The Belfast Heist



In a peaceful corner of Ireland, near a little fishing-and-ferry village called Passage West in county Cork, a man is out behind his house quietly trying to burn stacks of money.

In a train station in Dublin, a man meets his friends, carrying more than £50,000 sterling in cash stuffed in a detergent box — yes, it’s a "money-laundering" operation.

In Bulgaria, one of Ireland’s leading public figures — he’s chairman of the Irish operation of a major Scottish bank, he’s in charge of implementing the government’s plans to decentralise the civil service, he’s a pal of the prime minister — is hunting for properties with a colleague who has a lot of money to invest.

Someone, probably the IRA or members thereof, stole about $50 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast city centre in December, as previously discussed in Counterpunch. In the last few days, across the Republic of Ireland, we’ve begun to see what may prove to be the unhappy ending that is all-too-common in such otherwise-legendary tales: arrests, finger-pointing, excuses, cops courting publicity, politicians hiding from it.

All the events mentioned in the first three paragraphs above happened over the last couple of weeks. All of them are now being linked speculatively to the bank raid, though no one has been officially charged yet with anything more than membership of an illegal organisation — not even the guy who was allegedly burning the traceable money and who reportedly had AK-47 ammunition and cocaine around the house along with singed banknotes. More than £2 million sterling was reportedly found at another house in county Cork.

Unfortunately for the republican movement, one of those arrested this week was a former Sinn Fein councillor, moving the finger of blame closer to the IRA, which has denied involvement in the heist. On the other hand, the man with the money in the detergent box was reportedly associated with the dissident "Real IRA".

And Phil Flynn, the man who was in Bulgaria with a suspected money-launderer, is uncomfortably close to the government. On Friday evening he resigned from a raft of chairmanships and directorships, but there is no denying that the former trade-union official — whose embrace of "partnership" in industrial relations has taken him all the way to the centres of corporate and political power — is prime-minister Bertie Ahern’s favourite "fixer", apart from himself.

Flynn denies any wrong-doing and may well be an innocent party. He is certainly getting the benefit of the doubt from most media, which are otherwise going to town on the other people arrested and hugely prejudicing their prospects of a fair trial. The practice of not publicly naming criminal suspects before they are charged has broken down somewhat in the media’s breathless excitement about recent events. Police in the Republic say it may be months before the investigation leads to a clear set of charges. And there is an awful lot of money still unaccounted-for — much of untraceable.

In an appetising twist to the story late on Friday, cash apparently linked to the bank raid was found at a south Belfast sports-club frequented by members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The cops claim it was planted there to embarrass them and distract from the finds elsewhere.

Whatever the truth, this week’s arrests come in the midst of a concerted political and media campaign against Sinn Fein, which has a real prospect of winning the seat in every Irish-nationalist constituency in Northern Ireland when the UK general election takes place in May. Party president Gerry Adams has been getting angrier, challenging his erstwhile talks-partner Bertie Ahern to have Adams arrested if he really believes he had a hand in planning or authorising the heist. (It is widely believed that the IRA and Sinn Fein leaderships overlap in the persons of key figures such as Adams.)

Pundits differ as whether there is significant pressure on the Sinn Fein leader from within the republican movement. But there’s one thing for sure: the pressure is on from outside.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. He can be contacted at harrybrowne@eircom.net.

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