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Dublin: Sinn Fein chiefs in IRA

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BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- Top Irish officials have accused three Sinn Fein members of being high-ranking leaders of the Irish Republican Army.

In an interview with Today FM, a Dublin-based radio station, Justice Minister Michael McDowell named Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris as members of the outlawed IRA's top leadership body, the Army Council.

The remarks marked the first time the Irish government has accused the leaders of Sinn Fein of being leaders of the paramilitary organization.

In an interview with the state-run broadcaster RTE, Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern confirmed the report.

"We're absolutely satisfied that the leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA are interlinked," he said.

"They're two sides of the one coin."

But Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, when asked who the members of the Army Council are, told reporters Sunday, "I do not know who they are."

Adams and McGuinness are members of the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly, the parliament created under the Good Friday Peace Accords in 1998.

McGuinness served as education minister in the provincial government, while Ferris serves in the parliament of the Irish Republic.

McGuinness has acknowledged being a member of the IRA during the 1970s, but denies current membership.

He told RTE that the minister's remarks were politically motivated and an attempt to criminalize Sinn Fein.

Adams has denied he was ever in the IRA, while Ferris has offered no public comment.

The accusations come as relations between the Irish government and the IRA are at a nadir.

At the beginning of December, Protestant and Catholic parties were close to a deal that would have revived a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

But that fell apart when the IRA balked at allowing the decommissioning of its weapons to be photographed.

Shortly thereafter, on December 21, a heist netted a record £26.5 million (about $50 million) from Northern Bank headquarters in Belfast.

No one has been charged in connection with the robbery, but security forces on both sides of the border blame the IRA.

Both the IRA and Sinn Fein deny involvement in the meticulously planned and executed operation, which left investigators with little forensic evidence.

Unionists, who support keeping Northern Ireland a part of Britain, say the robbery shows the IRA is still involved in criminality.

The story took another twist last week, when Irish officials made several arrests in a money-laundering case and uncovered £2.5 million of cash that police said may be from the Northern Bank robbery.

And last Friday night, police in Belfast found £50,000 in the bathroom of a country club frequented by police officers and former police officers.

Police say the money was from the robbery and was planted there by the IRA in an attempt to embarrass them.

Journalist Peter Taggart contributed to this story from Belfast.

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