Bank reissue could make robbers' £30m haul completely worthless

The bank that suffered the biggest ever loss in a raid in the UK may reprint all its notes to outwit the thieves. Henry McDonald and Tony Thompson reveal the inside story of a massive heist

Sunday December 26, 2004
The Observer

It should have been a great weekend for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Its sumptuous charity bash at the Glagorm Manor hotel in Ballymena, with a four-course dinner, dancers, comedians and a magician raised £200,000 for the NSPCC. Chief Constable Hugh Orde and his senior command felt pleased with themselves.

Less than 12 hours later a band of daring and sophisticated bank robbers embarked on a fundraising venture of their own and pulled off the biggest robbery in British and Irish history. With up to £30 million stolen, the raid has created widespread embarrassment for the police and caused panic on the streets as shops gear up for the post-Christmas sales.

The vast majority of the cash was in notes drawn on the Northern Bank which are easily identifiable and virtually useless outside Northern Ireland. Such is the potential impact on the local economy that the bank is considering phasing out all its current notes and issuing new ones, ending any chance the criminals might have of filtering the missing money undetected into the economy.

Such a move would involve a hugely expensive and complex operation - the first in the history of banking - which would need Bank of England approval. Any decision to go ahead will have to be taken early next month.

With strong suspicions of paramilitary involvement, the robbery threatens to destroy moves by Tony Blair to rejuvenate talks aimed at restoring power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

A series of raids on homes and business premises across west and north Belfast were launched by the police on Christmas Eve.

Speaking to security and police sources, The Observer has now been able to piece together the remarkable story of one of the most dramatic robberies since the Great Train Robbery of the Sixties. Such is the prevalence of organised crime in the province - this raid has been linked to the IRA - that it is now known as 'Sicily without the sun'. The police are struggling against a self-imposed 'intelligence blackout' which is hampering efforts to net the gangs behind the crimes.

Events began just after 10pm last Sunday when a man dressed in a police uniform rapped on the door of a family living in Loughinisland, Co Down. The 'officer' had come to tell them bad news - their son had been seriously injured in a road crash - but seconds later armed masked men burst through the open door and barked orders at the people inside.

The visit was a trick to get into the home of a senior official of the Northern Bank in central Belfast. The official was ordered to stay put while his traumatised family were taken away to undisclosed locations. Simultaneously, a gang of masked gunmen burst into the home of a junior Northern Bank executive at Dunmurry on the edge of republican West Belfast.

Both men were ordered to go to work on Monday morning. They had to go through their normal routine and chat with colleagues as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Otherwise their families would be killed.

As the day went on the pair were instructed to let gang members into the bank's underground vaults. When the robbers got there they couldn't believe their luck. They had only expected to gain access to £1m. Instead they saw tens of millions.

Black bin liners were used to carry enormous bundles of cash from the vaults to a white van parked in a nearby street. The aim was to convince passers-by that staff were removing rubbish from the building. The gang worked in two shifts. The first took out the originally intended £1m, the second smuggled out the rest. All £30m was driven to a safe house.

At around 8.10pm a couple in a nearby street told a traffic warden about suspicious activity involving two men and a white van outside the bank. Three minutes later the warden reported this to police, saying that he believed a robbery was taking place.

Two officers arrived at 8.18pm to find the van gone and the bank quiet. The alarm wasn't raised until 11.45pm, when one of the female hostages was released. By then the gang had escaped.

Reformed money-launderer Glenn Mounsey, now writing a book on the topic, said the gang faced major trouble: 'Normally you would want to get the money as far away as possible, but that won't work in this case because the currency is virtually useless outside Northern Ireland.

'If it was in sterling or US dollars, you could dispose of it anywhere in the world. Because this is a such a small community, every place you go will know about the robbery and be very wary.

'The idea of a reissue seems to solve the problem, but in practice it could take months. It's more likely the bank is threatening a re-issue to deter as many potential buyers of the cash as possible. If there are any buyers out there for, say, £1m at a time through the black market, the threat of a re-issue will in all likelihood put them off.

'One option that might be open to the crooks is to sell the stolen notes back to the bank, under the counter, for say 20 per cent of their face value. This allows the bank to reduce its losses and the gang to collect some of the money. That sort of thing happens all the time with stolen paintings and antiques so it's not out of the question.'

Doubts have been cast on the robbers' ability to recycle such huge amounts of cash back into a relatively small economy like Northern Ireland's, but this underestimates the size of the underworld economy controlled by terror groups in Ireland.

Customs and Excise estimates that the sale of smuggled cigarettes and alcohol, fuel, counterfeit currency, DVDs, CDs and videos is netting up to £220m a year for such groups as the IRA, the Ulster Defence Association, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The raid has dealt a major blow to police morale and credibility. The first of a number of criticisms of the PSNI is that the robbery wasn't made public until Tuesday morning, leaving almost 10 hours before the police appealed to the public for information about it.

The police are accused of failing to pre-empt the crime or catch the robbers because of the 'intelligence blackout' blighting their actions against organised crime.

The Observer can reveal that earlier this year they carried out a 'purge' of informants, many of whom were vital channels of information on such groups as the Provisional IRA. It was feared that the informants were still themselves involved in crime and terrorism. These people, however, would now be spying on the major paramilitary factions, so critics believe the purge was a major blunder.

'The touts [informers] have either been retired or given up after the purge. The police service is operating like a blind man. They don't have the intelligence they once had,' a recently retired officer of the Special Branch told The Observer this weekend.

Even before last Monday local politicians expressed deep concern about the informer network. Paramilitaries ranging from the UDA to the Provisional IRA - both accepted by the government as still maintaining ceasefires - had already netted £15m from bank and post office raids this year.

If the police do establish a clear link with the IRA, Blair's hopes of involving Sinn Fein in a restored power-sharing executive in Belfast will be blown sky-high.

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