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.
Chris Ward was the first suspect accused of being part of the bank robbery and of manipulating work rotas in order for it to be carried out. Following the robbery, Northern Bank put Ward on sick leave whilst the police investigation continued. During a ten-minute hearing in early December 2005, Ward denied the charges against him and instead accused the police of bugging him at home and abroad, in an attempt to frame him. He was remanded in custody until 4 January 2006 and then released. The charges against Ward for imprisoning McMullen and his wife were dropped.“It was just terrifying… even the fact they knew I was involved in Celtic [football club], they knew where I lived, they knew my family, they knew my family’s names, they knew about my brother and his girlfriend. You are walking up the street now and you are wondering: Is someone watching me?” - Chris WardA 22-year-old woman, believed either to be an employee of Northern Bank or a friend of Ward’s was also taken in for questioning but later released.The second suspect was Dominic McEvoy, 23, a building contractor from County Down. On 2 November 2005 he was arrested and charged with possession of a gun or imitation firearm and for taking McMullen and his wife hostage as part of the Northern bank robbery. When McEvoy appeared in court on 4 November 2005, the Public Prosecution Service withdrew the charges after studying police files and he was released.On 2 November 2005 a third man was arrested and charged in connection with the Northern bank robbery. Computers, discs, a passport, bank statements, credit cards, wage cheques and phone records were seized. The 30-year-old man was held for questioning and appeared before Belfast magistrates on 9 November 2005. He was charged with collecting and making a record of information to be of use to terrorists. He too had the charges against him dropped and was released.In late November 2005, Martin McAliskey, 40, a salesman from County Tyrone, was accused of withholding information and attempting to pervert the course of justice. He was being held responsible for the white Ford Transit box van used to transport the stolen money. The van had crossed the border from the Irish Republic a few hours before the bank raid took place. Charges against McAliskey were later withdrawn.In mid-February 2005, seven suspects were arrested in several co-ordinated raids that targeted suspected IRA money-laundering operations across the Republic of Ireland. Police believed the nearly £3 million recovered during the raids to be part of that stolen from Northern Bank but it could not be confirmed. Later that month, £60,000 was found in a toilet at the Police Athletic Association’s Newforge Country Club. Following forensic testing of the money, police confirmed it to be part of the Northern Bank heist but believed it was planted to divert their attention from events elsewhere.The beleaguered investigation of the Northern Bank robbery continued and in February 2006, police raided the home of former Sin Féin councillor, Francie Braniff. The following month, police chiefs were accused of a botched investigation into the Northern Bank robbery, with charges against suspects repeatedly being withdrawn by the Public Prosecution Service, and with no firm evidence in their case.Chris Ward still stands accused by police as being part of the robbery. He was remanded on bail and is due to appear in court once more, in late April 2007. Investigating detectives have appealed to the public for anyone who may have witnessed Ward handing over the sports bag of money to one of the gang members at a bus stop in Upper Queen Street on Monday 20 December 2004, to come forward. On 15 April 2007 leading investigator, Detective Superintendent Andrew Sproule, released CCTV footage of that evening. It showed Ward leaving the Donegall Square West branch of Northern Bank, carrying a distinctive sports bag bearing the UMBRO name and logo, and handing it to an unknown man at the bus stop.
Investigations into the robbery became inevitably entangled in the political uncertainty of the time. After a meeting with the Policing Board in January 2005, Chief Constable Hugh Orde of the Police Service of Northern Ireland announced at a news conference in Belfast that the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was responsible for the raid. He added that all the main lines of police inquiry being undertaken at the time were in this direction, not due to any pressure to place blame but because it made ‘operational sense’. He refused to comment on any potential political repercussions this announcement could cause.“These cases are extremely complicated. The robbery itself was carried out by a competent group of criminals. …This was a particularly brutal crime, people were extremely badly treated and assaulted by the gang.” - Sir Hugh OrdeThe Government and other major political figures, with the exception of Sinn Féin, supported this accusation. The IRA denied any involvement in the Northern Bank robbery. Sin Féin MP Martin McGuinness countered that Orde’s allegations were politically biased and more to do with hampering the drive for change to a power-sharing Northern Ireland government, supported by Sin Féin, than anything to do with the robbery. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made it clear that a complete end to all criminal and paramilitary activity was necessary for political institutions to be restored. Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said that trust and confidence in the peace process had been damaged. It was confirmed that the Independent Monitoring Commission would investigate the matter in due course.A month later, the IRA was accused of the murder of Robert McCartney, a Catholic father of two small children, on 31 January 2005. These combined accusations put immense pressure on the IRA to sever its criminal links, which led ultimately to the group’s pledge in July 2005 to down arms.During the investigation, it was revealed that Northern Bank had made no record of the serial numbers of £900,000 worth of the new £100 notes and £250,000 of new £50 notes that were stolen in the raid. In a bid to prevent the gang using all their stolen cash, Northern Bank decided to withdraw its banknotes and re-issue them in a different style and colour, thus eventually making the old currency invalid. On 14 March 2005, in a major security operation, £240 million worth of Northern Bank notes were replaced.
The Key Figures
Northern Bank (Ireland) Limited - victim of £26.5 million cash robberySam Kincaid - Head of Northern Ireland’s Crime Operations branchSir Hugh Orde - Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)Chris Ward - unwilling accomplice/hostage, accused of being part of the heist gangKevin McMullan - unwilling accomplice/hostageDominic McEvoy, 23 - accused of taking the McMullens hostage, charges withdrawnMartin McAliskey, 40 - accused of being an accomplice in connection with the white van used to transport the stolen cash, charges withdrawnProvisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) - accused of the robbery
Ten people have been arrested, three have been charged in connection with the robbery but no-one has yet been charged with physically carrying out the raid on Northern Bank. The investigation continues.
The Victim: 20 December 2004 - Northern Bank (Ireland) Limited robbed of £26.5 million in cashArrested: Early November 2005 - Chris Ward 2 November 2005 - Dominic McEvoy, 23 2 November 2005 - 30-year-old man late November 2005 - Martin McAliskey, 40