Irish Republican Army Won't Disarm

The Irish Republican Army on Wednesday withdrew its offer to disarm, deepening the deadlock in a Northern Ireland peace process hobbled by the IRA's alleged robbery of a Belfast bank.

In a hard-line statement, the IRA sternly rejected British and Irish government criticisms that the outlawed group was committing major crimes and primarily to blame for the worsening impasse. But the IRA did pledge to stick to its 1997 cease-fire.

The IRA had offered in December to disarm fully as part of a wider deal to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern Ireland involving Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most of the north's Catholics. The potential deal failed when the IRA refused to permit photos to be taken of its disarmament, a key Protestant demand.

Since then, hopes of sealing the deal have been destroyed by the IRA's alleged Dec. 20 robbery of the Northern Bank in Belfast, when a hostage-taking gang stole $50 million — the biggest cash robbery in history.

The IRA denied involvement for a third time. The shadowy group also rejected a claim made Tuesday by the British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, that the IRA was now the major obstacle to revived power-sharing, the central goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998.

Hours before the IRA statement, Ahern told Ireland's parliament that Sinn Fein leaders had advance knowledge of four major IRA robberies in the past year, including the Northern Bank heist. He said talks on power sharing would go nowhere until the IRA admitted its involvement and renounced such criminal activity.

"We do not intend to remain quiescent within this unacceptable and unstable situation. It has tried our patience to the limit," the IRA responded. "Consequently, in reassessment of our position, and in response to the governments and others withdrawing their commitments, we are taking all our proposals off the table."

The IRA insisted it would not tolerate "criminality within our own ranks or false allegations of criminality against our organization by petty politicians motivated by selfish interests."

However, analysts noted that the IRA inhabits a twisted parallel universe where it is impossible, within the IRA's own terms, for it to commit a "crime." The underground organization, which has an estimated 500 members and seven-man command, considers itself the official government of Ireland — and by definition considers all of its decisions, including robberies, to be inherently lawful.

The IRA said it still wanted the Northern Ireland peace process, begun in the early 1990s, to succeed. It hinted that it would put its disarmament offer back on the table eventually.

"We are prepared, as part of a genuine and collective effort, to do so again if and when the conditions are created for this," it said.

In London, a spokesman for Blair said Britain had expected the IRA to beat a stubborn retreat given the current diplomatic deadlock.

"The fact remains that it was the IRA that did carry out the Northern Bank robbery and, as (officials) said yesterday, therefore it is the IRA that is the sole obstacle to moving forward," the spokesman said.

In Belfast, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes, denounced the IRA statement.

"Instead of facing up to the huge damage done to the peace process by the IRA's Northern Bank raid, they are engaging in blatant saber-rattling and wrecking the (Good Friday) agreement further," said the party's deputy leader, Alasdair McDonnell.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the IRA was responding in kind to the British and Irish governments' "retrograde stance."

"The two governments have opted for confrontation," said Adams, who has been a reputed IRA commander since the mid-1970s. "They are engaging in the sterile politics of the blame game without any regard for the consequences."

By Shawn Pogatchnik