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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Two years on, do they really want to find the IRA Northern Bank robbers?

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Five days before Christmas and Belfast is buzzing. The streets are jammed with thousands of evening shoppers and carol singers entertain the crowds. Teenagers gather under the festive tree lights at City Hall.

But, just yards away, a young couple pushing a pram notice something strange. Men in a white van, parked at the side of the Northern Bank, are wearing baseball caps and wigs, and acting suspiciously.

The couple alert a traffic warden who contacts police. Officers arrive at the scene but, seeing nothing untoward, leave. They don't bother knocking the door of the bank or even phoning security staff inside.

It buys the men in wigs and baseball caps vital time to make their getaway. They can't believe it's been so easy. There's £26.5 million inside the white van. The IRA has just carried out the biggest robbery in world history, (although it was overtaken by this year's £50m Tonbridge heist).

When the Northern Bank robbery did hit the headlines, the story was huge. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was heavily criticised. It vowed the gang would be caught. It was said Sinn Féin would suffer serious political consequences.

But, two years later, Sinn Féin is close to entering government as the major nationalist party. Up to 30 IRA members were involved in the robbery. Three people, including Northern Bank employee Chris Ward, whose family were held hostage during the robbery, are currently facing charges, but there are serious doubts about the strength of the prosecution cases.

The two gang leaders have never been arrested for questioning about the heist. They live openly in west Belfast. Their involvement is common knowledge in republican circles. Neither have detectives found the bulk of the money, although £2.4m recovered by gardai in Cork is understood to have been part of the heist.

A total of £50,000 in stolen Northern Bank notes was planted in the toilets of a PSNI sports' club. IRA members cheekily left the money to further embarrass police and to insinuate that 'securocrats' were behind the robbery. But over £23m remains missing.

"If I was leading the police investigation, I'd be very disappointed with progress," says former RUC detective, Jonty Brown. "Police might have interviewed hundreds of people, viewed thousands of hours of CCTV footage, and carried out forensic searches, but the real test is convictions, and of top cats, not sacrificial lambs.

"I salute the robbers. The bank was wide open, they got their information, and carried out the job professionally. But, if I were still a detective, I'd chase them to the ends of the earth. I don't think they've received the robust and aggressive pursuit they deserve."

Brown is also concerned that "what occurred after the Omagh bomb" could have happened again: "A crime takes place which leaves police red-faced. A public outcry necessitates a high-profile response. Bringing charges eases the pressure on police at a key time, and it doesn't really matter if those charged eventually walk."

After the robbery, police raided the home of prominent Ardoyne republican, Eddie Copeland, taking away presents from under his Christmas tree. "Did they seriously expect the Northern Bank money to be sitting under a republican's Christmas tree or was it a cosmetic exercise?" asks Brown.

Initially, 45 detectives were on the investigation team but this has been scaled down. "The perception that police are just going through the motions has arisen," says Brown. "Two years on, with the results so far achieved, I'd have expected the PSNI to have moved this investigation onto another level – they haven't. Maybe police really weren't too keen to find the money in republican areas, particularly in those early days when the government needed to keep the peace process on track at all costs."

A PSNI spokesman declined to comment on progress in the case: "It would be inappropriate to comment on a live investigation where a number of people are facing charges and awaiting trial," he said.

The robbery was masterminded by two men: 'B', the IRA's director of intelligence – a lifelong republican who helped organize the H-Block escape and the raid on the PSNI's Castlereagh headquarters – and 'Mc' his second-in-command, a well-known west Belfast criminal who had no history of IRA involvement until he was recruited, post-ceasefire, to help the organization carry out robberies.

They're an unlikely pair. The intelligence director is well-respected by republican grassroots for his organizational abilities – which are acknowledged by the security forces. He's not a hardliner, and is a strong supporter of the Sinn Féin leadership. Although he has increased the IRA's wealth, his side-kick is despised by rank-and-file activists.

"It's not just that he has achieved his position in the IRA without firing a shot, it's his past behaviour," says a former republican prisoner. "He was in jail with Mickey Mooney (a drug dealer shot dead by the IRA in 1995 ) and when the riot squad was sent into the jail to attack republicans, he'd shout at them, 'get into the Provo bastards'.

