NORTHERN BANK
Peter Morrison  /  AP
Police cordoned off Northern Bank in Belfast after the robbery Dec. 20.
updated 2/18/2005 6:03:16 PM ET 2005-02-18T23:03:16

Police have blown open an Irish Republican Army money-laundering operation, the Irish government said Friday, as authorities scrutinized more than $4.75 million that was seized this week in four locations.

Police in the Irish Republic said it could take days to determine whether any of the cash could be linked to the Dec. 20 raid on Northern Bank in Belfast, when the IRA allegedly stole a world record 26.5 million pounds, or about $50 million.

But their counterparts in Northern Ireland announced Friday night that they had discovered an undisclosed amount of stolen Northern Bank cash — the first confirmed find — at a Belfast country club frequented by police.

In a statement, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said it suspected that the IRA deliberately placed the cash there “in an effort to distract police” from concentrating their efforts elsewhere.

Suspected IRA member charged
Detectives levied criminal charges against a suspected IRA member and interrogated five other people, including an activist for Sinn Fein, a private banker linked to one of Ireland’s most prominent dealmakers and a man allegedly caught burning a pile of British bank notes.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell said police had begun to expose a wider IRA network with sophisticated money-laundering techniques. He accused both the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party of running “a colossal crime machine, laundering huge sums of money.”

Don Bullman, 30, a chef, was arraigned on a charge of membership in the outlawed IRA.

Police Chief Superintendent Phillip Kelly testified that detectives trailed Bullman to a rendezvous Wednesday with two suspected IRA members in a parking lot beside Dublin’s Heuston train station. He said officers found about $22,000 in euro notes hidden in a detergent box in a backpack, along with six cellular telephones, as “part of a money-laundering operation on behalf of the IRA.”

Sinn Fein activist held
Still in custody Friday night were Tom Hanlon, 38, a Sinn Fein activist, who was arrested at his home in Passage West, County Cork; Ted Cunningham, 56, a Cork money lender; Cunningham’s domestic partner, Cathy Armstrong; and George Hegarty, a Cork pub bouncer in his mid-50s whom police identified as an IRA suspect.

Police said they found no illicit money at the home of Hanlon, a house painter who in 2002 unsuccessfully ran for a parliamentary seat on the Sinn Fein ticket.

But police arrested another Passage West man Friday night after residents reported seeing a neighbor burning a stack of money in his back yard. Police said they also seized assault-rifle ammunition at the man’s home.

Earlier, another man walked into a Cork police station and handed over a bag containing $330,000 in British notes. The man said he had been given the money to hide by an arrested suspect.

Noel Conroy, commissioner of the Garda, the Irish national police, said panicked IRA members might have asked friends to store bags of cash as news of the raids spread. He appealed to anybody who recently received large amounts of British currency, “perhaps in dubious circumstances,” to hand it in “before we come knocking on their door.”

Detectives also seized troves of financial documents and impounded computers at the offices of several lawyers and accountants suspected of working with the IRA.

Business materials scrutinized
In a heavily defended convoy, they carried to police headquarters in Dublin more than $4.4 million in 17 bags allegedly found hidden in Cunningham’s home near the Cork village of Farran.

Cunningham has founded several financial companies, including Chesterton Finance Co. Ltd., which is also directed by one of Ireland’s most powerful business negotiators, Phil Flynn.

Flynn — a vice president of Sinn Fein in the early 1980s and then a labor union chief — was not arrested, but police raided his home and seized documents. Flynn also confirmed that he traveled to Bulgaria with Cunningham two weeks ago to explore unspecified investments, including property.

Flynn announced Friday night that he had resigned as chairman of the Bank of Scotland’s operations in Ireland; from the board of VHI, a private medical insurance firm; and as director of one of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s most ambitious projects, a commission planning to relocate thousands of civil servants from Dublin.

In an interview with state broadcaster RTE, Flynn rejected suspicions that he may have facilitated money-laundering. He said he had no apologies for remaining an Irish republican and retaining close friendships with members of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

“I don't believe the money came through Chesterton,” Flynn said, adding, “If I’m proven wrong, I’ll run up and down the street naked for you.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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