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Irish official says Sinn Fein leaders command IRA

Government weary of assertions that groups are separate

DUBLIN -- In an unprecedented confrontation, the Irish government yesterday publicly identified three of Sinn Fein's top figures -- including party leader Gerry Adams -- as members of the Irish Republican Army command.

The government's blunt declaration indicated it no longer would tolerate Adams's protestations that his party should not be held accountable for IRA actions. The shift is intended to force the illegal IRA to disarm fully and disband, or risk the marginalization of the legal Sinn Fein.

Political passions are reaching a boiling point in Ireland over the IRA's alleged $50 million robbery of a Belfast bank -- the biggest heist in history -- and an unfolding investigation into wider IRA money laundering. The Irish government says Sinn Fein leaders are involved in both.

Over the past decade of Northern Ireland peacemaking, leaders of successive Irish and British governments have privately considered Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, to be members of the seven-member IRA command, called the ''Army Council." To maintain good relations with Sinn Fein, neither government has confronted them about this in public.

But during a live debate on a national radio station, Justice Minister Michael McDowell identified Adams, McGuinness, and Martin Ferris as IRA Army Council members. McDowell condemned what he called their ''deep, deep dishonesty."

McGuinness, who served two short prison sentences for IRA membership in the mid-1970s, rejected McDowell's accusations and insisted that none of them was even in the IRA.

But notably, when he was asked whether McDowell was ''a liar," McGuinness hesitated. ''What he has alleged is absolutely false," he said.

Ireland's claimant-friendly libel laws have allowed public figures who were called liars in public to win court cases easily.

The government's foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, backed McDowell's assessment. ''We're absolutely satisfied that the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA are interlinked. They're two sides of the one coin," Ahern said.

Ferris is one of Sinn Fein's five lawmakers in the 166-member Irish parliament. In 1984, he was caught trying to smuggle weapons into Northern Ireland on a ship from Boston and spent eight years in prison. The Irish government has already identified him as an IRA Army Council member.

Several books on the Sinn Fein-IRA movement have identified Adams and McGuinness as members of the IRA Army Council since the mid-1970s.

The hardening Irish government line is occurring during an unprecedented convergence in Northern Ireland politics. For the first time, the Irish and British governments and other major parties in Northern Ireland unanimously agree that the IRA's refusal to disarm and disband poses the key obstacle to achieving lasting peace in the British territory.

The IRA has been observing what it calls ''a complete cessation of military operations" since 1997. Previously, the group killed about 1,800 people during a failed 27-year campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

A 1998 peace accord offered freedom for IRA prisoners and a place for Sinn Fein in a wider power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. In exchange, Sinn Fein was supposed to observe ''exclusively peaceful and democratic means" and the IRA was supposed to disarm fully by mid-2000.

Instead, the IRA has continued robbing, smuggling, and meting out nonlethal attacks on criminal opponents in a challenge to Northern Ireland's police force. The outlawed group considers all these activities not to be ''military."

The power-sharing collapsed in 2002 amid arguments over continuing IRA activities. Efforts to revive power-sharing failed in December when the IRA refused to permit photos of its disarmament. The bank robbery followed a week later.

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