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Northern Bank robbery

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The Northern Bank robbery was a heist in which cash was stolen from the headquarters of Northern Bank on Donegall Square West in Belfast, Northern Ireland. On 20 December 2004, having previously taken the families of two bank officials hostage to ensure their co-operation, an armed gang seized a total of £26.5 million mostly in unused pounds sterling banknotes. This was the one of the largest bank robberies in the history of the United Kingdom.

Although the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the Independent Monitoring Commission, the British government and the Taoiseach (prime minister of the Republic of Ireland) all claimed the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was responsible, this was denied by the IRA and the political party Sinn Féin. In 2005, the police forces in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland made arrests and carried out house searches. A sum of £2.3 million was impounded at the house of financial adviser Ted Cunningham in County Cork and banker Phil Flynn was forced to resign as chairman of the Bank of Scotland (Ireland), since he was a director of one of Cunningham's companies. Cunningham was convicted in 2009 of money laundering, had his conviction quashed in 2012 and was convicted at retrial in 2014. Chris Ward, one of the bank officials threatened by the gang, was himself arrested in November 2005 and charged with robbery. The prosecution then offered no evidence at trial and he was released.

The robbery affected the peace process adversely, since a tentative political agreement was ruptured. It caused a hardening in the relationship between the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Sinn Féin representatives Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Although Cunningham and several others were eventually convicted of crimes uncovered during the investigation, nobody has ever been held directly responsible for the heist. The police investigation is still open and the case remains unsolved.

The heist[edit]

Northern Bank (now Danske Bank) was the largest retail bank in Northern Ireland, with 95 branches. It was then owned by National Australia Bank and its headquarters were at Donegall Square West in Belfast. It was one of four banks in Northern Ireland permitted to print its own bank notes in denominations of £5, £10, £20, £50 and £100.[1]

On the night of Sunday 19 December 2004, groups of armed men arrived at the homes of two employees of Northern Bank, one in Downpatrick in County Down, the other in Poleglass, in west Belfast.[2] Chris Ward was taken from his house in County Down and driven to Poleglass, where Kevin McMullan (his supervisor at the bank) had been tied up by men masquerading as officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Gunmen remained at Ward's home guarding his family. McMullan's wife was taken from her home and held at an unknown location. The masked men left on Monday morning, having instructed the officials to report for work as normal at the bank's headquarters.[2]

The criminals kept in touch with McMullan and Ward using mobile telephones. On Monday, 20 December 2004, Ward was first told to take a bag containing £1 million to a bus stop in nearby Queen Street, where he gave it to one of the robbers. This was regarded as being a test run for the main heist in the evening.[3] McMullan and Ward remained at work after the close of business and loaded crates of banknotes onto trolleys which were taken to a white van outside.[2][3] The two employees were compelled to open up the bank vaults by the threat that their loved ones would be killed if they did not comply and the van did two runs to take away the loot.[1] Around 11 o'clock in the evening, Mrs McMullan was driven to Drumkeeragh Forest near Ballynahinch and abandoned. She found her way to a house to raise the alarm and was treated for hypothermia.[2]

The criminals made off with a total of £26.5 million: £10 million in uncirculated Northern Bank sterling banknotes; £5.5 million in used Northern Bank sterling notes; £4.5 million in used notes supplied by other banks; smaller cash amounts in other currencies including euros and US dollars.[4] The police quickly set up an investigation with 50 detectives. Assistant Chief Constable Sam Kincaid commented "this was not a lucky crime, this was a well-organised crime."[5]

Initial responses[edit]

Sinn Féin lead negotiator Martin McGuinness (seen here on right with Gerry Adams on left) denied that the IRA were behind the heist.

Although the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) initially refused to be drawn as to who might be involved, a number of commentators, including journalist Kevin Myers writing in the Daily Telegraph, quickly blamed the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).[6] One senior police officer quoted in The Guardian newspaper said: "This operation required great expertise and coordination, probably more than the loyalist gangs possess".[1]

On 23 December 2004, The Irish Times ran a front-page story on the Provisional IRA's denial of involvement in the robbery, and on the same day refused to print a column by Kevin Myers which said that the Provisional IRA was responsible.[7] Myers was reported to be shocked by the spiking of his column.[8] Some two weeks later, the paper printed a report that there might, after all, be a "nationalist" connection.[7]

On 7 January 2005, the Chief Constable of the PSNI Hugh Orde issued an interim report in which he blamed the Provisional IRA for the robbery.[9] The British government concurred with Orde's assessment, as did the Independent Monitoring Commission (the body appointed by the Irish and British governments to oversee the Northern Ireland ceasefires).[10][11] Sinn Féin, however, denied the Chief Constable's claim, saying the IRA had not conducted the raid and that Sinn Féin officials had not known of or sanctioned the robbery. Martin McGuinness (a leading Sinn Féin negotiator) said that Orde's accusation represented "nothing more than politically-biased allegations. This is more to do with halting the process of change which Sinn Féin has been driving forward than with anything that happened at the Northern Bank".[9][12] On the other hand, Bertie Ahern the Irish Taoiseach said that "an operation of this magnitude had obviously been planned at a stage when I was in negotiations with those that would know the leadership of the Provisional movement."[9] The Independent Monitoring Commission recommended that Sinn Féin was fined for authorising the heist and remarked in the report that "the leadership and rank and file of Sinn Féin need to make the choice between continued association with and support for PIRA criminality and the path of an exclusively democratic political party".[13]

