Northern Bank robbery

The Northern Bank robbery was a heist in which cash was stolen from the Donegall Square West headquarters of Northern Bank in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Carried out on 20 December 2004, a gang seized the equivalent of £26.5 million in pounds sterling and small amounts of other currencies, largely euros and US dollars, making it the largest bank robbery in British history. Although the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the British and Irish governments claimed the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was responsible (or had permitted others to undertake the raid), this is denied by the Provisional IRA and the political party Sinn Féin. Although one person has been convicted of money laundering, the investigation is still ongoing, and the case remains unsolved.

On the night of Sunday 19 December 2004, groups of armed men arrived at the homes of two officials of the Northern Bank, one in Downpatrick in County Down, the other in Poleglass, in West Belfast. Masquerading as Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers, they entered the homes and held the officials and their families at gunpoint. Bank official Christopher Ward was taken from Poleglass to Downpatrick, the home of his supervisor, Kevin McMullan, while gunmen remained at his home with Ward's family. Subsequently, McMullan's wife was taken from their home and held, also at gunpoint, at an unknown location. The following day both officials were instructed to report for work at the bank's headquarters at Belfast's Donegall Square West as normal.

At lunch time on Monday, 20 December 2004, Ward removed a sum of money thought to be around £1 million and placed it in a sports holdall. He walked out of the bank's Wellington Street staff entrance with the holdall and made his way to a bus stop in Queen Street where he met up with one of the robbers. This action was later released as a closed circuit video presentation.[clarification needed] After handing over the sports holdall with the stolen money, Ward returned to his work location. This was regarded as a test run for the main heist later in the evening.

McMullan and Ward remained at work after the close of business, and later in the evening they gave entry to other members of the gang. The robbers entered the bank via the Wellington Street staff entrance and made their way to the bank's cash handling and storage facility. This held an unusually large amount of cash in preparation for distribution to automated teller machines for the busy Christmas shopping season. Cash was transferred to one or several vehicles parked outside in Wellington Street. The gang then fled. Shortly before midnight the gang holding the Ward family left, and those holding Mrs McMullan released her in a forest near Ballynahinch. The haul included £10 million of uncirculated Northern Bank sterling banknotes, £5.5 million of used Northern Bank sterling notes, £4.5 million of circulated sterling notes issued by other banks, and small amounts of other currencies, largely euros and US dollars.

Following the raid, Northern Bank announced that it would recall all £300 million worth of its banknotes in denominations of £10 or more, and reissue them in different colours with a new logo and new serial numbers. The first of these new notes entered circulation on 11 March 2005.

Although the police 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 IRA, saying that only it had the wherewithal to conduct such a professional operation in the province.[1] One senior police officer quoted in The Guardian newspaper said: "This operation required great expertise and coordination, probably more than the loyalist gangs possess".[2]

Investigations were conducted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. On 7 January 2005 Hugh Orde, the service's Chief Constable, issued an interim report in which he blamed the Provisional IRA for the robbery.[3] The British and Irish governments 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).[4][5] 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 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".[3] Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, on the other hand, 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."[3]

On 18 January 2005 the Provisional IRA issued a two-line statement denying any involvement in the robbery: "The IRA has been accused of involvement in the recent Northern Bank robbery. We were not involved".[6]

Despite this denial of involvement from the Provisional IRA and others by its supporters, it has been widely believed in Northern Ireland, especially in unionist and loyalist circles, that the raid was the work of the IRA,[7][8] and intended by them as a means of securing a pension fund for its active service members since the promulgation of the Good Friday Agreement.[9][10]

On 10 February the houses of Liam and Michael Donnelly were searched in connection with the robbery but nothing was found on the business premises either.[11]

On 17 February the Gardaí announced 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. The Gardaí did not officially confirm that the raids were related to the Northern Bank robbery, but made the arrests under the Offences against the State Act, the republic's chief anti-terrorism law.[12] Those arrested are reported to include several men from Derry and a former Sinn Féin councillor. A suspected IRA member was arrested at Heuston Station, along with two others. Money to the sum of €94,000 was found in their vehicle, in a washing powder box.[13] One of the men, Don Bullman from Co. Cork, was charged on 18 February at the Special Criminal Court with IRA membership.[14] He was jailed for IRA membership but never charged in connection with the Northern Bank robbery.

