BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The Irish Republican Army (search) covered up a Belfast killing, is smuggling in new armaments and continues to recruit and train members how to use firearms and make bombs, an expert commission reported Tuesday.
The British and Irish governments welcomed the findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission (search), a four-man panel appointed three years ago to provide objective assessments on the activities of the IRA and several other illegal groups based in Northern Ireland. A Sinn Fein (search) official said the commission was neither impartial nor credible.
The report shed new light on a central issue bedeviling Northern Ireland's 12-year-old peace process — whether the outlawed IRA will disarm and disband in support of the province's 1998 peace accord.
It found that the IRA and a half-dozen other paramilitary groups remained highly active from September 2004 to March. While the other groups have no significant political support, the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party represents most of Northern Ireland's Catholic minority, making continued IRA activity a huge political obstacle.
The commissioners, among them a former CIA deputy director, cited evidence that the IRA was smuggling in new weaponry in defiance of the 1998 accord's disarmament goals. The IRA was supposed to have scrapped all its armaments by mid-2000 but didn't start the process until late 2001 and halted it some two years later.
The report said police in September discovered 10,000 rounds of assault-rifle ammunition in an IRA arms dump "of a type not previously found in Northern Ireland and manufactured since the Belfast agreement." These bullets, it said, "may have been only part of a larger consignment."
The IRA "continues to seek to maintain its medium-term effectiveness. It recruits and trains new members, including in the use of firearms and explosives. It continues to gather intelligence," the report said.
It said the IRA committed at least five shootings and six assaults since September and runs a range of criminal rackets such as smuggling fuel and cigarettes and bank robberies — including the world-record theft in December of about $50 million from a Belfast bank. The IRA has denied involvement in the bank robbery.
The commissioners added their take to the IRA's admission that its members stabbed to death a Catholic civilian, Robert McCartney (search), outside a Belfast bar on Jan. 30.
They accused the IRA of putting "the organization and its members ahead of justice." They said IRA members attacked McCartney "at the direction" of a senior IRA figure in Belfast and afterward cleaned up forensic evidence and intimidated potential witnesses.
The IRA — which initially denied involvement — later expelled three members and offered to shoot two of them as the group faced intense pressure from a public campaign by McCartney's sisters. Sinn Fein also suspended or expelled about a dozen members who were involved in or witnessed the killing.
The commissioners said three groups rooted in hard-line Protestant areas — the Loyalist Volunteer Force (search), Ulster Defense Association (search) and Ulster Volunteer Force (search) — were responsible for more violence and crime than the IRA and three smaller anti-British gangs. They said, on average, the IRA and these other underground groups combined to shoot or assault four people each week.
Sinn Fein official Alex Maskey declined to comment on the report's specific charges, but accused the commissioners of simply repeating what police and British military officials had told them. He said the commission "has little or no credibility and is neither impartial, fair nor balanced."
But the Democratic Unionists (search), who represent most Protestants, said the report reinforced their demands for the IRA to disarm and disband before they form a power-sharing administration with Sinn Fein. Such cooperation, a central goal of the 1998 agreement, has been on hold since 2002 because of arguments over the IRA's future.
"Anyone who thinks that Sinn Fein can be brought into government any time soon should read this report in detail and see just how deeply ingrained ... the whole litany of paramilitary and criminal activity is," Democratic Unionist whip Nigel Dodds said.
The IRA observed a cease-fire since 1997 after killing about 1,800 people during a failed 27-year campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom.