Belfast Telegraph

The Provos got so much cash from Northern Bank heist they could not handle it

By Darwin Templeton

THE IRA struggled to handle all the cash they stole from the Northern Bank 10 years ago this week, a former PSNI chief has claimed.

Former Deputy Chief Constable Alan McQuillan, who is an expert on money laundering, said that he believed the Provisionals netted much more money than they expected from the raid in December 2004.

And as a result, some of it may have had to been destroyed - or is still lying untouched in secret hides.

"The IRA were gobsmacked by what they got," said Mr McQuillan.

"I suspect most of the cash went south, as they would want it under strict control as soon as possible.

"Cash is bulky and pretty traceable and so is difficult to get rid of, especially these days in what is more and more of a cashless economy.

"Unless you have a system to manage it, you are in trouble. The Provos already had that system but they probably got so much all at once that they struggled to handle it."

Mr McQuillan, who left the PSNI to head up the Assets Recovery Agency, said no other group in the country had the capability to carry out the heist or launder that amount of money.

headache

But he said the size of the haul spirited from the vaults of the Northern Bank presented the Provos with a major headache.

Money laundering laws had been tightened the previous year, which meant it was much more difficult to filter dirty money into the system.

And outrage over the robbery threatened to derail Sinn Fein's political project.

He said: "The IRA was trying to avoid the blame - Sinn Fein didn't want it traced back to them - so that hindered the speed with which they could move.

"The other issue they had is that a criminal enterprise is, of course, composed of criminals and if you are not careful your colleagues will rob you blind.

"Within the organisation they would have had a big job securing the money internally.

"Members can't run amok with cash either, because that presents the PSNI with an opportunity to turn them."

Mr McQuillan said that the Provos' moneymen would have used a series of trusted methods to filter the cash into the system - through apparently legitimate businesses like pubs, clubs, bookies, restaurants, taxi companies or buying property abroad.

They would also have fed the funds to existing contacts in countries with lax financial controls before bringing it back into the UK and Ireland.

"People with an IRA finance background had previously turned up in all sorts of places - Moldova, Turkey, the North African states and Central Asia," he said.

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 smaller amounts of other currencies, largely euros and US dollars.

Some of the stolen cash quickly became worthless when the Northern Bank took the unprecedented step of changing the design of its notes.

But millions remained outstanding in spite of a massive police investigation on both sides of the border.

In all, there were 20 arrests in connection with the robbery - 13 in Northern Ireland and seven in the Republic.

The only two convictions were secured by gardai. Officers recovered £2m - including £60,000 of Northern Bank notes - during raids in Cork and Dublin. There were also reports of bank notes being burned.

In February 2005, Don Bullman, a chef from Wilton in County Cork, was arrested at Heuston Station in Dublin as he met two men from Derry.

Gardai seized a washing powder box containing more than €94,000. Bullman was later convicted of membership of the IRA.

Timothy "Ted" Cunningham, a financier also from Cork, received a five-year suspended prison sentence for trying to launder more than £275,000 in January and February.

stunt

Banknotes were also discovered at the PSNI social club in Belfast, but detectives dismissed the find as a stunt designed to divert resources.

Security sources say that the raid - at the time the largest cash robbery in UK history - was a combined operation between the IRA's Belfast and South Armagh brigades.

It began on the night of Sunday December 19 when masked men arrived at the homes of two Northern Bank employees, Chris Ward and Kevin McMullen, in Poleglass and Loughinisland.

Posing as police officers, they held the men and their families at gunpoint. Mr Ward was transferred to McMullen's house while his family remained captive in their home. McMullen's wife was taken to a forest where she was held hostage.

Mr McMullen said later: "They made clear if the robbery did not go to plan, if they did not get away with it, they would kill Karyn," he said.

The two employees were told to go to work at Donegall Square West on Monday and behave as if nothing was wrong.

At one point, acting under the gang's instructions, Chris Ward left carrying a holdall containing about £1m and handed it to a man on the street, in what police believed was a dummy run by those who planned the heist.

Later the two men led the gang members to the underground vaults and opened them. At 7pm, a white van was loaded with crates filled with cash. It returned an hour later for a second collection.

A few hours later, McMullen's wife escaped from the forest. Despite suffering from exposure, she managed to raise the alarm but the gang had already escaped.

Chris Ward was charged with robbing the Belfast bank and abducting his colleague and his wife, but in October 2008, the trial collapsed when the prosecution withdrew their evidence.

conflicting

A key part of their case was how Mr Ward had come to be on the rota for that shift on the evening of the robbery, but the court heard conflicting testimony.

Later his lawyer said: "He should have appeared at this court today as a witness for the prosecution, instead he found himself in the dock for a crime he did not commit and of which he remains a victim," he said.

Three other men linked to the robbery north of border saw charges dropped by the PPS before they got to court.

The heist triggered a political storm when the Chief Constable Hugh Orde blamed the IRA - a view that was later supported by the Independent Monitoring Commission that ruled on the paramilitary ceasefires.

Sinn Fein denied any IRA involvement - but faced fury from the government, unionists and Dublin ministers.

It later emerged when confidential US cables were leaked that the taoiseach - Bertie Ahern - hardened his approach to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness because he believed they had advance knowledge of the planned robbery.

Months later, the IRA announced an end to its armed campaign - and then completed decommissioning its weaponry.

Those moves breathed new life into the political process, but failed to allay unionist suspicions that the IRA had raided the Northern Bank to secure a "pension plan".

10 years on, the PSNI is still appealling for information that could unlock the case.

Detective Sergeant David Martin, from Crime Operations Department, said: "The investigation remains open."

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