On 18 February, Gardaí in Passage West arrested a man found to be attempting to burn sterling banknotes.[15] Two men in Dublin were released from questioning, as was the Sinn Féin member in Cork.[13][16]

A top Irish businessman and associate of the Taoiseach, Phil Flynn, stepped down from a number of positions pending the outcome of a Gardaí investigation into Chesterton Finance, of which he is a non-executive director. He stepped down as chairman of a government body overseeing decentralisation, as well as giving up a position on the board of VHI and as chairman of the Bank of Scotland (Ireland).[17]

The PSNI recovered £50,000 in unused Northern banknotes at Newforge Country Club, a sports and social club in Belfast for off-duty and retired police officers, owned by the PSNI's Athletic Association. The PSNI stated it was a diversion, but it is being investigated.[18]

Police confirm the money found at the Newforge Country Club was part of the £26 million from the bank robbery.[19]

On 12 October, Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy told a law enforcement conference in Dublin that he was satisfied that the money recovered in Cork in February came from the Northern Bank robbery.[20]

On 2 November the PSNI arrested two men in Kilcoo, County Down, as part of a pre-planned operation in connection with the robbery. Sinn Féin's Willie Clarke says that the two arrested are not members of his party.[21]

On 3 November three more people were arrested in Belfast, Dungannon and Coalisland, bringing the total number of people arrested during the operation to five. All five were questioned in the PSNI's Serious Crime Suite in Antrim police station. It was reported that in the early hours of the morning, crowds blocked the road between Castlewellan and Newry near Kilcoo with burnt-out vehicles. Hugh Orde defended the police action as "proportionate" and gave his full backing to the detectives handling the operation. Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew claimed the raids were a "political stunt".[21]

One of the five arrested during Tuesday and Wednesday has been released. 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.[22]

On 7 November, Martin McAliskey, a 42-year-old man from Coalisland, County Tyrone, was charged with making false statements to police in relation to a white Ford Transit van allegedly used in the robbery.[23]

On 29 November police investigating the raid arrested Chris Ward and searched his home. They confirmed that another bank employee, a 23-year-old woman who was not named, was also arrested on the same day.[24]

On 2 December PSNI raided Casement Park, the Gaelic Athletic Association stadium in Belfast, and the related Social Club. The GAA reported the matter to the Irish government.[25]

On 7 December, Chris Ward was charged with the robbery. Belfast Magistrates' Court was told the prosecution case was based on Ward's actions in the days preceding and during the raid, and a suspicious work rota, as well as discrepancies in Ward's original statements to police. Ward denied the charge and claimed police had harassed him and his family in an attempt to frame him. He also complained that he had been held in police custody for an unprecedented eight days under the Criminal Justice Act before being charged.[26]

All charges against Dominic McEvoy and Martin McAliskey are dropped by the Public Prosecution Service. Hugh Orde describes the developments as a setback. Chris Ward is remanded on bail until 31 January, when he will appear before the court again.[27]

A date of September 2008 was set for the trial of Chris Ward, in connection with the robbery. He is charged with robbery and two further charges of false imprisonment.[28]

On 9 October 2008, Ward was acquitted of all the charges (robbery and false imprisonment). The judge discharged him after the prosecution said it would be offering no more evidence.[29] The prosecution accepted that a work rota change that was the basis of their case had been "the result of a chance decision by management".[30]

On 27 March, financial adviser Ted Cunningham from Cork was found guilty of laundering over three million pounds sterling which came from the robbery.[31]

On 11 May 2012, the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the conviction of Ted Cunningham on all ten charges, citing an invalidity of the warrant used to search his house. The invalidity referred to the fact that the warrant was issued by the senior Garda in charge of the investigation, as allowed for by section 29 (1) of the Offences against the State Act, a state of affairs which the Court 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.[32]

Ted Cunningham was given a 5-year suspended sentence having pleaded guilty to two counts of money laundering following a four day trial.[33]