Representative Peter King, who for more than two decades has been an ardent supporter of the Sinn Fein-IRA movement, accused the outlawed IRA on Sunday of making a series of poor decisions that have fueled growing hostility within Irish-American circles.

King said IRA activities were preventing a potential new power-sharing deal between Sinn Fein, which represents most Catholics in Northern Ireland, and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, the territory's major British Protestant party.

His comments came as Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein, travelled to New York City on the second day of a weeklong trip seeking support. For the first time since 1995, Adams is being barred from official St Patrick's Day political functions, including a lunch at the White House.

Disband IRA?

King said in an interview with RTE, Ireland's state radio, that Americans were finding it "hard to see what the justification is for the continued existence of the IRA".

Power-sharing was the key goal of Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998. But a painstakingly negotiated deal fell apart in December when the IRA refused to renounce crime or to permit photos of its disarmament.

King said the IRA's continued
existence was no longer justified 

Since then the group has been accused of mounting the world's largest bank robbery, killing a Catholic man and intimidating witnesses, and laundering millions annually in criminal proceeds. He said this criminal combination had demonstrated "the reality that it really is time for the IRA to go out of business".

King, who usually attends Sinn Fein's annual conferences and in the past offered praise for IRA "freedom fighters," skipped this month's conference in Dublin.

He also dismissed Adams' claim that the IRA wasn't involved in crime.

Anger

King, normally an arch critic of Paisley, said the veteran anti-Catholic hard-liner appeared willing to share power - if the IRA would go away.

"Probably the worst criticism I could make of the IRA is that they are making Ian Paisley look good, and that takes a lot of work"

Congress representative Peter King

"Probably the worst criticism I could make of the IRA is that they are making Ian Paisley look good, and that takes a lot of work," he quipped.

He called the 20 December heist of Northern Bank in Belfast - when a well-coordinated gang stole US$50 million after taking the families of two bank employees hostage - "totally inexcusable".

He said the IRA's subsequent implication in the 30 January knife slaying of Robert McCartney in Belfast caused much more disgust among rank-and-file American backers of Sinn Fein.

'Tone-deaf'

McCartney, 33, was attacked in a crowded pub and had his throat slit outside, but none of approximately 70 witnesses - including at least one Sinn Fein election candidate and several other party activists - has been willing to identify the attackers.

The victim's five sisters, in a rare rebellion within Sinn Fein's working-class Catholic strongholds, have campaigned publicly against intimidation of witnesses and the Sinn Fein-IRA movement's opposition to cooperation with the police.

Sinn Fein and the IRA, which initially denied any involvement, have suspended or expelled 10 members linked to the killing. The McCartney sisters have been invited to the White House for St Patrick's Day.

And the IRA, in its latest attempt to defuse criticism of its members' involvement, announced last week it was willing to kill four people it considers responsible.

King said IRA leaders' offer to execute people - which caused widespread outrage in Britain and Ireland - demonstrated "how tone-deaf they are".