NOEL Conroy does not give press conferences. So the decision of the Commissioner of the Garda to go before Ireland’s television cameras on Friday was an indication of the magnitude of the operation his force is undertaking.
Members of the Garda Special Branch, Fraud and Criminal Assets Bureau had just launched its biggest ever set of raids on the offices of accountants, solicitors and finance companies across the country, looking for documents linked to offshore accounts, property deals, business ownerships and money transactions estimated to run into hundreds of millions of euros.
Ostensibly linked to the search for the 26.5m stolen recently in Belfast, in reality the raids were about something more. There is said to be a massive amount of financial activity, ranging from pubs to trading corporations, situated in countries outside the EU in order to avoid the scrutiny of EU financial regulations. And they all have one thing in common: they are linked to the IRA.
The amounts involved were evidently for a purpose far beyond personal enrichment. There is now a belief that the finance operation uncovered is intended to fund a massive campaign to subvert politics in the Republic of Ireland, undermining its political parties and institutions. Gardai now talk in apocalyptic terms. The scheme is, they say, the IRA’s banking system to be used to overthrow the government of Ireland.
A key part of the grandiose plan was the subverting of Sinn Fein’s political opposition. The IRA is in the process of building a black propaganda campaign to attack members of the Irish parliament and other elected representatives. Across the country, the IRA has been spying on members of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Progressive Democrats. Units of IRA volunteers, under the guise of Sinn Fein "activists", have been building up dossiers on members of opposing political parties.
This information is to be used to destroy the careers of politicians and public figures at key points in the run-up to the next Irish general election, in which Sinn Fein hopes to establish itself as a major presence in the Dail.
Gardai and Irish army intelligence believe the leadership of the Provisionals has decided it has completed its strategic project in Northern Ireland, having overthrown the SDLP to become the biggest nationalist party, and has now turned its attention to its grand plan of taking power in the Republic. Within republican circles this project is referred to as the "re-conquest of the south".
This project requires hundreds of millions of euros to pay for the small army of activists of all shades, ranging from the local "community" workers to high-flying financiers handling the organisation’s money
The truth has finally dawned on Bertie Ahern’s government that, rather than be content with a political agreement that would have seen Sinn Fein in a Stormont Executive in the north, the Provisionals were intent on an altogether bigger prize.
However, their ambition may have been their undoing. It is now widely accepted that the robbery of the 26.5m was a miscalculation on their part.
The IRA may have a highly sophisticated money laundering operation, but the strain placed on this system by the injection of 26.5m was too much.
Over the past weeks, signs of the strain began to emerge as two separate Garda intelligence-gathering operations came together when members of the Special Branch following a dissident republican in County Cork and anti-money laundering detectives found they were watching the same people.
The Special Branch detectives were on routine surveillance of a Cork member of the Real IRA who appeared to have an unusually close relationship with a man who was both a senior IRA figure and a member of Sinn Fein. Interest in this relationship increased when the Special Branch men found that in the past month the two had held meetings with a financier at the centre of a separate investigation into money laundering.
Some weeks ago it became clear that what the two sections of the Garda were witnessing was the movement of cash from the north to Cork and the laundering of that money on a very large scale.
The crackdown swung into action last Wednesday with the first of a series of raids that went on over the following 48 hours, involving eight arrests and the seizure of thousands of files and computer hard drives relating to financial dealings here and abroad.
Of key interest are documents relating to the setting up of trading companies and property deals outside the EU in Bulgaria, Turkey and Libya.
The operations that took place last week are merely the start of an investigation which gardai say will run for years. As Commissioner Conroy confirmed at his press conference, the operation is aimed at the "subversive" activities of the Provisional IRA.
Garda sources have confirmed the 2.3m and other money seized in Cork last week is from the Northern Bank raid. Belfast police confirmed last night the discovery of a further 50,000 in the city’s Newforge Country Club. It is believed most of the other cash is being laundered by other people on both sides of the border.
The laundering has been a complex issue involving the transaction of the sterling notes for other "clean" sterling, its conversion into euros and its subsequent transfer out of Ireland.
That it is proving difficult was illustrated by the fact that, following the raids in Cork, one man gave himself up at Anglesea Garda Station in Cork city and handed over 175,000 in cash which he said he had been asked to keep by one of the figures at the centre of the investigation. Then, on Friday afternoon, another man was arrested while trying to burn thousands of Northern Bank notes in his back garden in Passage West.
The Garda operation into the IRA’s money laundering is now the biggest ever undertaken by the force. More than 100 detectives are expected to be engaged almost permanently over the next few years in tracking down the IRA’s illegal fundraising operation. They are already understood to have identified a large number of businesses, licensed premises and hotels that have been acquired on behalf of the IRA.
Gardai believe that the IRA has turned itself into a criminal organisation comparable to the Mafia in the US. It has, they say, become a threat to the institutions of democracy.
• Jim Cusack is security correspondent of the Sunday Independent in Ireland
FLYNN RESIGNS AFTER GARDA RAID
PHIL Flynn non-executive chairman of the Bank of Scotland in Ireland, stepped down from that position and a number of other key posts on Friday after he was caught up in the money-laundering investigation.
Flynn’s home and office were raided by detectives after it emerged he was also a non-executive director of Chesterton Finance, which is being investigated by the Garda.
He travelled to Bulgaria in recent weeks with the principal figure in the company at the centre of the investigation.
Flynn is also an adviser to Irish Premier Bertie Ahern. He has been chair of the Bank of Scotland since 2001.
In a statement he said: "I am guilty of no wrong-doing, but the bank and I have decided that it is best I step down from my position as non-executive chairman with immediate effect in order to ensure Bank of Scotland (Ireland) is not affected by recent publicity."