Last updated : 17 December 2006 By Ed

The Observer:

In the criminal underworld of Northern Ireland nothing is sacred - not even George Best.

Last month the footballer was honoured when the Ulster Bank issued one million £5 notes bearing his iconic image. Now it has emerged that forged copies of the notes were discovered two days before the official fivers were made publicly available, sparking fears that thousands of counterfeit Best fivers are circulating in Northern Ireland and being sold on eBay at inflated prices.

The resale price of the special £5 note - brought out just before the first anniversary of the football star's death- has soared over the last few weeks. The fivers are being sold for between £40 to £100 on eBay. In the In-Shops complex in central Belfast framed copies of the genuine five pound notes are on sale for £40.

The forgeries were first spotted by a shopkeeper in Armagh City. 'He became suspicious when he saw the notes and immediately contacted the Ulster Bank,' said one senior detective.

'He did well but there is no guarantee other forgeries have been passing through the system or even sold online since then. There are bound to be more out there. Our paramilitaries are deft at forging notes. They have been doing it for years and making millions out of it.'

A spokesman for the Ulster Bank said the genuine notes have serial numbers that all start with 'GB', the players' initials. The forgeries in Armagh had a serial number beginning with the letter 'A'.

All of the main paramilitary groups have engaged in counterfeiting since the Troubles erupted in 1969. However it is the largely dormant Official IRA that is known to run the most sophisticated counterfeit operations.

The US government is trying to extradite Workers' Party president and former Official IRA leader Sean Garland from Ireland. Garland faces charges in America of distributing counterfeit dollars with the aid of North Korean agents. In the Eighties the Officials forged dollars using printing presses from eastern Germany.