It was one of the biggest cash robberies in UK history and was planned with great precision. It occurred at a delicate time in the peace process in Northern Ireland, adding unwanted political pressure to the proceedings.
A Commercial bank and one of the oldest in Ireland, Northern Bank Limited was formed in 1824. Considered one of the Big Four in Northern Ireland, it even issues its own banknotes. In 1970 Northern Banking Company Limited amalgamated with the Belfast Banking Company Limited, becoming a subsidiary of the Midland Bank, UK. In 1987 it underwent re-organisation to form what is now known as Northern Bank (Ireland) Limited. In 1998 it was acquired by National Australia Bank, after which it was known as National Irish Bank. Since 1 March 2005 it has been owned by Danske Bank in Denmark.
The gang seemed to have carefully planned every detail of the heist. On Sunday 19 December 2004 at 10 pm, three masked men arrived at a house in Poleglass, on the outskirts of Belfast. Chris Ward lived there and was an official at the Donegall Square West branch of Northern Bank. Ward’s parents, brother and his girlfriend were kept hostage in their home by at least two of the masked men, for more than 24 hours. At gunpoint, Ward was taken away in a red car to his supervisor, Kevin McMullan’s house in County Down.
Here, two masked men already had McMullan and his wife, Karen, tied up at gunpoint. It later emerged that they had gained access to the home by pretending to be police officers. At 11:30 pm, Karen McMullan was taken to an undisclosed location, where she was held blindfolded for more than 24 hours.
Monday 20 December 2004 at 6:30 am, the masked men left the house, having given Ward and McMullan strict instructions as to what they needed to do, with the threat of death for their families if they did not comply. The two men worked in the cash centre in the bank’s basement and went to work, carrying out their normal daily duties as if nothing was wrong. At 6 pm, when all the bank employees went home, Ward and McMullan, who were both key-holders, let the gang members into the bank.
Shortly after 6 pm, Ward was made to leave the bank with a sports bag filled with £1.2 million in cash. He handed it to one of the gang members, who was waiting around the corner from the bank, and returned to the vaults. Police later believed this might have been a trial run for another robbery.
With uninterrupted access to the vaults, the gang packed as much cash as possible into crates. What amounted to £26.5 million in cash, was mostly uncirculated Northern Bank notes but also included £8.85 million Pounds Sterling in used notes, and over a million Pounds in other currencies such as US Dollars and Euros. At 7 pm, a white box van arrived at the bank, was loaded with the money-filled crates and departed. It returned at 8pm for a second collection of crates before driving off towards the Grosvenor Road roundabout.
At around 8:10 pm, a man and a woman, who were shopping in the area, had seen two men, who were thought to be wearing wigs, acting suspiciously and hanging around a white van parked at the side of the bank. Three minutes later, the couple reported it to a traffic warden, who passed the information on to the police. Two constables patrolling the area were alerted and arrived at the bank at 8:18 pm, narrowly missing the gang, who had driven off for the second and last time. The constables reported nothing amiss and continued their patrol.
At 11 pm, suffering from exposure due to the extreme cold and in a state of shock, Karen McMullan found her way to a house to raise the alarm. A short while earlier she had been released by her captors and left in the middle of Drumkeeragh Forest Park, County Down. Her burnt-out car was later found in the Forest Park. By 11:45 pm, police and senior Northern Bank officials had been alerted to the robbery. Head of Northern Ireland’s Crime Operations branch, Sam Kincaid, was briefed and immediately ordered a search for the gang. It was nearly six hours after the bank had been robbed and the gang was long gone.