Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Irish police connect cash to bank robbery

BELFAST HEIST Police confirmed that ?50,000 that was found in the bathroom of a police club is linked to the December robbery , but warned it could be a false lead

AFP , BELFAST

Irish police for the first time on Saturday linked a stash of stolen money found in Belfast with a spectacular bank robbery in the city last December as suspicion about IRA involvement in the crime grew.

The Irish government has accused the Irish Republican Army (IRA) of having a hand in the Northern Bank robbery as well as attempts to launder cash.

But Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein -- the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army -- denies any connection to the probe, which has so far detained eight suspects and seized some ?2.5 million (US$4.6 million) as well as documents and computers.

Six of the detainees have since been released.

Police confirmed that ?50,000 found in the toilets of the New Forge police recreational club on Friday were linked to the bank raid.

But they hinted that the discovery, which was sparked by an anonymous tip-off, might be a false lead.

"This could be an elaborate prank aimed at directing attention away from the events elsewhere over the last few days," a spokesman said on Friday.

Officials in both Belfast and Dublin blame the IRA for stealing ?26.5 million from the Belfast bank on Dec. 20.

Sinn Fein strongly denies the allegation, which has thrown efforts toward restoring power-sharing government in the British province into disarray.

But the noose is tightening around the Roman Catholic group.

A source close to the inquiry said that Irish police may be able to confirm a link between another haul of money seized in southern Ireland with the notorious bank robbery "in the next couple of days."

Police forensic experts might be able to prove that ?60,000 seized by the police in the city of Cork came from the raided Northern Bank, said the source, who did not wish to be identified.

The confirmation of a link between money laundering operations by the IRA and the major robbery would have serious consequences for Sinn Fein and for the stalled Northern Ireland peace talks.

Standing firm, Adams dismissed all allegations on Saturday as "simple propaganda," saying, "to be arrested is not a crime."

He also repeated denials that the IRA had anything to do with the robbery.

"To listen to our political opponents, you would think we are criminals," he said. "We are not."

"It is a very serious situation, a trial by media," Adams added. "Sinn Fein has not been involved in any robbery ... we will weather the storm."

One of the persons detained and then released in the money-laundering probe was businessman Ted Cunningham, picked up in Cork last Wednesday with ?2.3 million in cash. Cunningham, 57, is one of the directors of a financial company linked to former Sinn Fein vice-president Phil Flynn.

Adams acknowledged that many saw in the events "an opportunity to destroy us. Whether this means that people will stop voting for us, we shall see."

Sinn Fein has the support of about 20 percent of the electorate in Northern Ireland and 11 percent in the Irish Republic.

The bank raid and the money laundering probe are not the only embarrassment for the IRA and its political wing.

The brutal IRA-linked stabbing of father-of-two Robert McCartney in a Belfast bar on Jan. 31 has further damaged Sinn Fein's prospects in parliamentary elections in mainland Britain and Northern Ireland expected to take place in May.

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