"Republican prisoners held parades every Sunday and he'd hurl abuse at us. I don't know if 'Mc' himself was involved in drugs but he was associated with people who were. After Mooney was shot, he started hanging about with Saul Devine (another drug dealer later killed by the IRA).

"Then, a few years after the ceasefire, he starts hanging about with 'B'. His big attraction for 'B' was his range of criminal contacts but 'Mc' is so unpopular, it has caused problems internally."

Another republican says: "I see them having breakfast together in cafes in west Belfast and I still can't believe my eyes." Sources have told the Sunday Tribune the idea for the heist came when a bank employee was "mouthing" in a bar that the Northern's security was so lax, it could be easily hit. 'B' and 'Mc' were made aware of this and the plan took root.

Over a period of 18 months, the IRA gleaned as much information as possible from their inside contact who, it is believed, is an IRA supporter but not member. "They absolutely milked him," says a source.

Although up to 30 IRA members were involved in the operation– drivers, hostage-takers, those loading the money, those providing safe houses - information was dispensed on a need-to-know basis, and only a handful of individuals knew the full plan.

Belfast, South Armagh, and Co Down volunteers were involved. Details were finalized via pay-as-you-go mobiles the weekend before the robbery. On Sunday night, Northern Bank employee, Chris Ward, was visited in his west Belfast home. Ward was treasurer of a local Celtic supporters' club. He later told police that a man had knocked his door saying he wanted to talk "about Celtic".

Ward invited him inside. A second man quickly followed. They weren't masked but Ward told police their faces were well hidden with hats and coat collars. Once inside, the men revealed their true intentions: Ward, a key-holder to the vault, was ordered to help them rob the bank the following day. His family were made to swear on a holy picture they'd co-operate.

IRA members remained in the house while others drove Ward, now at gunpoint, to the home in Loughinisland, Co Down, of fellow employee and vault key-holder, Kevin McMullan. His wife Karen had earlier answered the door to two men dressed as police. They told her a relative had died in a car crash. She invited them in.

Extreme violence was displayed. A gun was put to Kevin McMullan's head, he was tied up and thrown on a mattress. "Co-operate or die," he was told. Karen was forced into a boiler suit, her hands bound and a hood placed over her head. She was taken away and held until after the robbery was over.

The heist began in earnest at 6.20 pm on Monday 20 December, when Ward walked out the staff door with £1 million stuffed into a sport's bag. It was handed to a gang member outside.

This was central to the whole robbery. It was to test the bank's security with minimal risk to the IRA. If Ward was stopped and searched by security staff leaving the bank, the gang members who would later show up in the white van wouldn't be jeopardized. The IRA was watching Ward so, if he was stopped, those holding hostage the Ward and McMullan families would be immediately phoned and told to flee.

But nobody stopped Ward and the rest of the plan unfolded. Ward and McMullan were told to inform security staff a rubbish van was coming to collect 'confidential' waste from the vault. The two key-holders loaded trolleys with boxes of bank notes and wheeled them to the bullion bay area.

A white van - carrying the men in wigs and baseball caps - then arrived, and the 'rubbish' was taken away. A source told the Sunday Tribune the van headed to the Springfield Road area of west Belfast – chosen because of its ease of access to the city-centre – where the money was unloaded into other vehicles and taken to hides on both sides of the Border.

So confident were the gang that the white van then headed back to the Northern for a second run. The major deficiencies in the bank's security system are outlined by Chris Moore, award-winning UTV journalist and author of 'Ripe for the picking: the inside story of the Northern Bank robbery'

"A big mistake was believing that having two key-holders (Ward and McMullan on the day of the robbery) to the vault offered protection as it was unheard of for two families to be held hostage.

"There were other weaknesses. Cost-cutting meant parts of the CCTV system hadn't been upgraded. It's my understanding there were no cameras in the vault. The monitors on which security guards watched footage from cameras in the bullion bay area were tiny – only four inches - and the videotapes were used and re-used many times. The images were very grainy.

"There was also an element of human weakness. Over the years, security staff get to know other employees and they relax. They don't question their actions nor think there could be a hostage situation at home. It was also a good time for the gang. Security staff, just like everybody else, are more relaxed at Christmas."

A Northern Bank spokesman declined to comment on these claims. The alarm was raised only after the families of both employees were released later that night. Both homes had been forensically cleaned. All surfaces were scrubbed and glasses and cups that had been used were removed.

