. "This crime of the century proves that. Now we move on without them."
At a news conference, Orde declined to disclose how he had concluded that the IRA was responsible. But a senior police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said later that the method and sophistication of the operation, including the hostage-taking, and the intelligence gathered afterward had left police in no doubt.
Orde, who as chief constable has overseen efforts by Northern Ireland's police force to become nonsectarian, said he issued his statement because speculation over the thieves' identity was hindering the investigation.
"Our business is to solve the crime," he told an earlier news conference. The impact of the IRA's role on peace talks, he said, was "a matter for politics and politicians and not a matter for the police."
In 1998, leaders of the province's Catholic and Protestant communities signed a package known as the Good Friday agreement aimed at ending sectarian violence and establishing joint rule. While violence has largely faded, the goal of creating a stable government that would include the mutually suspicious sides has proved elusive, and the recent negotiations were aimed at finally putting one in office. The robbery is the latest event to complicate those talks.
It was a well-coordinated operation that police officials believe was carried out by a gang of 10 to 20 thieves. It has already entered the annals in a still tense and deeply divided province where the line between political violence and common crime has long been smudged.
The operation began on the evening of Dec. 19, the Sunday before Christmas, when two groups of armed men forced their way into the homes of Kevin McMullan and Chris Warde, who worked in the cash distribution vault in a windowless bunker at the bank's main branch in central Belfast.
According to police, McMullan's wife and four of Warde's relatives were held at gunpoint and threatened with death while the two men were ordered to report to work as normal the next day, one of the busiest of the year. At 6 p.m. Monday, the two men ordered the bank's remaining security staff to go home early, then let gang members into the vault. They loaded millions in cash into a white van, which then returned for a second load.