Orde will 'quit if he's wrong over IRA bank raid'

20/01/2005 - 17:33:59

Hugh Orde will quit as Northern Ireland Chief Constable if his assessment of the IRA’s £26.5m (€38m) Belfast bank robbery is wrong, it was revealed tonight.

With top-level republicans now among the chief suspects, Mr Orde has admitted his career is on the line.

In a briefing to the authority holding him to account, the police chief admitted the huge stakes involved in the hunt for the gang behind the Northern Bank heist.

A Policing Board source said: “He went so far as to say if he got this one wrong his position would be untenable.”

But he was so convincing that both nationalist SDLP and Democratic Unionist representatives emerged from the two-hour meeting more assured than ever that the Provisionals carried out the raid.

DUP member Sammy Wilson said: “The one thing that was clear from the briefing given was that this would not have been done by people who were low-level operatives, nor indeed would they have taken the risk if it had not been sanctioned from higher up.”

Although officers raided the homes of prominent Belfast republicans in the aftermath of the December 20 robbery, no arrests have been made.

But sources involved in today’s meeting, who expressed surprise at the level of information Mr Orde was prepared to share, insisted his team of 45 detectives and 15 forensic experts were on the right trail.

One insider also disclosed that the chief constable gave an insight into the seniority of the people he believes carried out one of the world’s biggest-ever bank robberies.

“He didn’t actually name names but he might as well have and it goes higher than any of those whose homes were searched,” the source said.

Mr Orde’s public assessment that the Provisionals robbed the Northern’s cash distribution centre in Belfast in an audacious operation that involved taking two families hostage, shattered political attempts to restore the Stormont power-sharing administration.

Sinn Féin leaders were outraged and the IRA has issued statements denying any involvement.

But after today’s meeting SDLP representative Alex Attwood insisted: “I have no doubt whatsoever that his attribution in relation to this matter is correct and that this inquiry is proceeding properly.”

He added: “I believe that senior members of the republican movement, both those on the IRA side and those who position themselves as political representatives, the share of information was across that range of people.”

Detectives have established around 1,000 lines of inquiry, but have yet to make any arrests.

Mr Orde stressed, however, that his force did not need any extra resources in what has become the biggest investigation on their books.

Although any evidence collected was not disclosed to the board, he confirmed there had been significant cross-border co-operation before he went public by blaming the IRA.

“He said they hadn’t depended on their own intelligence, but material from the Irish Republic,” one source said.

“It was all fairly amicable, but at one stage he got so agitated by all the furore over him blaming the IRA that he said: ‘You’d think the PSNI robbed the Northern Bank’.”

Mr Orde left without making any comment, but board chairman Sir Desmond Rea said the briefing given by the chief constable and his assistant Sam Kinkaid had gone into significant detail.

He said: “Members I believe will leave the meeting much more informed.

“They will very much adopt the position that the Police Service of Northern Ireland should have the space to get on with the investigation.”

Senior Sinn Féin representative Gerry Kelly insisted nothing new had emerged to put the IRA in the frame for the robbery.

The North Belfast MLA said: “Speculation is no substitute for evidence.

“All this just adds to the idea that it (the blame) comes from the same source and all we had today was a publicity platform based on a meeting by the Policing Board.”

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