Officials from the ARA, backed up by armed police officers, raided up to 250 flats, offices and houses in the English city. It was acting on intelligence provided by the Republic’s Criminal Assets Bureau.
Though the organization has not yet publicly confirmed that its investigation is linked to the IRA, it claims to journalists that it is targeting alleged IRA chief-of-staff Thomas “Slab” Murphy. It said that Murphy has spent the past three years laundering the proceeds of fuel smuggling by buying up property in Britain.
Murphy, who describes himself as a “simple farmer” and denies ever having been a member of the IRA, lives on the Louth / Armagh border.
The owners of the estate agency whose property was raided have denied that they had any role in IRA money laundering. Dermot Craven, the Englishman who owns Craven Properties, said Monday he had little knowledge of Irish politics and that he never had contact with Murphy.
Putting aside any prospect of prosecutions arising from the investigation, its timing and nature would indicate that IRA arms decommissioning has done nothing to change attitudes to republicans within the security services.
Last Thursday’s raids coincided with the visit of Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to Downing Street. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had invited a republican delegation to his official residence to discuss the prospects for renewed political momentum in light of the dumping of IRA weapons.
The fact that the raids were taking place as Blair was sipping tea with the two men will have proved embarrassing both for the British premier and the republican leadership.
The DUP delegation which followed Sinn Fein to London emerged from its meeting with Blair in jubilant form. Leader Ian Paisley has been under intense pressure over the past two weeks. He has garnered scorn for his reluctance to accept that IRA decommissioning has actually happened.
The ARA raids instead allowed him to concentrate not on the how the DUP should be reacting to decommissioning but on alleged IRA criminality.
While Adams slammed the raids as politically motivated, describing ARA boss Alan McQuillan as “anti-republican,” the role of Cab will perhaps prove more troubling for Sinn Fein.
Lost in the coverage of IRA decommissioning was the resolute, if understated, position of Irish justice minister Michael McDowell. The Progressive Democrats’ chairman said he would be unstinting in the pursuit of IRA finances. Central to this is Cab.
Senior government sources said at the weekend that operations against IRA money would continue in the coming months. Describing the work of Cab (post-IRA decommissioning) as part of a wider “clean-up operation,” they said raids, and possible arrests, would proceed regardless of political considerations.
The implications of such comments will not be lost on republicans.
With a phantom Dail election campaign already under way, Sinn Fein’s opponents in political and security circles are likely to take the gloves off as election day draws nearer.
Ranking highly among the party’s enemies in political life is McDowell. While McDowell has no say in the day-to-day operations of Cab, his words of encouragement will no doubt propel the bureau’s work.
Successes against the IRA would not only bolster McDowell’s avowed opposition to republicans but enhance his standing within his own party. The Ranelagh politician has his eyes set on becoming the next leader of the PDs and cherishes his image as a “law and order” strong-man.
As McDowell’s star rises so too will that of the PDs. The party, which has always lived on a political knife-edge due to its tiny core support base, recognizes the need to siphon support away from Fine Gael, which was traditionally been identified with a hard-line security mentality.
In 2002 McDowell led the charge to make the PDs relevant. His “no to one party government” strategy billed the PDs as government watchdog. He argued that were Fianna Fail to be returned with a majority, then it would behave badly in government.
As events proved, McDowell’s campaign ensured his seat and perhaps those of a number of other PD politicians.
With an election penciled in for 2007, it is quite possible that McDowell will make Sinn Fein, and its relations with Fianna Fail, the focus of another last-ditch scare campaign.
With Sinn Fein looking to double its Dail representation, politically sensitive raids on alleged IRA assets could do much to panic away potential supporters.
Building support in the Republic has become Sinn Fein’s central preoccupation. While Paisley blusters in Belfast, Dublin holds out the more immediate prospect of political growth for republicans.
Senior republicans make little attempt to disguise where their focus will lie in the coming years.
While Sinn Fein pays lip service to the notion of administering power sharing in Stormont, it only has lukewarm regard for the notion.
Unlike Paisley, Adams and McGuinness do have somewhere else to go if everything fails. Having a substantial number of TDs, perhaps exerting influence on a Southern government, generates more excitement in republican ranks.