Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, last night flatly contradicted claims by Bertie Ahern that the IRA was no longer engaged in crime.
Orde denied he had briefed the Taoiseach before Christmas that the Provisionals had halted all illegal activity. During a trade mission to India, Ahern claimed the chief constable had given him a different view from that of his Assistant Chief Constable Sam Kincaid, who told the north's Policing Board last week the IRA was still involved.
The Taoiseach, speaking in New Delhi, rejected Kincaid's analysis, alleging that Orde, 'the most senior police officer', had given him a different view.
Asked if Ahern's account of his meeting with the chief constable before Christmas was correct, a spokesperson for Orde said the Taoiseach 'is mistaken to say that the Chief Constable gave a different view'. The two men had not discussed the issue.
It is understood Orde stands 100 per cent behind Kincaid 's analysis that all paramilitary groups, including the IRA, are still involved in crime. His spokesperson stressed that Orde would not say anything to pre-empt the next International Monitoring Commission (IMC) report later this month.
Kincaid's assessment also contradicted the views of the Northern Ireland Security Minister, Sean Woodward, who claimed all IRA activities were over. The chairman, Des Rea, has admitted the minister and the police remained 'clearly at odds'.
British Ministers, including Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, are pinning hopes of restoring devolution on the new IMC report in the hope it will confirm all IRA activities have ceased.
Hain told The Observer that the north's politicians should take a lesson from Nelson Mandela and forgive their enemies. South Africa had five times as many people killed as died in the Troubles yet Mandela still shook hands with his jailers. The minister asked why the province's politicians could not do the same.
Hain said he was encouraged by the prospects for key talks on 6 February aimed at reviving the deadlocked devolution process. Proposals from the Democratic Unionist Party to revive a highly limited form of devolution could, he suggested, provided a starting point for negotiations.
Hain expected that a report from the Independent Monitoring Commission, due shortly, would indicate the IRA surrender was 'for real'. But he admitted the IMC must decide how many of its members were still involved in crime.
'At some point, Northern Ireland has got to get to the South Africa moment of forgiving but not forgetting,' he said. 'If you have lost a husband or a child or other loved ones it's not for me to say that you can ever forget the past, and you can't ever have closure. But I think Northern Ireland has to look forward.
'If Nelson Mandela can - having spent 10,000 days of his adult life in prison can say "I can shake the hand of my former jailer, I can extend my hand to the people who were killing my people", why can't Northern Ireland's politicians?
The DUP will submit proposals to Downing Street this week for a resumption of the assembly, but without restoring the power-sharing executive. Hain did not favour this but if other parties did 'that could lead to a good result'. He warned: 'Years more limbo is not an option.'
Hain admitted leaks last week of a police report on the IRA's criminal activity had been a 'spanner in the works' but said the report from the IMC should help restore confidence. 'They will never in the end be able to provide an absolute 100 per cent cast-iron picture because most of what their assessment is based on intelligence, which is fragmentary.'