By Mary Nelis
Banks are in the news this week, not because of the financial crisis they have created but because taxpayers, many of whom have been robbed blind for years by bank charges, are now expected to bail them out.
The Northern Bank in Belfast was at the centre of a different crisis this week, brought on by the collapse of the trial of Chris Ward, the Northern Bank employee accused of the robbery in December 2004, of #26 million. The media frenzy that followed the 2004 Christmas heist was not so much concerned with the robbery or the amount taken. Nor was the public for there is little love lost between people and banks. The reaction to the Northern Bank by a media, devoid almost entirely of investigative journalism, was only concerned with one story only. That the robbery was the work of the IRA and Sinn Féin leaders must have known and sanctioned it. In that respect Sinn Féin should be removed from the political process and the other political parties should proceed to form a Government without them. That was the story.
Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the formation of the power sharing Assembly, there had been many efforts to remove Sinn Féin from their rightful place as political representatives of the Northern Nationalists electorate. All had failed.
The Northern Bank robbery coming on the heels of the DUP refusal to engage with Sinn Féin was a gift to the no camp and the obstructionist in the Party.
Some weeks prior to the robbery, Paisley, faced again with the prospect of sharing power with Sinn Féin, had launched another series of demands, in his infamous’ sack cloth and ashes speech’, designed to humiliate Republicans. It is worth noting that the man on the platform with Paisley as he demanded photos and witnesses of IRA decommissioning, was Bill Lowry, the former head of the PSNI Special Branch, the man in charge of the PSNI during the raid in Stormont, which had led to the collapse of the first power sharing Executive.
That a former head of Special Branch should appear on a DUP platform was not surprising. The close connection between Unionism, the RUC and British intelligence services has been well documented over the years. But there are concerns that many of the former RUC personnel, who have the ear and support of the DUP, still hold sway within the PSNI, when one considers that the issue of decommissioning could have been resolved long before the political crisis which erupted after the Northern Bank robbery.
Hardly had the robbers sped away in a white van, sighted months later in places as far away as Wales, than the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde, was at the starting block, firing the pistol directly at the IRA. Orde told all who would listen, which was most of the media, the Northern and Southern political parties, both Governments and the US Administration, that the IRA had carried out the robbery, and he had directed forty five of his top detectives to work around the clock, to bring the culprits to boot.
The Gardi Siochana, taking their lead from Orde, announced that they too were making ‘special enquiries’.
In daily briefing to the media, Orde told reporters in the weeks after the robbery, that ‘On the evidence we have collected, the exhibits we have collected, and putting all that together and working through it all, in my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime’.
No one in a compliant media asked what evidence or even what intelligence, for at this stage the PSNI were busy mapping out a trail to the Republican areas of West Belfast and Tyrone and arresting members of Sinn Féin and their families while the Gardi were turning homes over in Cork.
Five weeks after the robbery, the only money traceable to this day, as part of the heist, some 100,000 in US banknotes, was discovered in the toilets of the PSNI Newforge Country Club, used by the Chief Constable and other Senior PSNI officers to brief journalists. A PSNI spokesperson at the time claimed that the IRA had probably planted the money there to divert the attention of the detectives investigating the robbery.
In other words the IRA, during their getaway with the 26 million loot, had stopped at the Country Club in South Belfast, filled with retired RUC members and PSNI detectives, relaxing from the hard slog of their strenuous investigations, walked in and placed the notes in the toilet.
Who would believe that? Well the media did, the Taoiseach did, and the late and unlamented Minister for Justice in the Dail, Michael McDowell did as well as all of the other political parties in the North.
No one thought to ask if the raid could be the work of a ‘dirty tricks ‘operations by the British intelligence services. After all MI5, in the early years of the conflict had set up a whole series of bank raids involving their agents, the Littlejohn Brothers.
As Orde’s team of forty five top detectives worked around the clock, West Belfast was being turned upside down and lurid stories of the background of those arrested and their families appeared almost daily, in Irish and British newspapers.
The presumption of innocence until proven guilty has never applied to Republicans and the Northern Bank robbery suspects were no exceptions.
The Observer correspondent Henry McDonald not to be outdone by the numerous foreign correspondents noted ‘that one of the gang is a former member of the French Foreign Legionnaire, and former fighter for the Croats in the Bosnian war.’
In the South, a witch hunt was in progress against Phil Flynn, the former Trade Unionist and member of Sinn Féin and Director of the Bank of Scotland. In the face of media speculation that he was part of a money laundering operation, Phil Flynn was forced to resign from the Bank and many other important Irish Government positions.
In retrospect it is clear that the robbery was used to demonise the Sinn Féin leadership for character assassination has always been the stock in trade of those opposed to a free and democratic Ireland. destabilise the peace process and thus destroy Sinn Féin.
It is no wonder that the lawyer representing the only person charged as a result of Orde’s top team investigation, could state that his client Chris Ward, was charged solely on the basis that he was a Catholic from Poleglass.
The incompetence of the investigation and prosecution by the PSNI, despite its arsenal of informers, spies, surveillance and bugging operations, is sufficient reason to demand the immediate devolution of policing and justice to the elected Assembly for as many have now come to believe, the intelligence services used the Bank robbery to destabilise the peace process and destroy Sinn Féin.
There is no doubt that the DUP are running scared in front of the devolution of policing and justice. The ridiculous claims of triple locks amid rising crime rates, defective policing investigations and collapsing trials, is of increasing concern among the general public. Recent opinion polls have indicated that the majority of citizens want policing and justice powers devolved and they wanted it yesterday.
To quote Macbeth, ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’ which can only be addressed by the transfer of policing and justice powers. What have the DUP to hide?