Terror alert in hunt for IRA cash

Henry McDonald, Ireland editor
Sunday February 20, 2005
The Observer

Police and military across Northern Ireland have been put on high alert against a terrorist attack as the peace process plunged deeper into crisis over the widening investigation into IRA money laundering and robberies and the involvement of Sinn Fein.

As Irish police recovered millions of pounds of bank notes from the pre-Christmas raid on Northern Bank - Europe's biggest bank robbery - The Observer has learnt that the most serious security warning since the breakdown of the 1996 ceasefire has been issued to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

'Every serving officer has been told to take their weapons everywhere they go, even off duty,' a senior detective said. The warnings come just one week after the Army put troops on stand-by for a booby trap attack.

It is unclear if any attacks would constitute a breach of the Provisional IRA ceasefire or instead come from one of the two main republican dissident groups. Detectives claim that in parts of Northern Ireland, such as North Antrim and South Derry, there has been an 'overlapping relationship'.

While police will not comment publicly about the fresh security alert, senior detectives expressed concern that the attack could involve a large explosion in the north.

Sinn Fein has reacted angrily to reports that the Garda has uncovered an IRA money-laundering scam that involved cash from December's Northern Bank robbery. On his return from a book tour in Spain yesterday, party president Gerry Adams predicted that Sinn Fein would 'weather this storm'.

Adams said he would never allow himself to be tainted with criminality. 'What's happening is quite disgraceful and an attempt to destroy Sinn Fein and it won't work,' he added.

The West Belfast MP also denied suggestions that there were serious divisions within mainstream republicanism.

Irish Labour leader Pat Rabbitte agreed the republican movement remained cohesive and united, but urged voters across Ireland to reassess the opinions and motives of the leadership.

'Are they planning to contest the democratic space on an equal basis as the rest of us, or do they have an ideology that means an overthrow of this state and an overthrow of the northern state that will lead to a Sinn Fein government on both parts of the island?' he asked.

The Garda's investigation into an alleged IRA money-laundering scam had been going on for almost three weeks before the raids and is expected to last for at least three months. A detective said yesterday that the breakthrough came with the discovery of Northern Bank notes being burned on a bonfire at a garden in Passage West, Cork. He said police were now 'very confident' that they could link a quantity of the estimated £3 million seized at several locations in the Irish Republic to cash taken from the Northern Bank raid.

'The burning of the bank notes was a significant breakthrough because they belonged to the Northern Bank,' an officer from the PSNI monitoring the Garda operation told The Observer.

Among the lines of inquiry the Garda and the Republic's Criminal Assets Bureau are focusing on is the channelling of 'dirty money' out of Ireland and into Libya and Bulgaria.

'We are talking about holding companies, and in Bulgaria's case the purchase of vast amounts of property. The money we think that's out there is not tens of millions but hundreds of millions,' one Gardai said.

All but one of the eight people arrested in Cork and Dublin have been freed. It could take six months before files are sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Don Bullman, a chef in his thirties, was described in court as a dissident, but it has since emerged that he sold tickets to Sinn Fein functions in 1999.

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