String of raids that traumatised rural communities seem to grind to a halt after specialist policing operations
Once described as “The Untouchables”, major police operations on both sides of the Border appear to have stopped the activities of gangs involved in a large number of ATM thefts.
During a period from 2018 to 2020, 28 cash machines were stolen in Northern Ireland and Border areas of the Republic. In one month alone — April 2019 — there were eight ATM thefts.
The modus operandi was similar in all the carefully planned attacks. A digger was stolen and then used to smash down the wall of a bank or shop which contained the cash machine.
The machine was put on to a truck-type vehicle and the thieves made their getaway. The entire operation would be completed in a matter of minutes.
Although no details were made public about the amount of money stolen, each ATM had the capacity to hold tens of thousands of pounds.
As the frequency of the thefts increased in 2019, both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána faced calls for more to be done to stop the attacks, which were terrorising rural communities. In response, both forces set up special teams to investigate.
Detective Chief Inspector Richard Thornton is in charge of the PSNI team.
“We set up a dedicated team of detectives who worked across Northern Ireland,” he said. “This team worked closely with the banking and retail sectors to help put a stop to this crime.”
Security sources believe more than one gang was responsible for the ATM thefts.
The county hit hardest was Antrim, where nine cash machines were stolen. A criminal gang with links to loyalist paramilitaries is understood to have been behind most of the attacks in Antrim.
Four ATMs were stolen in Co Tyrone, three in Co Fermanagh, two in Co Armagh and one in Co Derry.
In the Republic, three ATMs were stolen in Co Louth and two each in counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan.
Gardaí believe criminals based in south Armagh were responsible for most of the thefts in the Republic. Intelligence-led police operations have led to a number of people being arrested.
“This type of crime knows no borders, which meant there was the potential for organised crime groups in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to co-operate,” said DCI Thornton.
A man was convicted this week for his part in one of the thefts.
Niall Finnegan, of Cherry Grove, Cullyhanna, Co Armagh, was jailed for four-and-a-half years at the Special Criminal Court for handling €103,930 following an ATM theft in Co Cavan in August 2019.
The final 18 months of his sentence was suspended for three years.
The 39-year-old’s trial had been told that in the early hours of August 14, 2019, a grey Toyota Land Cruiser and a flatback truck were used to steal a 14-tonne digger on the Bailieborough Road in Virginia. The digger was to be used in the theft of the ATM at the Riverfront Hotel in the town but the Garda Emergency Response Unit intervened.
Two men were arrested inside an hour after gardaí arrived on the scene and a third man was later arrested.
Gardaí investigating the attack secured a search warrant for a yard at Tullypole in Co Meath and found €289,900 in cash and a money counter in a shed.
One of the arrested men had at that stage been released by gardaí and was then driven to Tullypole by Finnegan in his Berlingo van, where two packages of cash were dug up and put in the shed.
The court was told Finnegan and this man left and returned with a third man in a Toyota Avensis later in the day and put €15,000 in the car and €88,930 in the boot of the Avensis.
Mr Justice Tony Hunt said while Finnegan admitted to twice driving to Tullypole on the day, he denied any involvement with the ATM thefts.
However, the judge said Finnegan had “no doubt” that he was aware of the background to the case.
Mr Justice Hunt said there was no “romantic” reading of the crimes.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, which represents many of the stores targeted in the ATM thefts, also dismissed any “romantic” element to the thefts. “These thieves are not Robin Hood, they are just hoods,” he told the Sunday Independent.
“These thefts had a traumatic impact on shop owners and their staff. These are not big multinational companies, they are small business owners who provide a vital service for local communities, especially in rural areas.
“It was a terrifying time for shop owners. They didn’t know who was going to be next to get a call in the middle of the night.
The problem was so bad at one stage that I know a lot of shop owners were considering whether it was worth having an ATM at their store.”
There are a number of ongoing court cases in relation to the attacks.
“I am pleased at the progress that police on both sides of the Border appear to have made in stopping these criminal gangs,” said Mr Roberts.
“I hope that any sentences given to those involved are severe because the message needs to be sent out that these attacks are unacceptable.”
Several ATMs stolen during the period from 2018 to 2020 belonged to Bank of Ireland.
“Where an ATM has been stolen we assess the situation on a case-by-case basis, but generally we have replaced them,” said a spokesperson for the bank.
“However, ATM theft causes significant disruption to banking services for customers, and repairs to a building along with the installation of a new ATM can take a considerable amount of time.
“Where incidents have occurred, we have often taken additional measures to support local communities,” the spokesperson added.
1. March 21, 2018
Cash machine stolen at Victoria Street in Keady, Co Armagh.
2. August 3, 2018
Several thousand pounds stolen from an ATM in Trory, Co Fermanagh.
3. October 27, 2018
An ATM was stolen from a filling station in Ballyclare, Co Antrim.
4. December 16, 2018
A cash machine was stolen from a Bank of Ireland branch in Ballybay, Co Monaghan.
5. December 22, 2018
ATM stolen from a shop in Fintona, Co Tyrone.
6. January 6, 2019
An unsuccessful attempt was made to steal a cash machine at Killyclogher, Co Tyrone.
7. February 1, 2019
Two ATMs were stolen from an Asda store in Antrim town.
8. February 2, 2019
ATM stolen from a filling station at Moira, Co Antrim.
9. February 16, 2019
A cash machine was stolen from a filling station in Omagh, Co Tyrone.
10. March 10, 2019
ATM stolen from a bank at Kingscourt, Co Cavan.
11. March 10, 2019
Cash machine stolen from a filling station in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.
12. March 22, 2019
An ATM is stolen from a bank in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim.
13. March 24, 2019
Cash machine stolen from a filling station in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh.
14. April 1, 2019
ATM stolen from a shop in the village of Ahoghill, Co Antrim.
15. April 3, 2019
Digger used to remove the ATM from the wall of a bank in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan.
16. April 7, 2019
Cash machine stolen from the wall of a filling station in Dungiven, Co Derry.
17. April 16, 2019
ATM machine stolen from a shop in Bushmills village, Co Antrim.
18. April 19, 2019
Two ATMs stolen from separate banks in Kells, Co Meath.
19. April 19, 2019
Two ATMS stolen from a store in Crumlin, Co Antrim.
20. April 19, 2019
An unsuccessful attempt was made to steal an ATM from a shop in Craigavon, Co Armagh.
21. April 26, 2019
Two ATMs stolen from a supermarket in Ballymena, Co Antrim.
22. April 30, 2019
Cash machine stolen from a service station at Nutts Corner, Co Antrim.
23. August 14, 2019
Attempt made to steal an ATM in Virginia, Co Cavan.
24. November 16, 2019
ATM stolen from a bank on Main Street in Dunleer, Co Louth.
25. April 3, 2020
Two ATMs stolen from two banks in Dundalk, Co Louth.
26. May 13, 2020
A sum of money was stolen after an ATM machine at Richhill, Co Armagh.
27. November 18, 2020
An attempt was made to steal a cash machine in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh.