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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 February, 2005, 10:38 GMT
IRA reaches a 'defining moment'
By Brian Rowan
BBC Northern Ireland security editor

Never before in the history of the Northern Ireland peace process has the IRA been under such a public spotlight.

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams has been accused of sitting on the IRA's Army Council

The policing assessment that it was behind the multi-million-pound Belfast bank robbery in December, has stuck to the republican organisation.

And, in terms of the future of the IRA, there are those who believe we have reached a defining moment in this process.

Not just because of the robbery and its timing, but because of what has followed.

There was a murder in Belfast blamed on members of the IRA and a money laundering investigation in the Irish Republic - which might well produce a "substantive link" to the Northern Bank raid.

The latter could also lead to the outing of the IRA after weeks of denial.

Accusations

Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell has also decided to out some of those he believes sit on the IRA's Army Council.

In recent days, he has named the MPs Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and the TD Martin Ferris - a Kerry North representative in the Irish parliament, the Dail.

They deny the allegation but few in the policing and political worlds - on both sides of the Irish border - believe them.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are seen as the two most influential leadership figures in the Republican Movement, and if an end to the IRA is to be achieved, then it is they who will be needed to bring it about.

It won't be easy.

"The IRA is not happy," one source told me, "and the reason it isn't happy is because the thing (the political process and the negotiations) didn't work."

'Growing anger'

Two major political negotiations in recent years have failed - one in which David Trimble was the principal unionist player, and more recently the talks in which the two governments tried to get a once unthinkable deal between Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's DUP.

Inside the republican community there is a sense that the IRA twice stuck its neck out and twice had its head chopped off - that actual decommissioning and a further offer to put all arms beyond use and for the IRA to move into a "new mode", was thrown back into the republican face.

And, it was in this climate that the bank raid happened.

The IRA line has been solid. It has denied any involvement in the robbery, but it is the Northern Ireland chief constable's assessment, blaming the republican organisation, that has been widely accepted.

Credibility issue

And the continuing republican denials are seen as adding insult to injury.

Indeed, there are those who believe the issue of republican credibility is becoming bigger than the bank robbery itself.

As all of this plays out, there is concern about the IRA's future intentions - and even about its ceasefire.

Indeed in Britain, some politicians and police officers have been given renewed advice on personal security measures.

It has been stressed that this is a precautionary step and not something based on any information suggesting a threat to the IRA ceasefire.

On this, the chief constable's assessment is unchanged.

He believes that while the IRA has the capability and the capacity to go back to "war" that is not its intention.

Another senior police source said there were those in the republican leadership trying to think beyond the "current upheaval" - that they had "some huge steps to take", and that this would require "leadership".

This source detects no threat to the ceasefire, and he believes this "bringing to a head" of the issue of the future of the IRA is something that is needed and probably should have happened several years ago.

A mural
The IRA is going through a turbulent period

Gerry Adams also chose a recent IRA commemoration to talk to the republican and wider audience about creating circumstances in which the IRA "ceases to be".

These are not the words of war.

The governments clearly want to lance the IRA boil and to bring to a head now the whole issue of its future.

That will not be the approach of Adams and McGuinness. They know the objective of an end to the IRA can only be achieved in the wider frame of working politics, sweeping security changes and further progress on policing.

And those things are not on the political radar screen at present.

So, not for the first time the process is jogging on the spot.

But, after the expected spring elections, some re-building will begin.

Recently we have seen some street protesting and some blocking of roads as an expression of republican anger.

But there has been no hint of anything else.

Republicans know - the IRA knows - the political consequences of anything more serious.


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