Northern Bank Robbery 2004

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The Northern Bank robbery was a large robbery of cash from the Donegall Square West headquarters of the Northern Bank in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Carried out on 20 December 2004, the gang seized the equivalent of £26.5 million in sterling and small amounts of other currencies, largely euros and US dollars, making it the largest bank robbery in Irish history. Although the Police Service of N Ireland (PSNI) and the British and Irish governments claimed the Provisional IRA was responsible (or had permitted others to undertake the raid), this is denied by the Provisional IRA and the political party Sinn Fein . Although one person has been convicted of money laundering, the investigation is still ongoing, and the case remains unsolved as of 2017.

On the night of Sunday 19 December 2004, groups of armed men arrived at the homes of two officials of the Northern Bank, one in Downpatrick in County Down, the other in Poleglass, in West Belfast. Masquerading as Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers, they entered the homes and held the officials and their families at gunpoint. Bank official Christopher Ward was taken from Poleglass to Downpatrick, the home of his supervisor, Kevin McMullan, while gunmen remained at his home with Ward’s family. Subsequently, McMullan’s wife was taken from their home and held, also at gunpoint, at an unknown location. The following day both officials were instructed to report for work at the bank’s headquarters at Belfast’s Donegall Square West as normal.

At lunch time on Monday, 20 December 2004, Ward removed a sum of money thought to be around £1 million and placed it in a sports holdall. He walked out of the bank’s Wellington Street staff entrance with the holdall and made his way to a bus stop in Queen Street where he met up with one of the robbers. This action was later released as a closed circuit video presentation. After handing over the sports holdall with the stolen money, Ward returned to his work location. This was regarded as a test run for the main robbery later in the evening.

McMullan and Ward remained at work after the close of business, and later in the evening they gave entry to other members of the gang. The robbers entered the bank via the Wellington Street staff entrance and made their way to the bank’s cash handling and storage facility. This held an unusually large amount of cash in preparation for distribution to ATM machines for the busy Christmas shopping season. Cash was transferred to one or several vehicles parked outside in Wellington Street. The gang then fled. Shortly before midnight the gang holding the Ward family left, and those holding Mrs McMullan released her in a forest near Ballynahimch. The haul included £10m of uncirculated Northern Bank sterling banknotes, £5.5m of used Northern Bank sterling notes, £4.5m of circulated sterling notes issued by other banks, and small amounts of other currencies, largely euros and US dollars.

Following the raid, Northern Bank announced that it would recall all £300 million worth of its banknotes in denominations of £10 or more, and reissue them in different colours with a new logo and new serial numbers. The first of these new notes entered circulation on 11 March 2005.

Initial responses

Although the police initially refused to be drawn as to who might be involved, a number of commentators, including journalist Kevin Myers writing in the Daily Telegraph, quickly blamed the Provisional IRA, saying that only it had the wherewithal to conduct such a professional operation in the province. One senior police officer quoted in The Guardian newspaper said: “This operation required great expertise and coordination, probably more than the loyalist gangs possess”.

On 7 January 2005 Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable, issued an interim report in which he blamed the Provisional IRA for the robbery. The British and Irish governments concurred with Orde’s assessment, as did the Independent Monitoring Commission (the body appointed by the Irish and British governments to oversee the Northern Ireland ceasefires). Sinn Féin, however, denied the Chief Constable’s claim, saying the IRA had not conducted the raid and that Sinn Féin officials had not known of or sanctioned the robbery. Martin McGuiness said that Orde’s accusation represented “nothing more than politically-biased allegations. This is more to do with halting the process of change which Sinn Féin has been driving forward than with anything that happened at the Northern Bank”.

On 18 January 2005 the Provisional IRA issued a two-line statement denying any involvement in the robbery: “The IRA has been accused of involvement in the recent Northern Bank robbery. We were not involved”.

Despite this denial of involvement from the Provisional IRA, and others by its supporters, it has been widely believed in Northern Ireland, especially in unionist and loyalist circles, that the raid was the work of the IRA, and intended by them as a means of securing a pension fund for its active  members, who had been largely unemployed since the promulgation of the Good Friday Agreement. Not a bad way to get a good pension!

Arrests and investigation developments
10 February

On 10 February the houses of Liam and Michael Donnelly were searched in connection with the robbery but nothing was found on the business premises either.

17 February

On 17 February the Gardai announced it had arrested seven people and recovered over £2 million, including £60,000 in Northern Bank notes, during raids in the Cork and Dublin areas, as part of ongoing investigations into money laundering. The Gardaí did not officially confirm that the raids were related to the Northern Bank robbery, but made the arrests under the Offences against the State Act, the republic’s chief anti-terrorism law.

