Lots of hype, little substance

  • 19 October 2005
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The 250 properties allegedly connected to 'Slab' Murphy has become just seven, and the reputation of the Assets Recovery Agency now hangs in the balance. By Colm Heatley

'Why did they (the Assets Recovery Agency) turn up with 30 officers? To get your juices flowing, that's why," said Michael Kenyon, the solicitor acting on behalf of Craven Properties. The Craven Properties offices were raided by the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) on 5 October in a probe into alleged IRA criminality.

He was speaking after police, some in riot gear, burst into the homes and offices of Craven Properties in Manchester in a highly publicised series of raids on the day that Sinn Féin leaders were in London holding talks with the British Government.

Craven Properties, with an estimated turnover of £15m a year, denies any wrong-doing and insists it has no links to the IRA.

The style of the raids was more akin to an inner-city drugs bust than a civil investigation into financial wrongdoings by a group of accountants and property developers. Within hours, the UK and Irish media were making claims that 250 houses in Greater Manchester were owned by Thomas "Slab" Murphy, the alleged south Armagh-based leader of the IRA.

But now that the dust has settled it seems the raids may have uncovered far less than was initially suggested and it is the reputation of the ARA that hangs in the balance. Thomas Murphy made a statement saying that he had "never conducted any business with the Craven Group" and did not have "any link with other businesses run by them".

Michael Kenyon said his client, Dermot Craven, was the victim of the "political agenda" of the ARA. The ARA, he said, wanted to convince its "political masters they are not another failing government agency".

A partner in Craven Properties, Mr Pepper, also acts as company secretary for a business run by Frank Murphy, Thomas Murphy's brother, called Sailor Properties.

The Criminal Assets Bureau raids in Co Louth on the same day gave the operation an all-Ireland and cross-channel dimension, but it is unclear what results they yielded.

The ARA, headed by the former Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Alan McQuilan, has been criticised for its performance since its establishment in 2002. It wasn't until 2004 that it had its first significant successes, and most of those were against loyalist drug dealers, including murdered loyalist drugs boss Stephen Warnock. Earlier this year, the agency scored its biggest success when it froze assets totalling £4.8m belonging to a former RUC man, Colin Armstrong. However the ARA has not made significant inroads into the criminal underworld in the north. It has been particularly inept at investigating republican crime, suggesting either breathtaking incompetence or a far lesser level of republican criminality than the agency claims exists.

Electorally, Sinn Féin is not best placed to benefit from criminality since election expenditure is tightly regulated north and south. In the 2003 Assembly elections Sinn Féin spent £28,766, an eighth of the SDLP's costs, and substantially less than any of its other political rivals. However, it does appear that the IRA is involved in illegal money-making scams and its epicentre is south Armagh, whose position on the border is ideal for smuggling and dodgy business scams.

Last year a series of lorry hijackings in south Armagh were more than likely conducted with either IRA involvement or at least acquiescence, and of course the Northern Bank Robbery is widely believed to have been carried out by the IRA.

The IRA is alleged to make money through a series of businesses across Ireland, many of which provided the bulk of the cash it used to buy weaponry during the Troubles.

In republican areas counterfeit cigarettes are widely available and it is reasonable to assume that the IRA is either directly involved in the trade or takes a share of the profits.

However this latest series of ARA raids follows on the heels of a number of well- documented investigations into alleged republican criminality which, after an initial flurry of publicity, faded into obscurity.

Earlier this year the Garda conducted a series of raids in the south west in connection with the £26m Northern Bank Robbery, claiming that money seized in the raids could be linked to the December Heist. Despite claims by Minister for Justice Michael McDowell and Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy that the money can be definitively traced to the Northern Bank robbery, details have yet to be made public.

Over the past three years, a succession of investigations into alleged illegal republican activities has taken place. In October 2002 the Stormont Assembly was dissolved when the PSNI raided Sinn Féin offices as part of Operation Torison, which investigated allegations of a republican "spy ring" operating from the Assembly. The raid came as unionists faced increased pressure to operate the Assembly. The "spy" claims were never substantiated and as the months wore on charges against the alleged republican spies were either quietly dropped or dramatically reduced, without explanation.

ARA chief Alan McQuillan oversaw that investigation in his previous role as Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI. The Police Ombudsman later investigated the raids and found their scale and manner to be "totally disproportionate".

On 17 March 2002, files containing details of informers were stolen in a break-in at Castlereagh police station. In the aftermath, then PSNI Chief Constable Ronnie Flannagan said he believed that it was an "inside job". However, within a few weeks the finger of suspicion was being pointed at the IRA, an allegation the PSNI continues to make but has so far failed to back-up with hard evidence.