No one thought that making peace in Northern Ireland would be easy. It is unlikely, however, that anyone put “bank robbery” at the top of the list of obstacles to an enduring settlement. Yet a daring — although ultimately futile — bank heist is the latest blow to the stalled Northern Ireland peace process. The crime, the perpetrators of which are still unknown, has focused attention on the Irish Republican Army’s troubled relationship with the law. The organization must make a clear and decisive repudiation of such acts, even if it is not involved in this crime.

On Dec. 20, unknown assailants took hostage for 24 hours the families of two workers at the Belfast headquarters of Northern Bank. While they were being held, a gang stole £26.5 million (almost $50 million) from the bank. It was a meticulous operation: The kidnappers were dressed as police and they knew exactly which employees to target to gain access to the bank vaults. The two bank employees went to work as if all was normal. During the day, one of them took £1 million from the vault and gave it to the kidnappers, who apparently were testing to see if the police had been alerted. Bank employees were then sent home early. Then, among the afternoon Christmas crowds, a van pulled up to the bank and the two bank employees unloaded bags of bank notes. The van eventually made two trips before the robbers quit. Even without emptying the vault, they pulled off the biggest robbery in British history.

Ironically, the scale of the crime may render its fruits worthless. The stolen money consisted of brand new bank notes with identified serial numbers, which makes it easy to detect. The bank has said it will replace all of the old notes with new ones in different colors making the heist, in the words of one police official, “the biggest ever robbery of waste paper.”

The problems created for the peace process are not so easily fixed. Although police do not have suspects yet, late last month the Northern Ireland police chief accused the IRA of masterminding the robbery, saying every major line of inquiry pointed toward the group. Even though there is no hard evidence, the IRA has used police uniforms while committing crimes in the past and few other groups have the organization and the skills to pull off a crime on this scale. There is speculation that the IRA committed the robbery to get “pension” money for its members when they are forced to give up paramilitary activity following a peace settlement.

Reluctantly, other key political figures, such as Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and Mr. John Hulme, a Northern Irish politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his efforts to bring peace to the troubled province, have agreed with the charge. Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, has resolutely denied any IRA involvement in the robbery and dismissed the allegations as “smear tactics” by the largely Protestant police force that is opposed to making a deal with Catholics to share power. Senior leaders of Sinn Fein, who have admitted ties to the IRA in the past, have said they have been personally assured that the group had no role in the heist.

If true, the charges are damning. It would mean that the IRA was plotting the robbery as it was negotiating peace. That could provide a fatal blow to the trust and confidence needed to build an enduring agreement. Protestant hardliners have already used the charges to step up demands for the destruction of the IRA’s hidden arsenals, a well-known obstacle to any peace agreement. The IRA has refused to publicly destroy its arms, countering that it has not “lost” a war and such a step would be “humiliating.”

The IRA’s relationship to the law has always been problematic — and not only because it is an illegal organization that aims to bring about political change by force of arms. The IRA has long been involved in robberies, drug smuggling and kidnapping. Many of the extremists on both sides of this conflict are mere criminals who have wrapped themselves in a political cause. It is unclear whether the most committed rejectionists are motivated by principles or a reluctance to accept their being bound by law.

Sinn Fein and the IRA must make an unequivocal break with such lawlessness. They must condemn the December bank robbery and all other criminal acts. They should cooperate more fully with authorities to prevent them and punish wrongdoers. In the past, the IRA has been too willing to take the law into its own hands, for example, to exact revenge on drug dealers. That too must stop. Finally, the IRA will have to make more public the destruction of its weapons. Those stocks facilitate IRA activity in criminal activities. With even its own allies reluctantly conceding the logic of IRA involvement in the December robbery, it is plain that the burden is on the IRA to restore momentum to the peace process.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.