Those arrested are reported to include several men from Derry and a former Sinn Féin councillor. A suspected IRA member was arrested at Heuston Station, along with two others. Money to the sum of €94,000 was found in their vehicle, in a washing powder box. Pretty ironic if it was on its way to be laundered!  One of the men, Don Bullman from Co Cork, was charged on 18 February at the Special Criminal Court with IRA membership. He was jailed for IRA membership but never charged in connection with the Northern Bank robbery.

18 February

On 18 February, Gardaí in  arrested a man found to be attempting to burn sterling banknotes. Two men in Dublin were released from questioning, as was the Sinn Féin member in Cork.

A top Irish businessman and associate of the Taoiseach, Phil Flynn, suddenly without any apparent reason stepped down from a number of positions pending the outcome of a Gardaí investigation into Chesterton Finance, of which he was a non-executive director. He stepped down as chairman of a government body overseeing decentralisation, as well as giving up a position on the board of VHI and as chairman of the Bank of Scotland.

The PSNI recovered £50,000 in unused Northern banknotes at Newforge Country Club, a sports and social club in Belfast for off-duty and retired police officers, owned by the PSNI’s Athletic Association. The PSNI stated it was a diversion, but it is still being investigated.

19 February
Police confirm the money found at the Newforge Country Club was part of the £26 million from the bank robbery.
October 2005

On 12 October, Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy told a law enforcement conference in Dublin that he was satisfied that the money recovered in Cork in February came from the Northern Bank robbery.

November 2005

On 2 November the PSNI arrested two men in Kilcoo, County Down , as part of a pre-planned operation in connection with the robbery. Sinn Fein’s said that the two arrested are not members of the party.

On 3 November three more people were arrested in Belfast, Dungannon and Coalisland, bringing the total number of people arrested during the operation to five. All five were questioned in the PSNI’s Serious Crime Suite in Antrim police station. It was reported that in the early hours of the morning, crowds blocked the road between Castlewellan and Newry near Kilcoo with burnt-out vehicles. Hugh Order defended the police action as “proportionate” and gave his full backing to the detectives handling the operation. Sinn Féin claimed the raids were a “political stunt”.

One of the five arrested during Tuesday and Wednesday was released. The individual arrested in Dungannon was named as Brian Arthurs, a member of Sinn Féin and brother of Declan Arthurs, an IRA volunteer killed in 1987.

On 7 November, Martin McAliskey, a 42-year-old man from Coalisland, County Tyrone, was charged with making false statements to police in relation to a white Ford Transit van allegedly used in the robbery.

On 29 November police investigating the raid arrested the bank official Christopher Ward and searched his home. They confirmed that another bank employee, a 23-year-old woman who was not named, was also arrested on the same day.

December 2005

On 7 December, Chris Ward was charged with the robbery. Belfast Magistrates’ Court was told the prosecution case was based on Ward’s actions in the days preceding and during the raid, and a suspicious work rota, as well as discrepancies in Ward’s original statements to police. Ward denied the charge and claimed police had harassed him and his family in an attempt to frame him. He also complained that he had been held in police custody for an unprecedented eight days under the Criminal Justice Act before being charged.

3 January 2007

All charges against Dominic McEvoy and Martin McAliskey are dropped by the Public Prosecution Service. Hugh Orde describes the developments as a setback. Chris Ward is remanded on bail until 31 January, when he will appear before the court again.

October 2007
A date of September 2008 was set for the trial of Chris Ward, in connection with the robbery. He is charged with robbery and two further charges of false imprisonment.
October 2008

On 9 October 2008, Ward was acquitted of the charges of false imprisonment and robbery. The judge discharged him after the prosecution said it would be offering no more evidence.

March 2009

On 27 March, financial adviser Ted Cunningham from Cork was found guilty of laundering over three million pounds sterling which came from the robbery.

May 2012

On 11 May 2012, the Court of Criminal appeal quashed the conviction of Ted Cunningham on all ten charges, citing an invalidity of the warrant used to search his house. The invalidity referred to the fact that the warrant was issued by the senior Garda in charge of the investigation, as allowed for by section 29 (1) of the Offences Against The State act, a state of affairs which the Court found to be repugnant to the Constitution of Ireland. The Court ordered a retrial on nine of the ten original counts of money laundering. It directed that the tenth, relating to a sum of money allegedly found in Cunningham’s home was not to be retried.

February 2014

Ted Cunningham was given a 5-year suspended sentence having pleaded guilty to two counts of money laundering following four days of trial.

