Northern Bank robbers 'still struggling to spend £26.5m'

Alan McQuillan.

Ten years on from one of the biggest bank robberies in British and Irish history the IRA gang responsible may still be struggling to spend some of the £26.5 million plundered in the Northern Bank heist, an expert in combating money laundering has said.

The sheer amount of cash lying in the vaults of the Belfast city centre bank shocked the Provisional movement and swamped its long-standing criminal structures to wash its dirty money, former Police Service of Northern Ireland senior commander Alan McQuillan said.

Mr McQuillan, who after a career in policing that saw him rise to acting deputy chief constable in England headed up the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland, predicted that some of the money may still be in storage awaiting laundering.

“That amount of money isn’t easy to launder,” Mr McQuillan, now a security consultant, said ahead of the tenth anniversary of the infamous pre-Christmas raid.

“The Provos had a network that was designed to cope with their normal money laundering, but to suddenly try to squeeze an extra £26 million through that in a year is just impossible without showing.

“So I suspect this money was held and gradually filtered in over five or six years but some of it may still not be.”

Sinn Féin denied the IRA was involved in the crime but that view has always flown against the assessment of the authorities on both sides of the border.

Ahead of this weekend’s anniversary, detectives have insisted the hunt goes on for the perpetrators.

But a decade on from the audacious evening robbery, carried out only yards from streets bustling with Christmas shoppers and revellers, police appear no closer to bringing the gang responsible to justice.

The bank still trades from the same location although it was renamed Danske Bank in 2012 after its Danish parent company.

“The investigation remains open,” PSNI Detective Sergeant David Martin said.

In the years since the crime that made headlines around the world and almost derailed the peace process, there have been 20 arrests – 13 in Northern Ireland and seven in the Republic of Ireland – but only one man has been convicted in direct connection with the robbery and its spoils.

And as financier Ted Cunningham, from Farran, Co Cork, was convicted for laundering less than £300,000 of the stolen millions – and not for any actual involvement in the heist – in reality each and every member of the violent masked gang that actually perpetrated the robbery have so far evaded the authorities.

In March, 2007, a 32-year-old man from Co Cork, Don Bullman, a chef from Fernwood Crescent in Wilton, was sentenced to four years in prison for membership of the IRA.

He was arrested at Heuston Station in Dublin two years earlier by gardaí investigating money laundering following the Northern Bank robbery and found in possession of a Daz washing powder box containing more than €94,000.

But there was no evidence given as to the origins of the money in court and the judge stressed Bullman was not charged with any other offence.

Mr Martin indicated that public help would be crucial to a breakthrough in the investigation.

“Police would appeal to anyone with information about the robbery to contact them,” he said.

Some estimate that up to 30 republicans, including top level IRA personnel, planned and executed the robbery.

In 2008 police and prosecutors faced heavy criticism for a failed bid to prosecute one of two bank employees who were kidnapped and forced to facilitate the criminal plot.

Chris Ward, then 26 from Colinmill, Poleglass in west Belfast, was acquitted of robbery and kidnapping charges after the case against him collapsed in sensational fashion at Belfast Crown Court.

It was only one dramatic twist of many in the story of arguably the most brazen bank job ever committed in the UK.

Despite the emphatic denials by Sinn Féin, blame for the heist was laid squarely at the IRA’s door from the outset. It was characterised in some quarters as the Provisional movement securing its own “pension fund” at the end of the Troubles.

The timing and scale of the robbery was a major blow to the Northern Ireland peace process. It took the British, Irish and US governments completely by surprise and essentially torpedoed their efforts to re-build a fragile political deal as it provided unionists with stark evidence to challenge the republican movement’s adherence to a non-violent future.

After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 attempts to establish a power-sharing government in Belfast had faltered over unionist demands for IRA decommissioning and an allegation of IRA spying at Stormont.

The institutions had collapsed in 2002 but by late 2004 the governments and the parties were edging towards a deal to finally complete the complex political balancing act.

But their painstaking work was about to implode as under cover of darkness masked gangs arrived at the homes of two Northern Bank employees.

