Irish police arrest seven in raids linked to Belfast heist

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Irish police investigating an IRA money-laundering operation have recovered more than £2m, including notes which may come from the £26.5m bank robbery in Belfast in December.

Irish police investigating an IRA money-laundering operation have recovered more than £2m, including notes which may come from the £26.5m bank robbery in Belfast in December.

Officers on both sides of the border are not completely certain that some of money they recovered in Co Cork can be traced to the Northern Bank raid, and will examine it forensically today. A former Sinn Fein political representative is among seven people arrested in the Irish Republic as part of a major Garda investigation into illicit republican finances.

Sinn Fein said last night: "Over the past four weeks, we have seen people rush to judgement time and time again. We would urge people to exercise caution on this occasion and allow the truth to come out. Sinn Fein has no further information about these arrests and we will wait to see how events unfold before we comment further."

Security sources in Northern Ireland said last night they did not yet know if £60,000 in Northern Bank notes discovered in Cork were part of the Belfast raid. Other smaller sums which have come to light before have turned out not to be from the robbery. More than half of the money taken in the raid was in new Northern Bank notes with known serial numbers, regarded as easily traceable and difficult to use.

Any clear link between the IRA and the Northern Bank robbery will cause enormous disruption to the Irish peace process, which has already been severely jolted by recent events, including the robbery.

Even if there were no connection, the very public connection of republicans to such large stashes of illicit funds will further tarnish the image of the republican movement. This has already taken a battering after the robbery and a brutal killing in a Belfast bar.

The funds were found in a Garda operation which has been in progress for many weeks, involving more than 100 detectives, according to one report. This may have been part of a tougher anti-IRA approach by the southern authorities after the Belfast robbery. It is too early to say if this was specifically in response to the raid or part of the more hard-hitting approach.

In the search, about 10 miles from Cork, police said they recovered £2.3m in sterling and arrested a man and a woman. In another house they found the Northern Bank notes. Two more men were arrested in Douglas and Passage West, near Cork city. Passage West has a republican enclave and Sinn Fein has previously complained of police surveillance there.

Officers arrested a further three men near Connolly railway station in Dublin, one from Cork and two from Londonderry, who reportedly had almost €100,000 (£69,000) in cash.

The Gardai involved included specialist officers from the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation. They have targeted criminal gangs in the Republic, but until now have not concentrated on republicans.

A spokeswoman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland said last night: "The PSNI is working closely with An Garda Siochana as we have done since the start of the investigation."

A spokesman for the Irish Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, who has repeatedly criticised the IRA for criminal activities, said he was being continuously briefed by Gardai on their investigation.