 Cunningham has a chequered financial career

A 65-year-old financial advisor has been given a five year suspended jail sentencing for his part in money laundering around STG£275,000 of the £26.5 million stolen in Northern Bank Robberey robbery in Belfast almost 10 years ago. Also involved with Phil Flynn  ( see above) in Chesterton Finance.

Cunningham of Woodbine Lodge, Farran, Co Cork was given the sentence at Cork Circuit Criminal court, having pleaded guilty last week to two counts of money laundering follow four days of trial.

Cunningham pleaded guilty to money laundering £100,040 on January 15th, 2005 by transferring it to John Douglas in Tullanmore, Co Offaly and in doing so being reckless to it being the proceeds of the Northern Bank robbery.

He also pleaded guilty to money laundering £175,360 on February 7th, 2005 by transferring it to John Sheenan in Ballingcollig, Co Cork and receiving three cheques totalling €200,000 and again in doing so, being reckless as to it being the proceeds of the Northern Bank robbery.

 Insp Colm Noonan outlined the background to the case when an armed criminal gang identified as being the IRA, held up the Northern Bank cash centre at Donegall Square West in Belfast on December 20th, 2004 in what was the biggest bank robbery ever on the island.

During Cunnigham’s trial, the court heard that he had arrived at the home of the Douglas family in Tullamore and asked them to mind two bags of sterling each containing £50,000, which the family later gave to gardai when they called on them.

Cunningham also gave £175,000 in £20 notes to businessman John Sheehan in Cork in return for three cheques totalling €200,000, which Mr Sheehan loaned to him. But upon learning of a raid on Cunningham’s house, Mr Sheehan handed over the money to gardai.

The court heard that Cunningham had begun working for a sub-prime lending company called Weisz Finance run by American Ron Weisz , a convicted fraudster, in the early 1990s but later set up his own company in 1999 called Chesterton Finance based in Ballincollig in Co Cork.

Chesterton Finance was still operating in 2012 and Cunningham had recently rejoined the company as a financial director. Judge Sean Ó Donnabháin said that was something which caused him considerable concern.

Cross-examined by defence counsel, Insp Noonan said gardaí accepted that Cunningham had no involvement in subversive activity but had been utilised by criminal subversives because of his financial experience and business contacts.

The court heard Cunningham had been convicted of 10 counts of money laundering in 2009 arising out the same investigation and relating to a much larger sum and he was sentenced to 10 years but he was released after three years after he successfully appealed his conviction.

While he was in prison, Cunningham was taken to hospital on 16 separate occasions as he suffers from a condition called heriditary haemorragic telangiectasia which led to frequent nose bleeds and made his time in prison very difficult. Oh poor lad.

Mr Hartnett his brief, asked that the court would not impose a custodial sentence given Cunningham’s age, his health, the fact that he already had served three years prior to his appeal plus his guilty plea and his willingness to resign from Chesterton Finance.

Judge Ó Donnnabháin said the Northern Bank raid had displayed all the viciousness, planning, methodology and organisation of a criminal terrorist organisation and the crime had received extensive media coverage all over the world.He noted an excerpt from a conversation between the late Jack Douglas and Cunningham in which Mr Douglas asked him if there was any chance that the sterling he was being asked to mind was from the Northern Bank raid and Cunningham assured him that it was not.

He paid tribute to the professionalism, tenacity and rigor of the Garda investigation which led them to identify notes found at both the Douglas home and the money handed over by Mr Sheehan through various marks as being from the Northern Bank cash centre.

And he noted Cunningham’s guilty plea to the charges which were a clear acknowledgement of his part in money laundering: “It puts his involvement beyond all doubt and all from out of his own mouth – there are no appeals, there is no doubt anymore.”

Cunningham had used his position as a financial advisor to inveigle unsuspecting business people into this plan to launder the proceeds of a serious crime and that was a serious aggravating factor in his mind, said Judge Ó Donnabháin.

 He said he had concerns that Cunningham was still involved in financial matters through Chesterton and that could have a bearing on what type of sentence Cunningham would get but Mr Hartnett assured him Cunningham would give up his role in the company immediately.

Judge Ó Donnabháin said he was pleased to hear that from the point of view of protecting the public and he imposed a five year sentence in 2014  which he suspended on condition he be of good behaviour and have no involvement in any financial company for five years.

He also ordered the forfeiture to the state of a total £2.985 million and €45,000 which gardaí seized from Cunningham and other people during the course of their investigation into the laundering of monies stolen in the Northern Bank raid.

The investigation is ongoing… is tempted to say it says more about the Irish police incompetence than the skill of the thieves.

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