Dublin, Ireland In an unprecedented charge, the Irish government Sunday publicly identified three of Sinn Fein's top figures, including party President Gerry Adams, as members of the Irish Republican Army command.
The government's increasingly confrontational stance indicates it no longer will tolerate the IRA-linked Sinn Fein's long-held claim that its leaders should not be held accountable for IRA actions. The shift is intended to force the illegal IRA to disband or risk the legal Sinn Fein's enforced marginalization in politics.
Seeking to maintain good working relations with Sinn Fein's two key figures, successive Irish and British governments had previously declined to identify either Adams or Martin McGuinness, the party's de facto deputy leader, as members of the IRA's seven-member command, called the "army council."
But during a live debate on a national radio station, Justice Minister Michael McDowell identified Adams, McGuinness and Martin Ferris as IRA army council members. McDowell berated what he called their "deep, deep dishonesty."
Sinn Fein denied the charge.
The government's foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, later backed McDowell's assessment.
"We're absolutely satisfied that the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA are interlinked. They're two sides of the one coin," Ahern said.
Ferris is one of five Sinn Fein lawmakers in the 166-member Irish parliament.
McGuinness, who served two short prison sentences for IRA membership in the mid-1970s, denied the charge. But notably, when asked whether McDowell was "a liar," McGuinness hesitated.
"What he has alleged is absolutely false," he said.
Ireland's claimant-friendly libel laws often have allowed public figures who were called liars in public to win court cases easily.
Ferris, who was caught in 1984 trying to smuggle weapons into Northern Ireland on a ship from Boston and spent eight years in prison, already has been identified by Irish government ministers as an IRA army council member.
A series of detailed books on the Sinn Fein-IRA movement have identified Adams and McGuinness as members of the IRA army council since the mid-1970s.
Irish government leaders' decision to highlight these views comes at an unprecedented moment in Northern Ireland. For the first time, the Irish and British governments and other major parties in Northern Ireland unanimously agree that the IRA's refusal to disarm and disband poses the key obstacle to achieving lasting peace in the British province.
The Provisional IRA, as the group is formally known, has been observing what it calls "a complete cessation of military operations" since 1997. Previously, the group killed about 1,800 people during a failed 27-year campaign to abolish Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
A 1998 peace accord offered freedom for IRA prisoners and a place for Sinn Fein in a wider power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. In exchange, Sinn Fein was supposed to observe "exclusively peaceful and democratic means" and the IRA was supposed to disarm fully by mid-2000.
Instead, the IRA has reserved the right to pursue a range of illegal activities, including robberies and smuggling, and kept meting out non-lethal attacks on criminal opponents in rivalry to Northern Ireland's legitimate police force -- the outlawed group considers all these activities not to be "military" in nature.