Northern Bank robbery
The Northern Bank robbery was a large robbery of cash from the headquarters of the Northern Bank in Belfast. Carried out by a large, proficient group on 20 December 2004, the gang seized £26.5 million in pounds sterling, making it one of the biggest bank robberies in British history. The police and number of officials claimed the Provisional IRA was involved in some way (or had permitted others to undertake the raid), a claim rigourously denied by Sinn Féin.
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On the night of Sunday December 19, 2004 groups of armed men called at the homes of two officials of the Northern Bank, one in Downpatrick in County Down, the other in Poleglass, near Belfast. Masquerading as police officers, they entered the homes and held the officials and their families at gunpoint. Bank official Chris Ward was taken from Poleglass to Downpatrick, the home of his supervisor Kevin McMullan, while gunmen remained at his home with his family. Subsequently Mr 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. They did so, and remained at work after the close of business, and later in the evening they gave admittance to other members of the gang.
The robbers entered the bank's cash handling and storage facility. This held an unusually large amount of cash, in preparation for distribution to ATMs for the busy Christmas shopping season. Cash was transfered to one or several vehicles (possibly including a white "Luton" van) at the premises' Wellington Street entrance, and the gang 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 £10m of uncirculated Northern Bank sterling banknotes, £5.5m of used Northern Bank sterling notes, £4.5m of circulated sterling notes issued by other banks, and small amounts of other currencies, largely Euros and US Dollars.
Interviewed after the raid, several experts said that taking the Northern Bank notes was foolish, as, apart from some tourist destinations, they were essentially useless outside Ireland, and that anyone attempting to pass them in Ireland would quickly arouse suspicion. Following the raid, the 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 prefixes to the serial numbers. The first of these new notes entered circulation on March 11, 2005.
Although the police initially refused to be drawn as to who might be involved, a number of commentators quickly blamed the Provisional IRA, saying that only it had the wherewithal to conduct such a professional operation in the province. Unionist paramilitaries are not noted for their intelligence and planning and many media commentators mocked them for their previous bungling and ineptitude.
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. 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). Sinn Féin, however, refuted 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." Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, on the other hand, said that "an operation of this magnitude... has obviously been planned at a stage when I was in negotiations with those that would know the leadership of the Provisional movement."
Arrests and investigation developments
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. Those arrested are reported to include several men from Derry and a former Sinn Féin councillor. A suspected Real 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. One of the men, Don Bullman from Co. Cork, was charged on February 18th at the Special Criminal Court with IRA membership.
On 18 February, Gardaí in Passage West arrested a man found to be attempting to burn sterling banknotes. Two men in Dublin were released from questioning, as was the Sinn Féin member in Cork.
A top Irish businessman and associate of the Taoiseach, Phil Flynn, stepped down from a number of positions pending the outcome of a Garda 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).
Police in Northern Ireland recovered a £50,000 in unused Northern banknotes at Newforge Country Club, a sports and social club in Belfast for off-duty and retired police officers. It is thought to perhaps be a diversion, but it is being investigated.
Police confirm the money found at the Newforge Country Club was part of the £26 million from the bank robbery.