Three men, including Chris Ward, have since been charged in connection with the robbery. Their trials have yet to begin. But what happened the £26.5m? The Northern Bank took the unprecedented step of withdrawing its existing notes from circulation, causing PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, to deem the robbery "the largest theft of waste paper" in Northern Ireland.

This was not so. It mightn't have been the £26.5m robbery but it was the £10m one. A total of £4.5m was in used non-Northern Bank notes. These Bank of Ireland, First Trust, and Bank of England notes were liquid gold: they could never be traced to the heist.

A further £5.5m in used Northern Bank notes, for which there were no serial numbers, was also untraceable. The process of withdrawing these notes from circulation took three months. Ordinary criminal gangs would struggle to launder so much money so quickly but the IRA's huge criminal empire – it's bars, hotels, taxi-depots, and many other businesses – helped. A proportion of this money was laundered.

The £16m in new Northern Bank notes, with serial numbers linking them to the heist, was another matter. None of it was ever found in circulation. Politically, the republican movement couldn't afford to have these notes show up. Sources believe most were destroyed.

Journalist Chris Moore says the Chinese community in one area of Belfast helped the IRA launder part of the money. The tabloids reported that some was also laundered at the Cheltenham festival. A republican source dismissed this: "Putting £20,000 on an even's favourite would hardly help. If it wins, you'll get £40,000 back, but half of it could be in the same notes you gave the bookie!"

Despite mainstream political condemnation, many ordinary nationalists supported the heist. "Carlsberg don't do robberies but if they did . . . " declared graffiti. Among Provisional IRA supporters, there was pride that no other paramilitary group – dissident republican or loyalist – would have been capable of such an operation.

However, one republican says: "It was professional but let's not get carried away. The inside information delivered the whole thing on a plate. All that was needed was luck, and they got it. I'm not under-estimating the team's achievement but, over the years, there was much more daring stuff. In the early 70s, the Price sisters, dressed as nuns, carried out a smashing robbery. There was another operation where volunteers held up to 40 people hostage while they robbed the premises."

Former Belfast Brigade OC, Brendan Hughes, who sources claim organized many robberies in the 70s, has mixed feelings about the Northern Bank heist. "I've no sympathy for banks, they couldn't lose enough money by my book.

"But what was the money for? The war's over. I'd have liked the bank robbers to drive into Ballymurphy, Whiterock or the Falls and hand out the money to those who really need it.

"Instead. we have a leadership which uses republican funds to feather their own nests – to buy holiday homes in Donegal, Spain and Turkey. The Northern Bank was the rich robbing the rich."

Hughes compares the heist to robberies in the early 70s. "I remember a £500,000 raid on a post office van. The volunteers had never seen so much money in their lives. It was brought to a house in Sultan Street.

"The OC gave the older volunteers £200 to treat themselves to a weekend in Omeath. They were operating under huge pressure from the Brits and living on £5 a week, so this was a wee treat. The younger ones got £5 each - some went to the cinema with it. The OC made sure the neighbours in Sultan Street also got a few pounds because the Brits were going to raid their homes when they found out the IRA had been there. It was a bit of compensation for what they'd go through."

Republican sources say that while the IRA is no longer carrying out robberies, post Northern Bank, 'B' and 'Mc' are now "farming them out to criminals and taking a cut".

Karen McMullan was held hostage by the IRA for 24 hours, then released into a forest. She remains deeply traumatized. Her husband has returned to work. While the police now know the robbery details, intelligence isn't the same as evidence that will stand up in court.

Yet former detective, Jonty Brown, insists there was a way of progressing the investigation: "Why was a reward never offered? The PSNI advised the bank against it. That's the biggest mystery of the whole robbery. A £2-3m reward would have oiled wheels.

"It would be enough to buy a plane ticket and a new identity abroad, because no-one would rat on 'B' unless they've the money to emigrate. They wouldn't want to end up like Denis Donaldson.

"Rewards are routinely offered for smaller crimes, why not for this? Two years on, it's still not too late from the PSNI's viewpoint. There are huge divisions among republicans over policing, there are plenty of disaffected Provos out there. Offering a reward could still reap dividends - that is if the PSNI really do want to convict the Northern Bank robbers."

December 18, 2006

This article appeared in the December 17, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.