Northern Bank trial collapses
Northern Bank trial collapses

The man accused of the massive Northern Bank robbery in Belfast walked free from court this morning after all charges against him were dropped.

The non-jury ‘Diplock’ trial against bank official Chris Ward collapsed at Belfast Crown Court when prosecutors abandoned the case.

Prosecutors alleged he was the inside man in the raid, at that time (December 2004) the largest in Irish or British history. Amid massive international publicity, the PSNI police soon blamed the Provisional IRA for the heist.

Mr Ward was the subject of considerable smear and innuendo by unionist figures after it emerged he was a supporter of Glasgow Celtic soccer team. This, and his west Belfast background, appears to have led to the allegations that he was the inside man for a Provisional IRA gang.

Mr Ward, from Poleglass in west Belfast, also faced charges of conspiring to abduct a fellow bank official and his wife during the robbery in December 2004. Both his family and that of fellow official Kevin McMullan were held hostage as the two men were forced to empty the bank’s vaults.

Although some of the proceeds of the 26.5 million pounds from the raid were subsequently uncovered at a PSNI sports facility, the find was rubbished by the police as a deliberate distraction.

At one point, the furore over the allegations of IRA involvement threatened to collapse the peace process, However, republicans were mentioned only once during the trial, when one of the gang was overheard saying “I can’t wait until tomorrow. The republicans are going to get blamed for this. Ian Paisley will have plenty to say about it.”

The trial started on September 9th but rapidly descended into absurdity as the paucity of evidence against Mr Ward emerged.

The prosecution case relied heavily on suggestions and rumours among the other bank staff.

The substantive part of entire prosecution case was that a routine change to the rota of the bank’s keyholders was part of a plot by Mr Ward to facilitate the raid.

That claim fell apart this week following contradictory testimony by other bank officials.

Prosecution counsel Gordon Kerr QC today admitted the case had been brought entirely on ‘circumstantial evidence’.

“An essential strand related to the circumstances in which the defendant came to be on the rota of the late shift of the Northern Bank on the day of the robbery,” said Mr Kerr today.

“(It was) fundamental in the case to the prosecution inviting the court to draw inference from other parts of the case.”

He added that differences had arisen during the trial around the rota which had prompted a rethink.

“Having considered the remaining evidence and the advice of counsel... it has been concluded that it would not be proper to make further submissions.”

The trial judge Mr Justice McLaughlin then said he was required to find Mr Ward not guilty of all charges.

Commenting on the collapse of the trial, Sinn Fein Assembly member Alex Maskey said that the decision to prosecute Mr Ward was political in nature.

“This is the latest in a line of high profile prosecutions which have collapsed when put under scrutiny in court,” he said.

“It is clear that this prosecution, like others before, including miscarriages of justice, were driven by political considerations rather than justice or evidence.

“This case was about trying to prove a political theory about who was responsible for this robbery. It was not about finding those who were responsible.

“This young man and his family were put through a terrible ordeal which was then compounded by the media witch hunt against him and the decision to charge him with a crime he had nothing to do with.

“It seems that the evidence against Mr Ward consisted of the fact that he was a Catholic living in West Belfast.

“What this case also exposes is the need for democratic local accountability over not just policing but over all aspects of the criminal justice system who came together to drive forward this bogus prosecution.

“This case underlines the need for powers over these matters being transferred. That will mean proper scrutiny of the workings of these institutions and individuals ensuring that in future prosecutions take place on the basis of evidence and not because of the needs of any particular political agenda.”

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