BELFAST -- The Irish Republican Army stole $50 million from a Belfast bank, the Northern Ireland police chief bluntly declared yesterday -- an announcement that rocked the foundations of the peace process.
The British and Irish governments accepted Chief Constable Hugh Orde's verdict and said the development had gravely undermined years of effort to revive a Catholic-Protestant administration involving Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party.
Power-sharing was the central goal of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998. A previous coalition involving Sinn Fein collapsed in 2002 because of arguments over IRA activities, and since then, negotiators have been striving in vain to secure the outlawed group's disarmament and disbandment.
The Dec. 20 raid on the Northern Bank, when a gang held the families of two employees hostage until the bank's main vault was cleared out, was the biggest cash robbery in history.
It came a week after months of negotiations narrowly failed to reach a new power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein, which represents most of the province's Irish Catholics, and the Democratic Unionists, the party backed by most British Protestants.
Paul Bew, professor of politics at Queen's University of Belfast, said growing optimism that the opposing forces could form a coalition suddenly seems "a very dreamy, utopian concept."
"The politics have grown very dark here. We are in a genuinely unexpected situation," he said.
A 45-member detective team trying to catch the thieves has searched more than a dozen properties in IRA strongholds of Belfast but made no arrests.
Orde -- who previously refused to comment on the case -- said he could not reveal any evidence that the IRA was responsible because it could jeopardize the investigation or potential intelligence sources close to the IRA, which has a policy of killing informers.
The Northern Bank, meanwhile, announced an unprecedented plan to make most of the robbers' bounty useless.
Chief Executive Don Price said the bank would withdraw from circulation all Northern Bank-produced currency, a process that could take weeks and cost the bank up to $9.5 million. Crucially, about three-fourths of the stolen British pounds bore Northern's own name and design.
Withdrawing the currency, Orde said, would transform the robbery into "the largest theft of waste paper in the living history of Northern Ireland. The money will not be worth anything as soon as that takes place."
Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a veteran IRA commander, insisted he had been told by "a very senior person in the IRA that the IRA were not involved."
He accused British security officials of mounting a conspiracy against Sinn Fein -- but he also emphasized that Sinn Fein's growing electoral strength meant it should not matter what the IRA does.
"We represent the majority of [Irish] nationalists in the north," McGuinness said, adding that British officials and the Democratic Unionists "need to come to terms with this political reality."
Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland accused Sinn Fein of negotiating in bad faith during last year's talks, when the IRA offered to disarm fully but refused to pledge to halt criminal activities. An emerging deal broke down over the IRA's refusal to permit photos of disarmament.
Ahern, using the group's full name of Provisional IRA, said the robbery was "obviously being planned when I was in negotiations with those who would know the leadership of the Provisional movement. And that raises questions. That does concern me."
Britain's governor for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, said the IRA must end all activities; otherwise Protestant leaders would never trust Sinn Fein.
"This event does cause us enormous difficulties," Murphy said. "We were hoping before Christmas for a real breakthrough. We were nearly there, and this has obviously affected the possibility of that very seriously indeed."
Protestant leaders called on the British and Irish governments to bar Sinn Fein from any Northern Ireland administration in favor of the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party.
Mark Durkan said his party, which used to represent most Catholics, still wanted Sinn Fein kept inside the process. But he described the IRA as Ireland's most prominent bank robbers and experienced liars.
"For our part, the SDLP cannot see who else but the IRA would have the capacity to carry out such a huge and organized robbery," Durkan said.
"IRA sources may have denied involvement, but so many of their denials have turned out to be false in the past . . . it is almost impossible to take their denials at face value now," he said.