Following the IRA money

 

A publican suspected of laundering IRA money has accumulated property worth €100 million, writes Conor Lally

As rugby fans enjoy pints in Dublin pubs this afternoon, taking in the action against the visiting Italians, one wealthy publican and hotelier will have more than the Six Nations on his mind. The entrepreneur, who is in his 40s, has built a property empire worth more than €100 million in the last decade and a half. He has at least 12 apartments in Dublin city centre, not to mention other rental properties in counties Monaghan, Louth, Meath and Wicklow. He is currently financing a construction project worth at least €60 million in the eastern region. To cap it all, he also owns a well-known hotel in Dublin's south inner city and controls a landmark hotel which carries the most sought-after postcode in the country.

Not far from this establishment, in another of the capital's most desirable suburbs, rugby fans will this afternoon cram into another two pubs he owns. Pints will flow and the tills won't stop ringing until closing time.

He is the embodiment of the Celtic Tiger. But he also has dark secrets that his chino-wearing clientele know nothing about. The ladies and gentlemen of the Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab) are much better informed though.

Twelve months ago, Cab officers began their investigation into the discovery of €4 million in euro and sterling notes in Co Cork. They quickly formed the view that the money was the proceeds of the IRA's £26.5 million (€37.85 million) raid on the Northern Bank in December 2004.

The investigation into how this money ended up in the Republic and was being laundered here has thrown up the name of the property and construction tycoon referred to above. Records recovered by Cab over the last year suggest that the first pub this man bought has been used to launder IRA money. It is also believed that the pub was bought with the proceeds of crime he committed while raising money for the IRA at the height of the Troubles.

He now finds himself at the centre of the major Cab investigation that was revealed in the media this week.

IN THE MID-1980s he was questioned about the IRA murder of a member of the security forces in Belfast. He was released without charge. Not long afterwards, he moved to England, where he soon came to the attention of the police and found himself excluded from Britain under prevention of terrorism legislation. However, after a brief return to Ireland he was dispatched back to England to oversee fundraising activities for the IRA.

With a group of at least four others he gained access to the highly lucrative pub gaming-machine industry. Copying a ploy that was being used to fund terrorism in Ireland at the time, the gang manipulated gaming machines to ensure that they did not pay out to punters as frequently as was legally required. This tactic was employed in a large number of premises across London and the unpaid winnings, retained by the gang, were not declared to UK revenue officers. The proceeds were channelled into IRA coffers.

It proved a lucrative business model. In a 2001 report by the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - The Financing of Terrorism in Northern Ireland - it was revealed that in the 1980s single "fixed" gaming machines earned the IRA up to £27,000 (€40,000) per year.

The gang was defrauding the British exchequer of so much money that its members attracted police attention and were arrested and charged just before Christmas 1989. Four of the gang went on trial and were convicted and jailed for their role in the fraud.

However, despite the conviction of his fellow gang members, the businessman now under investigation managed to evade the UK authorities and slip back into Ireland unnoticed. He brought with him a six-figure sterling sum, which he used to acquire one of the south Dublin pubs he now owns.

According to senior gardaí and other security sources who spoke to The Irish Times this week, the pub prospered and was quickly renovated and extended. Meanwhile, suspicions that it was being used to launder IRA money began to form in Garda circles. Anti-racketeering Garda units started investigating the premises and its owner. But while a large amount of evidence was gathered, gardaí couldn't prove their suspicions. The Garda file on the matter was taken from the shelf once in a while and dusted down and reviewed. But nothing ever came of it.

All the while, the owner of the south Dublin pub was growing wealthier. He put his business acumen to good use and began acquiring the assets he now owns. The €100 million estimate of his current worth was described as "very conservative" by one officer who has been closely tracking him of late.

Having returned to Ireland he remained under the Garda radar until his name and first acquisition cropped up on documents during the Cab money-laundering inquiry into the recovered Northern Bank money. The bureau sent a team to the UK to conduct what one source described as "absolutely exhaustive" inquiries into the 1980s gaming-machine fraud.

Based on intelligence gathered in London, and in the Republic during the Northern Bank money-laundering investigation, gardaí decided to move against the man two weeks ago.

Garda teams carried out searches in counties Dublin, Meath, Wicklow and Louth. A number of hotels and pubs were visited, as well as solicitors and accountants' offices. Some 150 boxes of documentation were gathered and will now be reviewed by Cab and the other Garda units involved in the searches, including the Special Detective Unit, the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

THE SUSPECT'S HOME was also visited. He is a separated man who lives mostly in his hotel or in apartments in counties Meath and Dublin. Cab believes it can apply the Proceeds of Crime Act to the man's first pub and confiscate it from him. Cab officers believe the other assets were funded by this pub and, in theory, could be classified as the indirect proceeds of crime.

However, reliable sources have told The Irish Times that the investigation is likely to focus on undeclared income generated by his (mostly cash) businesses. Tax assessments will be drawn up and served on the suspect and possibly on some of his close associates, who gardaí suspect may also have committed revenue crimes.

Among the properties searched in the last 10 days were those linked to four businessmen closely associated with the main suspect, with some of whom he owned a now closed pub in north Dublin. The names of these men are listed in files at the Companies Office as fellow directors of the firms controlled by the main suspect. These have addresses in Louth, Monaghan and south Dublin.

Senior Garda sources said that, with the introduction of the Proceeds of Crime Act following the 1996 murder of Veronica Guerin, the force is now much better placed to tackle the main suspect than it was when he was first investigated in the early 1990s.

As news of the operation against him broke this week, the Independent Monitoring Commission published its latest report. It concluded that the IRA was still engaged in organised criminality and money-laundering. These ongoing activities, and the numerous property, business and land portfolios of former paramilitaries, are likely to keep Cab busy for many years.

But with so much wealth having been amassed on the back of the Troubles, it may prove much more difficult to decommission these empires than it did the IRA's arsenal.