08 October 2005

IRA investigators follow money to Eastern Europe

Times Online

By Sean O’Neill and David Sharrock

THE property empire built up by the Provisional IRA’s chief of staff extends from Britain and Ireland into the economies of Eastern Europe, financial investigators believe.

An international inquiry is under way to trace assets linked to Thomas “Slab” Murphy and other IRA figures in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Romania.

Attempts are being made to examine bank accounts in Switzerland, Liechtenstein and offshore investment havens.

Mr Murphy, 56, who has amassed a personal fortune estimated at £40 million mainly from cross-border smuggling, is alleged to have begun laundering his money by investing in property and legitimate businesses only three years ago.

The IRA chief’s name is kept out of the transactions and it is possible that legal businesses will be unaware of the origins of new injections of funds.

After years of surveillance and covert inquiries into Mr Murphy, the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) raided homes and offices in Manchester and Cheshire this week. The target was a portfolio of 250 properties rented to private tenants and valued at £30 million.

Investigators searched the home and offices of Dermot Craven, a Manchester businessman who owns a network of property development and management companies.

The Irish Criminal Assets Bureau searched offices of accountants and solicitors in the border town of Dundalk, Co Louth. Mr Murphy, who lives near Dundalk in a farm on the Irish border, is reported to have invested a large sum of money in a local development.

A spokesman for the Garda, the Irish police, said: “Searches were conducted at professional offices. A quantity of documentary material was seized and is being examined. No arrests were made and the operation is ongoing.”

The Irish and British inquiry teams are understood to have joined forces six months ago in an investigation into Mr Murphy codenamed Operation Front Line. The Garda spokesman added: “We have been working with the ARA for a number of months in respect of this and other investigations.”

The inquiry into Mr Murphy became public ten days after the announcement that the IRA had decommissioned its arsenal. Until then efforts to tackle the IRA’s criminal activities were hampered by fears that the organisation might retaliate with a terrorist attack.

Further raids are likely to follow as investigators examine money-laundering schemes by other senior IRA figures.

IRA plc, as the organisation has been labelled since it moved into organised crime, is believed to have several divisions modelled loosely on its brigade structure. In addition to the South Armagh unit, run by Mr Murphy, there are thought to be crime syndicates making and laundering money in East Tyrone, Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland, and two units in the Republic of Ireland.

Following the IRA’s money trail has led investigators to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, where the organisation has established links with criminal gangs. There are also suspicions that tranches of the IRA’s wealth were invested in Spanish property in the 1990s.

More recently the focus has switched to Eastern Europe, where overseas investments have been subjected to less scrutiny. There have been investments in Prague, the Czech capital, and the property and nightlife sector in emerging holiday destinations such as Slovenia.

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