Detectives probing a £200,000 (€290,443) robbery from Boots chemist in Belfast city centre tonight shifted their suspicions away from the IRA.
The Provisionals were linked to the raid which saw two employees’ families held hostage because similar tactics to the multi-million pound Northern Bank heist were used.
Republican involvement would destroy any lingering hopes of restoring Northern Ireland’s power-sharing regime, unionists warned.
But while police have yet to blame anyone, it is understood that an IRA operation is not a major line of inquiry.
Police may instead be scouring the underworld networks for possible clues to the crime gang behind a carefully planned theft.
The store reopened today after forensic teams examined the premises on Donegall Place where the robbery was carried out.
While two families were held captive at their homes in the south and west of the city overnight, the staff members were ordered to go into work on Saturday and clear out all cash.
The money was put in sports bags and given to gang members at a nearby branch of Alliance and Leicester Building society.
The handover, in front of early morning shoppers, took place just yards from the scene of the audacious December raid on the Northern Bank’s HQ.
In that robbery, which shattered attempts by London and Dublin to put together a new deal to revive the Stormont Executive, hostages were also taken while employees brought the cash to waiting thieves.
With question marks also surrounding alarm systems in place, Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson claimed the operation was almost a mirror image of the bank heist blamed on the Provos by security chiefs and the British and Irish governments.
The East Antrim representative warned: “It looks like the finger is again pointing at the IRA and if that’s the case it will have very serious implications.
“It would simply reinforce what we have been saying, that they have no intention of giving up criminality.
“If there’s even the slightest approach by police to put the blame on the IRA it has blown any chance of discussions about devolution involving Sinn Féin.
“That will be true for everybody, not just the DUP. Everybody will simply say: ’Shut them out and find another way’.”
Boots is expected to carry out a major review of its security at the department store.
As staff returned to work and signs that had told shoppers the shop was closed due to unforeseen circumstances were taken down, area manager Mary Woods was unable to talk about the robbery.
She said: “Our major concern is with our staff and their families and with our customers at this moment.
“Obviously we had a difficult day yesterday, but at this stage I can’t really make much more comment on that.
“We are working closely with the PSNI who are currently carrying out an investigation. We have got to let them get on with their work.”
Belfast’s Deputy Lord Mayor, Pat Convery, was outraged by the theft.
The SDLP representative said: “This was a chilling and cowardly robbery.
“It must be made clear that these are anything but victimless crimes. Families are traumatised and businesses damaged.
“The reputation of Belfast as a business and commercial centre is put in jeopardy after each of these incidents and many companies may have second thoughts about locating in the city.”