The Greatest Cash Theft In History1
The Northern Bank
The Northern Bank began life in 1809 in Belfast as the Northern Banking Partnership. By 1824, it had become the Northern Banking Company Limited. It began its expansion soon after, establishing branches in Monaghan and Dublin by the 1840s. The organisation grew with the economy, then strong with the proceeds of the linen and ship-building industries, and a busy merchant class. In 1970, they merged with the Belfast Banking Company Limited and a second wave of expansion took place, despite the troubles. In 1988, the outfit was bought by the National Australia Bank, whereupon the branches in the Republic of Ireland were reorganised and renamed the National Irish Bank. The branches in Northern Ireland remained the Northern Bank.
The Northern Bank (like the Bank of England, the Bank of Scotland, the Clydesdale Bank and four others) issues banknotes in British Pounds Sterling. (They are generally accepted as payment, although only some are legal tender.)
The bank has 95 branches, and their sister company in the Republic has 59 branches.
On the 14th of December 2004, the Danske Bank of Copenhagen agreed to acquire both parts of the organisation. Talk about bad timing.
Sunday, 19th December 2004
On the shopping streets of Belfast, the tills had finished jingling for the night. The hours of Sunday trading were up. There were four shopping days left until Christmas. In the province's homes, persons of sense were stretching and thinking of bed.
At Poleglass, just to the west of the city, the Ward family were settled in for the night. Masked men arrive- taking Chris Ward away, and holding his mother, father, brother and his girlfriend hostage.
Simultaneously, at a home in Downpatrick, Kevin McMullan and his wife have been similarly accosted and tied up by gunmen dressed as police officers. Ward is brought here, and Mrs. McMullan is blindfolded and taken away into the countryside.
Monday, 20th December 2004
At 6.30am, Ward and McMullan are left at that house, with instructions and dire threats ringing in their ears. Later that morning, they go to work at the Northern Bank's headquarters in Donegal Square as usual. Ward is a bank official and McMullan is his supervisor. They both work in the basement cash centre- this branch is where the Northern's banknotes for the whole of Northern Ireland are processed. It is in the heart of Belfast's shopping district. It is the end of the busiest shopping weekend of the year.
At 6pm, following his instructions, one of the pair collects one million pounds in a bag, leaves the bank, walks 100m to the street corner, and gives it to a waiting man.
By 7pm, a second, much larger batch of money has been prepared by the men. It is loaded into a waiting white van. By 8.00pm, a second van-load has been taken.
A total of twenty-six million, five hundred thousand pounds has been spirited away into the night. £26,500,000. Early reports said that only 20-22 million had walked.
By 11pm, Mrs McMullan has been abandoned in Drumkeeragh Forest Park. She staggers to a nearby house, still blindfolded, and suffering from exposure. By the end of Monday, the police and bank have been notified- some six hours after the raid began.
Twenty-six million quid is a lot of money, especially for an organisation with only three-hundred million of notes in circulation. On the 7th of January, with no real hope of a quick recovery of almost 10% of their folding stuff, the bank made a dramatic decision: to withdraw all their notes, and replace them with a new design. A different colour, different logo and a new serial number system were inked-up and introduced in March. Their hope was to make the stolen notes impossible to spend. They knew the serial numbers for about sixteen million pounds of the stolen money- but had no way to identify the rest.
Also on this day, and to no-one's surprise, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland reported that the Provisional IRA were directly responsible for the theft. To no-one's surprise the organisation denied that they were involved, and Sinn Féin backed them up, claiming that the police were politically motivated in making the accusation. The main unionist parties declared that Sinn Féin must be excluded from the Northern Ireland Assembly - even though it was then suspended.
The IRA were thought to be close to declaring that their bloody campaign was permanently over. This money would therefore come in handy as their retirement fund.
By the start of February, the UK and Irish Republic's governments had accepted the police's assertions, now backed by the Independent Monitoring Commission2, that the IRA were behind the raid. The IMC report even went so far as to implicate the Sinn Féin leadership, and suggest that the party should face sanctions.
Two Police Forces In Action
On the 17th of February, Garda officers discovered 2 million pounds, including Northern Bank notes. Seven men, including a Sinn Féin member and several from Derry/Londonderry were arrested under the Republic's Offences Against the State Act- their main anti-terror legislation. The next day another man was arrested in the Republic, after being caught trying to burn great wads of cash. In the north, fifty-thousand pounds of the loot were found after having apparently been smuggled into a police gymnasium!
In November, a total of 6 people were arrested by police in Northern Ireland. They included Dominic McEvoy, who was charged with false imprisonment, firearms offenses, and the robbery. Chris Ward and a female bank employee were also brought in. In the first week of December 2005, Chris Ward was charged with the robbery, based on his reported actions before the hostage taking, and discrepancies in his subsequent statements. He denies the charges, and has been released on bail.
To date he, McEvoy, and one other have been charged. Only a tiny fraction of the money has been recovered. On 28th July 2005, the Provisional IRA declared that their terror campaign was to end, starting at 4pm. Bruised and battered they may be, but perhaps also financially compensated?
- For about a year, when the The Great Tonbridge Robbery just about doubled the record.
- The IMC is an organisation set up by the UK and Irish Republic's governments to monitor ceasefire breaches by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland as part of the peace process.