The Provisional IRA issued a two-line statement on 18 January 2005, which denied any involvement in the robbery: "The IRA has been accused of involvement in the recent Northern Bank robbery. We were not involved".[14] Despite this denial from the Provisional IRA, it was widely believed in Northern Ireland, especially in unionist circles, that it was responsible.[15][16] Commentators in the UK newspapers speculated that the heist had been intended either to secure a pension fund for IRA active service members or to support Sinn Féin's electoral campaign.[17][18] In February 2005, the Irish Minister for Justice Michael McDowell accused Gerry Adams (Sinn Féin MP for Belfast West), Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris (Sinn Féin MP for Kerry North), of not only being IRA members but leading it from their positions on the IRA Army Council.[12]

Investigations and arrests[edit]

On 10 February 2005 (the same day that the Independent Monitoring Commission report was released), houses near Beragh, County Tyrone belonging to two brothers were searched in connection with the robbery but nothing was found.[19][20] In the Republic of Ireland, the Garda Síochána announced on 17 February that it had arrested seven people and recovered over £2 million, including £60,000 in Northern Bank notes, during raids in the Cork and Dublin areas, as part of ongoing investigations into money laundering. Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy did not officially confirm that the raids were related to the Northern Bank robbery, but did say the IRA was behind the laundering. The arrests were made under the Offences against the State Act.[21] Those arrested included several men from Derry and a former Sinn Féin candidate. Three men were arrested at Heuston Station in Dublin and Don Bullman was alleged to have been carrying €94,000 (£62,000) in a box of Daz washing powder.[22][23] Bullman was later convicted of membership of the IRA in 2007, receiving a four year jail sentence. The judge said his conviction gave no indication as to his guilt regarding other matters such as the Northern robbery.[24]

At a house owned by financial adviser Ted Cunningham in Farran, County Cork, £2.3 million was impounded after being discovered hidden in compost and Cunningham and his wife were taken in for further questioning.[23][22] Phil Flynn, who was chairman of the Bank of Scotland (Ireland), a former Sinn Féin vice president and an advisor to the Taoiseach, told the police that he was a non-executive director of Chesterton Finance, a company owned by Cunningham.[22][25] In consequence, his home and offices were raided and he resigned his positions pending the results of the enquiries.[25] The next day (18 February), Gardaí in Passage West, Cork, arrested a man who had been reported to be burning sterling banknotes in his back garden; he was released without charge but eventually convicted in 2009 for possession of 200 rounds of ammunition for a Kalashnikov rifle found in his loft when the house had been raided.[26][27] Another man in Cork handed in £175,000 saying that Cunningham had given it to him to look after.[22]

In a separate incident on Saturday 19 February 2005, the PSNI confirmed that it had recovered £50,000 in unused Northern Bank notes from the toilets at the Newforge Country Club, a sports and social club in Belfast for serving and retired police officers. The PSNI stated it was a stunt attempting to divert attention from the heist but it was being investigated.[28] It was later confirmed that the money found at the club had indeed been taken during the robbery.[29]

On 12 October, Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy told a law enforcement conference in Dublin he was satisfied that the money recovered in Cork in February came from the Northern Bank robbery.[30] In November, the PSNI arrested five men: two in Kilcoo, County Down and one each in Belfast, Dungannon and Coalisland.[31] In protest, crowds blocked the road between Castlewellan and Newry near Kilcoo with burnt-out vehicles. Hugh Orde defended the police action as "proportionate" whilst Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew claimed the raids were "part of a political stunt".[31] A man from Kilcoo was charged with robbery, hostage-taking and possession of a firearm or imitation firearm. The individual arrested in Dungannon was named as Brian Arthurs, a member of Sinn Féin and brother of Declan Arthurs, an IRA volunteer killed in 1987.[32] The man from Coalisland was charged with making false statements to police in relation to a white Ford Transit van allegedly used in the robbery.[33] By the end of 2005, police investigations had resulted in a total of 13 arrests and 22 searches.[34] All charges against the men from Kilcoo and Coalisland were dropped by the Public Prosecution Service in January 2007; Hugh Orde described the developments as "a setback".[35]

Ward trial[edit]

Chris Ward, one of the two bank officials threatened by the gang during the heist was arrested with regards to the robbery on 29 November 2005 and the PSNI searched his home. Another bank employee, a 22-year-old woman who was not named, was also arrested on the same day.[36] On 2 December, the police went in 25 Land Rovers to raid Casement Park, the Gaelic Athletic Association stadium and social club in west Belfast, because Ward worked there part-time. The GAA reported the matter to the Irish government, stating that it had not been warned about the raid.[37] On 7 December at Belfast Magistrates' Court Ward was charged with robbery and using a firearm. The prosecution case was based on his actions in the days preceding and during the raid, a suspicious work rota and discrepancies in his original statements to police. Ward denied the charge and claimed that the police were harassing him and his family in an attempt to frame him as the inside man on the job. Ward complained the police had held him longer than the gang had held his family hostage.[38]

