Stolen cash found in police club as Sinn Fein is tainted by IRA scandals

Armed robbery, money-laundering and murder have left the republican movement reeling and are threatening to engulf the Northern Irish peace process. David McKittrick reports

Fifty-thousand pounds of the haul from Belfast's multi-million-pound bank robbery have turned up in a city police sports and social club following a mysterious tip-off ­ yet another twist in a drama that has left Sinn Fein and the IRA in crisis.

Fifty-thousand pounds of the haul from Belfast's multi-million-pound bank robbery have turned up in a city police sports and social club following a mysterious tip-off ­ yet another twist in a drama that has left Sinn Fein and the IRA in crisis.

Five packages, each containing £10,000, were found on Friday in the club toilet. Yesterday it was confirmed that the cash had formed part of the £26m stolen from the Northern Bank in Belfast in December.

The sudden appearance of the money looked like a republican attempt to muddy the waters after a disastrous fortnight that has left the IRA and Sinn Fein mired in a crisis springing from criminality including armed robbery, money-laundering on a huge scale, and murder.

The organisations face months of continuing investigation into republican money-laundering as the Dublin authorities said they would not let up in their efforts to combat the IRA illegality.

Pressure on Sinn Fein is mounting, with Irish police saying the money-laundering investigation would take them into some of the most respectable areas of the financial sector north and south of the border and overseas.

The Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has warned that the peace process was in crisis but the party appeared isolated yesterday, stripped of much of its political credibility. Sanctions against it are expected to be announced in the Commons by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, later this week.

This follows the judgements of the British and Irish governments that the IRA carried out the Northern Bank robbery. Sinn Fein may also face fines.

The search and seizure operations showed that Dublin is determined to go beyond political gestures in attempts to combat IRA illegalities. More than £2m was recovered at venues in County Cork, with a smaller amount seized in Dublin in swoops that involved more than a hundred police officers. Irish detectives believe the money found includes some of the proceeds of the Belfast robbery, but have yet to formally confirm this.

Police have indicated that following the republican money trail may lead to inquiries overseas and to apparently conventional areas of the financial sector. The general suspicion is that republican money has been stashed away in many places and has been used to buy pubs and clubs and other property. The IRA is regarded as expert at concealing its tracks.

Almost all of those arrested have been released, though one man has been charged with membership of the Real IRA. One of those questioned and released was Tom Hanlon, a former Sinn Fein councillor and unsuccessful candidate for the Irish parliament. He has appeared in photographs with Mr Adams.

On Friday Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said he had never met Mr Hanlon, but Irish television footage later showed the two men chatting at an election count in 2002, when Mr Hanlon stood for the Dail. The explanation given was that Mr McGuinness had met hundreds of candidates and could not be expected to remember them all.

Another of those released was a 57-year-old Cork-based company director and money-lender, Ted Cunningham. Police are continuing to examine £2.3m seized in a raid on Mr Cunningham's bungalow.

In a separate episode, the IRA in Belfast has been deeply embarrassed by the involvement of some of its members in a bar-room brawl which led to the fatal stabbing of a man.

Mr Adams strongly defended his party, seeking to politicise and personalise the activities of the authorities. He said the Irish justice minister Michael McDowell had reacted "with glee".

Claiming a smear campaign was being waged to discredit Sinn Fein, he added: "To listen to some of our political opponents, you would think that Sinn Fein as a party, Sinn Fein as an organisation, that those who vote for our party are criminals and we're not."

The Rev Ian Paisley Jnr, leader of the Democratic Unionist party said Mr Adams "was given a choice of leading Sinn Fein down a democratic path but he has decided crime pays."

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