Billions of pounds are being stolen from the economy of Northern Ireland by fraud and deception, the DUP leader Ian Paisley claimed tonight.

Rev Paisley was speaking to reporters at Westminster after a meeting with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Dr Paisley said that information which he had been given by agencies such as Special Branch and the Customs and Excise suggested that lawyers in Northern Ireland were engaged in laundering money gained through cigarette smuggling.

Mr Paisley said he believed that the British government would try to spin next week's IMC report in favour of the IRA but that he had told Mr Blair that the fraud was having a terrible effect on the community.

The DUP leader refused to reveal exactly who had given him the information but added that the PSNI and intelligence gatherers in Northern Ireland all agreed that this is happening.  

At his meeting with Mr Blair, Mr Paisley aired proposals in a 16-page document outlining the steps the DUP sees being taken towards the return of devolution.

The party advocates a two-phase process towards bringing back the Assembly and devolved government at Stormont.

Mr Blair is due to hold meetings with the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern in Dublin tomorrow. He is also due to meet the President, Mary McAleese, at Farmleigh.