Ward was remanded on bail and a date of September 2008 was set for the trial in a Diplock court.[35][39] When tried for robbery and false imprisonment, Ward was acquitted of all charges, being discharged by the judge after the prosecution said it would be offering no evidence.[40] The prosecution accepted that the work rota change which underpinned their case had been "the result of a chance decision by management". Ward's defence lawyer claimed he had been the victim of a "Kafka-esque farce".[41]

Cunningham convictions[edit]

In March 2009, financial adviser Ted Cunningham from Cork was found guilty at Cork Circuit Court on ten charges of laundering over £3 million which came from the robbery. He was remanded into custody and later received a sentence of ten years' imprisonment.[42][43] His son was also convicted on one count of money laundering.[44] When Cunningham senior appealed, his conviction was quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal in May 2012. The court viewed the warrant used to search his house as invalid[43] because it had been issued by the senior Garda officer in charge of the investigation, as permitted by section 29(1) of the Offences against the State Act, a state of affairs which the Supreme Court had recently found to be repugnant to the Constitution of Ireland. The court ordered a retrial on nine of the ten original counts of money laundering. It directed that the tenth, relating to a sum of money allegedly found in Cunningham's home, was not to be retried. Cunningham was remanded into custody with the possibility of bail.[43]

At the retrial in February 2014, Ted Cunningham pleaded guilty and received a 5-year suspended sentence on two counts of laundering about £275,000. Cunningham avoided imprisonment on account of his bad health and his promise to resign from Chesterton Finance. The sums of £2.985 million and €45,000 which had been impounded during police raids were forfeited to the state.[45] Cunningham sued Northern Bank in 2020 regarding the impounded money, alleging that the Gardai had seized it improperly.[46]

Legacy[edit]

refer to caption
The old Northern Bank £20 note, which was taken out of circulation in March 2005 as a direct result of the heist

The Northern Bank announced soon after the heist that it would replace its £10, £20, £50 and £100 notes; the new banknotes would have different colours, new logos and altered serial numbers.[9][11] By March 2005 it had done so, meaning that the uncirculated banknotes which had been stolen would be hard to spend. This still left the £4.5 million in notes from others banks and £5.5 million in old, used Northern Bank notes, which were untraceable.[18]

After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had provided a tentative ending to The Troubles, the political situation in Belfast remained tense. By the end of 2004, the different parties in the peace process were reaching agreement, but at a meeting on 8 December at which Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were present, the Sinn Féin representatives refused to promise that the Provisional IRA would stop its criminal activity. Less than two weeks later, the Northern Bank robbery again enflamed tensions since despite the denials of Sinn Féin, the IRA was blamed by Ahern and Blair for the heist.[10][47] In 2005, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy remarked "I cannot hide my own judgment that the impact is deeply damaging".[47] Mark Durkan, leader of the Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party condemned the IRA as a criminal enterprise.[25] The IRA rejected the condemnations and Gerry Adams stated "the IRA statement is obviously a direct consequence of the retrograde stance of the two governments [...] It is evidence of a deepening crisis and I regret that very much."[10]

Leaked US communications revealed that Bertie Ahern suspected Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had known about the robbery and this made his attitude towards them toughen.[48] Garda surveillance had recorded Adams meeting with Ted Cunningham before the heist took place.[49] Alongside the murder of Robert McCartney, the heist caused the US government to block fund-raising for Sinn Féin in the United States in March 2005. The ban was dropped in November 2005.[50]

The Belfast Telegraph reported that in 2015 that two murders were linked to the heist, as part of an internal IRA row over the proceeds. Gerard Davison was shot dead in May and Kevin McGuigan was subsequently killed in August.[51] When Gerry Adams denied that the IRA were involved in any way, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) announced it could not share power with Sinn Féin any longer and withdrew from the coalition governing Northern Ireland.[52][53] Bobby Storey was arrested and released without charge regarding the murder of McGuigan. Storey had been accused under parliamentary privilege in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom by Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Member of Parliament David Burnside of being the planner of the Northern Bank robbery.[54][55]

In 2014, the former head of the Assets Recovery Agency had commented that he believed the IRA were still struggling to launder some of the £26 million taken in the heist owing to the size of the haul.[47] Former IRA bank robber Ricky O’Rawe published a work of fiction in 2018 entitled Northern Heist about a Belfast bank heist which bore strong resemblances to the Northern Bank robbery.[56] As of 2018, the heist remained one of the largest in the history of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and nobody had been held directly responsible.[57]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Moore, Chris (2006). Ripe for the picking: The inside story of the Northern Bank robbery. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. ISBN 978-0717140015.

Coordinates: 54°35′47″N 5°55′54″W / 54.5963°N 5.9318°W / 54.5963; -5.9318