N. Ireland peace holds, for now

A bank heist and a stabbing undermine trust-building efforts. Police blame the IRA.

It sounds like the opening of a Hollywood movie: a bank heist where the robbers don't even enter the bank. Instead Belfast bank employees are coerced to do the dirty work. They swipe £26 million ($49 million), one of the biggest hauls in British history. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the dateline.]

But the December bank job took on serious political overtones earlier this month when police accused the Irish Republican Army (IRA) of masterminding the crime. And the Independent Monitoring Commission, an international panel of experts, ruled last week that the IRA command had sanctioned a wide range of violent and illegal activities, including the bank robbery.

The recriminations have plunged the province's seven-year peace process into one of its gravest crises.

The IRA took offense at the suggestion it was a criminal outfit and withdrew its offer to disarm. Its political wing, Sinn Fein, pointed to a lack of evidence and said the episode was a smoke screen to mask lack of peace-process progress; but their opponents fulminated over the IRA's "criminal empire."

Indeed, Wednesday, the relatives of a man stabbed to death two weeks ago asked the United States for help in finding his attackers. The victim's family, which is Catholic, accused the IRA of shielding the killers, and called upon the Sinn Fein "to bring all its influence to bear to ensure that these individuals have nowhere to hide."

The two incidents are putting new pressure on the Sinn Fein.

"This has been one of the most severe setbacks because the degree of trust between Republicans and unionists has been fundamentally damaged," says Henry Patterson, professor of politics at the University of Ulster and author of a political history of the IRA.

But while the rhetoric is as furious as ever, something appears to have changed in Northern Ireland in the past few years. "There was a time when people thought [events like this] would precipitate a return to violence," says Mr. Patterson, "but now they accept that we're not going back to how it was in the 1970s and 1980s and direct rule [from London] is livable with in both communities."

Trust between Northern Ireland republicans, who want a united Ireland, and unionists, who want to preserve rule from Britain, has proven elusive. A generation of violence in which more than 3,000 people were killed gave way to paramilitary cease-fires in the 1990s and a political process designed to bring the two groups together in a locally run government.

But mutual suspicions over disarmament and activities of groups like the IRA have repeatedly undermined the power-sharing deal. Efforts to restore the local authorities late last year foundered in a row over the arrangements for the IRA to decommission weapons.

For the IRA, the accusations over the bank job were the last straw. "We do not intend to remain quiescent within this unacceptable and unstable situation. It has tried our patience to the limit," the organization said in a statement that bore more than the usual trace of menace.

"The statement represents an ominous development and a major deterioration in the peace process," says Danny Morrison, a republican writer and former IRA militant. "Republican frustration and anger has been building.... There is a feeling that each and every time republicans have made concessions, the goalposts are shifted by unionists, often with the support or tolerance of the two governments" of Britain and Ireland.

Yet on the streets, it is hard to detect a sense of crisis. Belfast has come a long way in the past decade and no longer has the feel of a town on the edge. Investment has brought prosperity, modernity, and moderation. The spring marching season no longer produces the kind of sectarian flash points that set Protestant unionist against Catholic republican.

Stephen McGlennon, for example, isn't intimidated by IRA statements hinting at confrontation. "It's just the same sort of rubbish we always hear from them," says the young liberal from Portaferry. "They're asking for more concessions than they're prepared to give."

Tom Watson, a unionist from Holywood, says most people just want to be left alone. "Both sides keep playing games and unfortunately we, the people, are left in the middle trying to get on with our lives," he says. "At this point, very few people care if the [local power-sharing] Assembly gets back up and running again. I personally don't really care who governs us, be it Dublin, London, or Paris, as long as no one gets killed."

Experts say the British government has no desire to retain rule over Northern Ireland indefinitely, and has sought ways to devolve power. There will be new initiatives, probably after British elections in the spring, to revive the local authorities.

To do so will require a restoration of trust - a formidable challenge given the climate.

Sean Farren, a representative of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, says that something has to be done about the IRA's role in the peace process, particularly if its crime links are proven.

"It is known to be systematically engaged in protection, racketeering, robberies and drug smuggling," says Mr. Farren. "The IRA's influence derives from their political connections, without which they'd be pursued like any other criminal gang. The British government has taken a pragmatic and, in my opinion, not very principled approach to the IRA in order to keep Sinn Fein involved in the peace process."

Others say a return to violence is not out of the question. More than 30 years after it launched its armed struggle, the IRA is no nearer its stated aim of a united, democratic, socialist Ireland. If the status quo of partition is formalized, the IRA may not feel it needs to play ball.

"If there is a sense that its long-term goals are not going to be agreed, then there might be a problem," says Sydney Elliott, senior lecturer in politics at Queen's University in Belfast. "Their desire to maintain involvement could disappear, and all things are possible - including a return to violence."

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