A major body blow has been delivered to the troubled power-sharing agreement and relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP, already fraught over the IRA’s refusal to sign up to end all criminality, have deteriorated even further, if that were possible.
Sinn Féin and the IRA both deny the Orde claim. But the Chief Constable of the PSNI has given voice to widespread suspicions that the Provos were behind the biggest bank robbery on these islands.
Yet justice demands that Mr Orde furnish proof to support his argument. Otherwise, the credibility of the new-look, inter-communal police force will be undermined.
In another dramatic milestone on the North’s tortuous journey from violence to peace, the Northern Bank yesterday took the unprecedented step of recalling all its notes in circulation. As far as the thieves are concerned, this means the value of the massive haul is greatly diminished because the vast bulk of stolen notes have been rendered more or less useless.
In the absence of arrests, the significance of Mr Orde’s allegation of IRA involvement is given weight by his reputation as an even-handed policeman who tells it as it is. Thus, his considered assessment that the IRA were responsible for the heist is deeply significant.
His claim was certainly good enough to convince Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who accepted the allegation while conceding it represents a serious setback for the political process.
Most right-thinking people will share the sense of concern expressed by the Taoiseach at the thought that he was engaged in talks with people who know the leadership of the IRA.
Obviously, this remark relates to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness during the recent round of crunch talks. By implication, while the Taoiseach was trying to convince the DUP to share power with Sinn Féin, the IRA was busy planning the multi-million pound robbery.
Bank heists can now be added to the IRA’s litany of ongoing criminality which already includes illicit alcohol production, cigarette smuggling plus downright thuggery involving punishment beatings and the brutality of knee-capping.
In denying the bank raid allegation, Sinn Féin spokesman Martin McGuinness said the Orde claim of IRA involvement was politically biased and motivated by a ‘securicrat’ agenda.
Furthermore, Mr McGuinness assured us that when he asked the IRA if they were involved they denied it. They would, wouldn’t they?
Lest it be forgotten, however, the IRA also denied involvement in a string of other incidents, including the callous murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe and the nefarious activities of the Colombia Three.
When it suits, the organisation has a capacity to slide in and out of denial, as easily as putting on or taking off a coat. Conceivably, the Belfast raid may well be the work of an IRA gang acting without authorisation of the leadership. Whatever the truth, it seems the republican movement is having trouble shedding its criminal past.
That the Taoiseach has chosen to believe the Orde line is highly significant. Surely Mr McGuinness would not accuse Mr Ahern of bias or of trying to wreck the peace process.
It will take major moves by the IRA to get the peace train back on track. Putting an end to criminality has to be the first step to move forward the political process.