By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Conflicting reports of possible IRA involvement in the recently foiled gun-running operation out of Florida and the brutal killing of a young Belfast man have sent a shudder through the peace process less than a month before political leaders begin their review of the Good Friday agreement.
Unionists say all early prison releases should be halted after the shooting of 22-year-old Charles Bennett in West Belfast on Thursday. The SDLP also condemned the shooting. No group has admitted responsibility for the murder.
Bennett’s body was found hooded and with his hands bound in the grounds of a GAA club in the Milltown area. He had been shot twice in the head and his injuries were so severe forensic experts had to use finger prints to identify him, police said. He had last been seen alive at his girlfriend’s home in North Belfast on Sunday.
Reports in Belfast newspapers said he was shot dead as an RUC informer, with some claiming he had been working for the police for five years. Other reports said he had broken into an IRA arms dump and stolen a gun for his own use.
Neither report could be confirmed, although most media and police reports have pointed the finger in that direction of the Provisional IRA.
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The Republic’s minister for justice, John O’Donoghue, said he believed the IRA cease-fire was intact, echoing the view Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams expressed several times last week.
Jeffrey Donaldson of the UUP, however, leading a chorus of unionist criticism, asked how the Northern secretary, Mo Mowlam, would respond to what he called a blatant act of terrorist violence.
Adams said the IRA cease-fire was intact and refused to speculate on who was responsible, saying Bennett’s death was a tragedy and sending his condolences to the family. When asked about the arrests last week for gun running from the US, Adams said again said the cease-fire remained intact.
Four Irish nationals were arrested last week in Florida and Philadephia and charged with conspiring to mail arms to Ireland after British authorities intercepted a package of firearms in Coventry. Four arrests have also been made in Galway in connection with the Florida case.
Despite Adam’s comments, others were putting a less positive spin on this week’s events. PUP spokesman David Ervine claimed the IRA cease-fire was beginning to "unravel," but a Sinn Fein Assembly assemblyman, Alex Maskey, accused loyalist leaders of ignoring regular loyalist violence, recent arms finds in loyalist areas and feuding between the loyalist organizations.
Maskey also accused unionist politicians of "jumping at every opportunity" to seek Sinn Fein’s exclusion from the Assembly. "That has been the policy of unionism for some time which has sought to exclude Sinn Fein and other nationalists," he said.
Discussions over the shooting and the origin of the gun running ring in Florida come as all parties head toward the review of the Good Friday agreement. With pressure still coming from the Irish and British governments, both Unionist and nationalist parties have yet to comment on their approach to the review process.
Sinn Fein is to seek a full range of formal and informal meetings with the Ulster Unionist Party to find a way through the decommissioning impasse. Adams said no-one should underestimate the depth of the crisis.
The Ulster Unionists do not want change, he said, but the primary responsibility lay with the British government for not confronting the unionist veto. Adams also described the approach of the Fine Gael leader, John Bruton, to the peace process as "not viable" because of Bruton’s inability to see the larger picture.
Adams’s comments followed demands earlier from Bruton on the London and Dublin governments to spell out Sinn Fein’s position in the light of the murder of Bennett and revelations about the gun-running operation from Florida.
The taoiseach has declined to specify what political penalties might be imposed on Sinn Féin if the Provisional IRA is found to have authorized the arms smuggling and the murder of in Belfast.
In a separate development, a report published in London on Monday claims that the final report of the Patten Commission on Policing, considering reform of the RUC, will recommend a major recruitment drive among Catholics and an increase in its size.
The Financial Times said the Commission has also considered laying off the entire force and inviting officers to reapply for jobs, while providing generous early retirement packages for others.
It also claims the Commission has looked at changing the unionist ethos and symbols of the RUC to make it more acceptable to nationalists. The Patten Report is due to be published in September but may be brought forward.