There have been calls for a completely new system of policing and justice in the north of Ireland following the dramatic collapse of the trial of bank official Chris Ward, the only individual accused of the 2004 Northern Bank robbery.
Parallels are now being drawn to other political crises which served to undermine the peace process such as the so-called ‘Stormontgate’ and ‘Castlereagate’ episodes of 2002, and to the shambolic prosecutions of republicans Sean Hoey in 2007 and Terence Davison earlier this year.
In the storm of international publicity following the 26.5 million pound heist, Mr Ward was labelled a stooge of the IRA by the PSNI police and the establishment media, losing his job amid the welter of accusation.
But the so-called ‘trial’ of Mr Ward, a Catholic from west Belfast, came asunder when an embarrassed prosecution team was yesterday [Thursday] forced to withdraw their case.
The bank employee’s family was held captive in December 2004 while he was forced to load huge sums of cash into the raiders’ van. On day two of the trial, Mr Ward’s father Gerard broke down as he recounted how his family had been taken hostage.
He pointed out that his son would never have put his mother through such an ordeal and described the robbers as “criminals” and “gangsters”.
Within days the trial was in danger of turning into farce when trial judge Mr Justice McLaughlin asked if CCTV footage of the robbery could be fast forwarded as it was “the most boring video I have ever watched”.
Mr McLaughlin said he was “finding it hard to stay awake” and that he was glad the case was not being heard before a jury as it would be hard to keep them from “drifting into dreamland”.
Despite being the prosecution’s key witness, the evidence of senior bank official Kevin McMullan, whose wife was also held hostage, contradicted the allegation that Mr Ward had been the “inside man”.
Recalling how the 26 year-old had been visibly distraught as he was led into the McMullan household on the night of the robbery, he said:
“He [Ward] was shaking and having difficulty breathing and saying they had got his mum and dad.”
He also said he had observed Mr Ward being kicked by one of the gang members.
But it was Mr McMullan’s suggestion that the gang must have had detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the bank, including the work rota for the day of the robbery, which underpinned the trial. This suggestion, coupled with Mr Ward’s west Belfast Catholic background, formed the basis of the rumours which swirled in the establishment media about Mr Ward.
However, Mr Ward’s defence barrister Arthur Harvey was able to show that 40 other bank staff, including security guards, cleaners and contractors all had access to the cash centre and the rota.
The ‘trial’ had been due to continue for at least another two months, but its abortive collapse has prevented an even greater embarrassment for the Crown.
In his closing remarks, judge McLaughlin distanced himself from the failures in the prosecution case by pointing out that the decision to change the bank rota had been that of Mr McMullan and bank management.
“Chris Ward could not have done it,” he said, dismissing all of the charges against him.
Afterwards, Mr Ward’s lawyer Niall Murphy said: “Mr Ward has been rescued from the appalling vista of a miscarriage of justice but there is no guarantee that this will prevail on every occasion.
“There must be a root and branch analysis of how some high-profile criminal cases are prosecuted.”
Millions of pounds had been spent on building the case against his client, he said, a point not denied by the prosecution service.
Murphy said the “Kafkaesque farce”, which derailed the peace process, started from the premise that Mr Ward was guilty and worked back.
“From the outset Chris Ward was denied the presumption of innocence,” he added.
He recounted the damage this had caused in the public mind.
“Indeed it is a regrettable fact that in this society, the mere fact that Chris Ward was a Catholic from Poleglass and charged with this offence was enough to seal his guilt in the eyes of some people.”
Asked about possible legal action, Mr Murphy said: “We are going to reflect upon the comments of the judge and make an informed decision.” He confirmed, however, that Mr Ward would pursue an action against Northern Bank for unlawful dismissal.