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Northern Bank: Another big trial, another embarrassment

Jonathan McCambridge, who has reported extensively on the Northern Bank robbery, examines why the prosecution and police case failed

In the end, the problem was the same as in the Omagh bombing and Robert McCartney murder trials – how do you solve a crime without evidence?

The same prosecutor – Gordon Kerr QC – led all three cases and came up against the same obstacle every time, the missing conclusive link between suspect and crime. First Sean Hoey, then Terence Davison and now Christopher Ward.

Of course, Mr Kerr can only do the best with the evidence that is put in front of him and three times he has been asked to scale a mountain. In the Omagh trial the problem was contaminated evidence, faulty science and dubious police tactics.

The McCartney trial floundered on a deafening wall of silence because of the inability, or refusal, of witnesses to recall what happened on the night a man was murdered.

Now once again the questions have started – where did the police go wrong?

Christmas 2004 and the eyes of the world were on Northern Ireland. The sophistication and audacity of the Northern Bank job put it on a level above the normal base thuggery of criminal activity in the province and it received massive media scrutiny.

The PSNI launched one of their largest ever investigations, headed up by a team of 45 detectives.

After a series of searches in republican areas, more than 200 interviews were carried out and 500 exhibits seized.

The problem for the detectives was that they were dealing with a robbery gang who knew how not to get caught. After tricking their way into an innocent family’s home by dressing as policemen they were painstakingly careful to leave no forensic traces at crime scenes. This level of care extended to trimming their hair in advance to avoid clues being left behind and cleaning rooms with disinfectant before they left. It was widely believed only the Provisional IRA had the smarts to carry out an operation like this; a view shared by police.

With officers working with severely limited forensic opportunities and the expected wall of silence from republican suspects, the investigation floundered. While police continued to tell us how much they were doing, there was no indication that the investigation was moving forward. It is a truism that the longer a case remains unsolved, the less likely that it will be solved — with the Northern Bank there was not a single arrest for 10 months.

Then police, perhaps in desperation, launched a series of raids in the tiny village of Kilcoo in Co Down. While the raids were criticised for being heavy-handed, they did lead to the first arrests. Further arrests followed in other parts of the province and before the end of 2005 three men had appeared in court facing charges connected to the robbery.

However, any sense of vindication for police was short-lived as the Public Prosecution Service refused to allow any of these charges to proceed to trial. The three men walked free and it was clear the police case was crumbling.

Attention turned to young Chris Ward, the bank keyholder whose family was held hostage and threatened while he went to work and helped load the van with £26.5m. Police took the extraordinary step of bugging Ward on holiday in Spain as they attempted to gather a case against him. The PPS decided to proceed with charges and a trial date was set, a decision perhaps now regretted.

The bugging evidence never made it to court but the prosecution attempted to build a circumstantial case to prove he was the inside man in the bank job. Almost immediately it began to fall apart. Astonishingly, the major thrust of the prosecution argument centred around the flimsy suspicion that Ward had manipulated the bank’s work rota to create a window of opportunity for the robbery. When this could not be proven the prosecution case was in ruins and the trial collapsed. The third embarrassment for the PSNI and PPS in a year.

The PSNI are clearly under enormous pressure when it comes to cases such as the Northern Bank. They are severely criticised and chastised by the Policing Board and the media when arrests are not made. However, when arrests do follow they face the greater embarrassment of accountability when the case falls apart. The force’s investigatory prestige has taken a battering.

There will now be the inevitable questions over intelligence gathering and methodology. Individuals who sat through the Omagh and Northern Bank trials have been left stunned that the cases ever made it to court. The quality of evidence, in both cases, has been so poor that it is remarkable that decisions were made to raise victims’ families hopes by proceeding with trials.

Police will continue to tell us that they are solving more crimes than ever before, but the impression that is left is that the really big cases – Omagh, McCartney, Northern Bank – are beyond them.

Belfast Telegraph

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