Blair under pressure to ban Sinn Féin from power-sharing

Tony Blair faces new demands today to ban Sinn Féin from any future power-sharing administration in Belfast over the Northern Bank heist.

Tony Blair faces new demands today to ban Sinn Féin from any future power-sharing administration in Belfast over the Northern Bank heist.

The Prime Minister and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will receive a fresh security briefing on the £26.5m (€38.3m) robbery blamed on the IRA during talks at Downing Street.

Northern Ireland's Chief Constable Hugh Orde and Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy will take the two leaders through the intelligence that led to the assessment.

Mr Blair is also expected to press for assurances that the Provisionals are not on the brink of returning to all-out violence, following weekend reports.

And Mr Ahern is due to raise with him the issue of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four wrongly jailed for a 1974 IRA pub bomb, amid growing expectation that a public apology is to be issued.

It will be the first time Mr Orde has met Mr Blair since the police chief blamed the IRA for the raid, wrecking hopes of devolution being restored in the North.

Unionists were outraged that while they were involved in negotiations with Sinn Féin to revive the Stormont Executive, republicans were allegedly plotting one of the world’s biggest bank robberies.

Two Northern Bank staff members were forced to clear out its Belfast cash distribution centre on December 20 while their terrified families were held hostage.

Sammy Wilson, a Democratic Unionist member of the suspended Assembly, insisted Mr Blair and Mr Ahern have been left with only one option.

He said: “The two governments’ lack of action to date has been abysmal. In the December negotiations it was stated that where a party was found to be in default the others would not be held back by their actions.

“The Chief Constable has made it very clear that republicans are in default, so I’m expecting the governments to live up to their commitment and punish the wrongdoers.

“They must agree to exclude Sinn Féin from any devolution arrangements until they have proved they will live up to commitments to abandon criminality and terrorism.” A preliminary report by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) paramilitary watchdog, is expected to be completed by the end of the week.

It is set to back Mr Orde’s assessment that the IRA carried out the robbery, despite categoric denials by the organisation and Sinn Féin leaders.

Despite massive setbacks in the peace process, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern are to map out a programme of activity for 2005 at the Downing Street talks.

The Taoiseach will also use the meeting to press for a public apology on behalf of the Conlon family.

Gerry Conlon and his later father Guiseppe were both jailed over 1974 bomb attack on the Horse and Groom pub in Guildford that killed five people.

Their sentences were quashed in 1989 following a major campaign, but the Conlon family have continued to lobby for further recognition of the miscarriage.

They received Mr Ahern’s backing in Dublin last week, and Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy has said he believed Mr Blair was on the verge of making the apology.

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