Efforts are being made to save the northern talks process following controversial allegations on Friday by the northern police chief Hugh Orde.

Orde said he believed the Provisional IRA carried out a pre-Christmas raid on the Northern Bank in Belfast. The claim devastated lingering hopes of a new peace deal involving the IRA and Ian Paisley’s DUP. It has also overshadowed the breakdown last month in the talks over DUP demands for symbolic photographs of IRA weapons decommissioning.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness has condemned the bank raid and the organisation responsible, accusing it of being “hostile to the Sinn Féin agenda and the peace process”.

The crisis escalated further at the weekend when the Prime Minister of the 26 Counties, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, claimed Sinn Féin leaders ‘knew’ the IRA was planning the raid while locked in difficult political negotiations.

The claim angered republicans, who dismissed it as an attempt to smear Sinn Féin ahead of upcoming elections in Ireland and Britain.

Ahern, while confirming plans to seek re-election as Taoiseach in 2007, said he had no reason to doubt the PSNI police chief.

“This was a Provisional IRA job, this was a job that would have been known to the political leadership,” he said.

“I am upset, quite frankly, that in the period when we were in intensive talks trying to get a comprehensive agreement that my information is now that people in very senior positions would have known what was going on.”

The IRA has dismissed suggestions it was behind the raid, while Sinn Féin has blamed securocrats for attempting to damage the peace process.

Sinn Féin’s national party chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said the Taoiseach’s remarks were “a direct attack on the integrity of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness”.

“Nationalists and republicans will be deeply disappointed that the Taoiseach has chosen to believe the British and jump on to the DUP bandwagon of blame,” he said.

“That the taoiseach should do this, after years of working closely with this party’s leadership in the peace process, is a grave blow and will be an encouragement to all of those, particularly in the DUP, who have consistently sought to attack and undermine the efforts for peace.”

Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness denounced in strong terms the organisation that staged the robbery.

“Whoever carried out the robbery are also hostile to the Sinn Féin agenda and the peace process, and under no circumstances should any of those people get their way in the ongoing discussions which will have to take place if we are to resolve our political difficulties,” said Mr McGuinness.

“Gerry Adams and I work on the basis that you can’t tell lies within the peace process. If you tell lies you get caught out and then irreparable damage is done to the peace process.”

He said now is not the time for the governments to throw in the towel on the talks and set to one side all that has been achieved in recent months.

“Sinn Féin’s priority for the last fifteen years has been to secure a peace process, transform politics on the island and advance the argument for Irish unity,” he said. “We have invested huge time and resources in the peace process, as have others, and we will not allow unsubstantiated allegations to deflect us in our work.

“It is disappointing that people are prepared to accept the word of Hugh Orde despite the fact he has not produced one iota of evidence to suggest that republicans were behind this robbery.

“His political intervention was as a result of intelligence reports from faceless securocrats who have a less than honourable record in this country.

“The people on whose word these unsubstantiated allegations are being made are the same people who for years colluded with loyalist squads in their own interests, who forced an orange march down the Garvaghy Road, who eroded essential parts of the Good Friday Agreement and who today are still refusing to co-operate with inquiries such as that into the Dublin Monaghan bombings. Maybe it is the actions and integrity of these people that should be subjected to scrutiny.”

Mr McGuinness said his party had negotiated with Bertie Ahern for almopst ten years. “with honesty and in a straightforward manner, at all times, including when things were difficult. I reject outright accusations of double-dealing and dishonesty and stand on our record.”

He pointed to his party’s position as the largest nationalist party in the north.

“Sinn Féin is a major player in the peace process because over 340,000 people voted for us. We will not allow our mandate to be set aside on anyone’s behalf.”

* Two suspected unionist paramilitaries are being questioned tonight after being arrested in possession of a large quantity of banknotes in Craigavon, County Armagh.

The men were understood to be attempting to launder hundreds of 100 pound Northern Bank notes, which were set to be withdrawn from circulation following last month’s bank robbery.

Police have refused to comment on the arrests or link them to the robbery.

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