At around 10pm on Sunday December 19, Mr Ward was seized from his home in west Belfast while the rest of his family were taken hostage.

About 30 miles away similar traumatic events visited the home of Mr Ward’s supervisor in the cash centre, Kevin McMullan.

Two men claiming to be police officers bringing bad news about a road traffic crash gained entry to Mr McMullan’s house in Loughinisland near Downpatrick in Co Down.

Gang members kidnapped his wife Karyn and drove her away to an undisclosed location.

While Mrs McMullan was being taken away other gangsters arrived with Mr Ward.

Both men were held overnight and then ordered to go to work as normal on Monday, where they would be used to facilitate the robbery from the inside.

The location of the bank made the raid all the more daring. The Northern Bank headquarters stood at the corner of Donegall Square West – one of the busiest locations in the city.

Yards from the landmark City Hall and close to many packed bars and restaurants, on the evening of Monday December 20 a single white transit van pulled up in the tight alleyway beside the bank and loaded up crate upon crate packed with millions of pounds of cash.

So shameless were the gangsters that they even directed a second run an hour later.

“That amount of cash is physically bulky, it takes up a lot of space and a lot of weight,” said Mr McQuillan.

“I think they probably would have taken even more on the night but the vehicles simply couldn’t carry it.

“I think they thought they were going to get a small amount, or a decent amount, and then they suddenly found themselves with this huge amount of money.”

The majority of the cash taken was in the form of Northern Bank printed notes, both new and previously circulated. The rest was sterling printed by other banks and some US dollars and euros.

Hours later Mr Ward’s family and Mrs McMullan were released from captivity and the alarm was raised. But by that stage the perpetrators were long gone.

In its aftermath then PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde made a public statement to say that, having assessed the available evidence, he believed the Provisional IRA was to blame.

The IRA had been suspected of carrying out other cash raids and robberies - despite being on ceasefire.

A hunt for the cash was launched across Ireland, while the Northern Bank took the extraordinary action of re-issuing new-look banknotes to try to render the stolen cash worthless.

Mr McQuillan expressed doubt at the effectiveness of that step and noted that most of the haul would have been unaffected.

He said the IRA had a “strong network for getting rid of dirty money”.

“They were making very substantial amounts of money through various criminal enterprises – smuggling, counterfeiting, oil tampering – so they had systems in place to launder all of that,” he said.

“Some of those involved corrupt intermediaries who would take the money and wash it for them. They had networks of companies set up to do that. But it’s one thing to be outing five or ten million a year through that – try and put £26 million through on top of that is a big issue and therefore it would have taken them time to filter it away.

“I imagine it was probably filtered away through various fake businesses and deal overseas, it was probably cashed in various accounts around the world and maybe invested in property in the property boom.

“Some of it could still be out there, it may be sitting somewhere.”

On January 11, 2005, the then Secretary of State Paul Murphy detailed the political implications in a statement to Parliament.

“I cannot hide my own judgment that the impact is deeply damaging,” he said.

He outlined the painstaking political work that had been on the verge of delivering an historic accommodation in Northern Ireland.

“I deeply regret that this progress has been put in jeopardy,” he said.

“I cannot forecast with certainty when it will prove possible to re-establish an inclusive power-sharing executive, which the Government continues to believe provides the best long-term guarantee of peace and stability.”

Sinn Féin was rocked by the events and despite the party’s persistent denials of IRA involvement in the robbery, it seemed that the republicans’ political growth had suffered a temporary setback.

A series of arrests and raids were launched by the PSNI and the gardaí in the aftermath of the robbery.

In a bizarre development, in February, 2005, £50,000 of unused Northern Bank notes was found in five packages in the toilets of the PSNI’s recreational club in Belfast.

Police said the planting of the money in New Forge was potentially “an elaborate prank aimed at directing attention away from the events elsewhere”.

While the robbers deliberately made it easy for police to find that small portion of the multi-million haul, it looks increasingly likely officers may never recover the vast majority of the remainder.

Most Read in Ireland