The price of peace

When £26.5m was stolen from the Northern Bank in Belfast just before Christmas, it proved to be no ordinary heist. The IRA were immediate suspects, and the political repercussions of the fallout have had an explosive impact on the Irish peace talks. Andrew Anthony reports on the shock waves from the most audacious bank raid in British history

Sunday March 6, 2005
The Observer

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Donegal Square (main street)

Around 8pm on 20 December last year, a young couple walking through Belfast's Donegal Square noticed a white van parked in Wellington Street, a narrow alleyway running off the west side of the city's central landmark. Something about the scene aroused their suspicions. Blocking the road, the van was obviously engaged in a delivery or collection. But it was the Monday before Christmas, and there wasn't a lot of business going on at that time of the evening. The van was a distinctive box shape, unlike the standard white van renowned for its aggressive drivers. And then there were its occupants: they were wearing boiler suits, baseball caps and wigs.

The couple went in search of a police officer. Though this part of downtown Belfast is well-patrolled by the PSNI, the Northern Ireland police service, they could only find a traffic warden, who noted details and later contacted the police. A few minutes after that, a patrol car pulled up in Wellington Street, but the van was gone and all was quiet.

Donegal Square stands at the very heart of Belfast, and at the very heart of Donegal Square stands Belfast's City Hall. A dramatic pastiche of St Paul's Cathedral, it is an Edwardian monument to civic order, provincial pride and imperial reach, a steadfast reminder of a version of history the city's residents have laboured both to escape and embrace.

The same neoclassical ambition is also evident in the facade of the buildings that make up the rest of the square, with the exception, that is, of a squat concrete block that fits in like a dressed-down outsider at a society wedding. Situated on the corner of Donegal Square West and Wellington Street, this is the headquarters of the Northern Bank, Northern Ireland's foremost commercial bank.

Built in the late Seventies, when the Troubles were at their most incendiary, it casts more than a nod to the brutalist school of architecture. With its narrow windows, reminiscent of a castle keep's, and thick, forbidding walls, the Northern Bank head office was designed to withstand the wear and tear of modern urban life. It was designed, that is, to be bomb proof.

Although the building contains no bank - at least none that the public can enter - it does hold plenty of money. Hidden away in its basement is a bunker housing the cash centre that supplies Northern Bank's 95 branches. It's a well-chosen site. The area in and around Donegal Square is covered by a network of closed-circuit cameras. Police stand guard at City Hall, and maintain a regular presence in the nearby streets. The Northern Bank itself boasts security cameras on every wall; teams of security guards are stationed inside and out. Within the building, an elaborate system of reinforced air locks, gates and internal cameras leads to an underground corridor, either side of which are two rooms protected by steel bars, like a sheriff's jail in a Western. This is the cash centre.

It would be hard to envisage a more impenetrable or secure setting. And with good reason. At various times, as much as £100m is stored beneath the Northern Bank's Donegal Square offices. There may have been around that amount assembled on that Monday in December. No one seems to be sure. Whatever the sum total, there was £26.5m less at the end of that night. By then, the Northern Bank had suffered one of the biggest and most audacious robberies in living memory.

It began the previous night in a house in Poleglass, west Belfast. Chris Ward and his father were watching a Spanish football game when there was a knock at the door. Ward, a supervisor with Northern Bank, is a keen football fan and assistant treasurer of Celtic supporters' club in Belfast, known as Erin Go Bragh (Ireland Forever). The stranger at the door told him he had come to talk about Celtic. According to Ward, there was nothing out of the ordinary about this, so he let the man in. It was when another man followed in after that Ward realised there was something wrong.

Though the two men did not produce any weapons, they quickly took charge. They explained to Ward they wanted to talk to him about his job, and that they were going to take him away for 24 hours. 'You have a very simple choice,' one of them said. 'If you co-operate with us, your family will be fine. If you don't, they'll be dead.' The arrangement was also reciprocal with regard to the family's cooperation and Ward's life. The family were held hostage by the two men for the next 24 hours.

Another gang-member escorted Ward to a car, where the driver turned and pointed a gun at his head and told him to say nothing and not to move. He was then driven to another car, in which two further men were waiting, and out of Belfast to a village called Loughinisland, where Kevin McMullan and his wife Karen live.

McMullan was the deputy manager of the Northern Bank's cash centre. The Northern Bank's security system required two keys to gain access to the cash centre's vault. And the keys were held separately by two senior staff on a rota system. McMullan had one of the keys for the following day's work, and Ward had the other. They had only been paired together that day by a late change in the rota. Wittingly or not, someone from the bank had passed vital inside information to the gang.

At McMullan's isolated bungalow, Ward was tied up with his arms behind his back and told to stand in the corner of a darkened room. One of the standard methods of interrogation is to extend what security experts call the 'shock of capture'. The idea is to maintain the prisoner in a state of anxiety and disorientation, so that he might be more effectively controlled. After an hour and a half of staring at a wall, Ward was taken in tears into the same room as McMullan, where he learned that Karen had been removed as a hostage under the same conditions as his family. Two men had gained access to the house by posing as policemen. They told Karen that a relation had died in a car crash.

Ward and McMullan were then questioned about details of the bank's security by two men in balaclavas, before being led to separate rooms. Ward said he'd never seen a man in a balaclava before. Neither man was able to sleep that night.

The following day Ward and McMullan were issued with mobile phones by the gang and instructed to drive to work and behave in a normal manner. At 4.45, following instructions, McMullan sent the staff home early as a pre-Christmas treat. He and Ward then filled Ward's Celtic sports holdall with around £1m in cash. One of the mysteries of the robbery and Northern Bank's security system is how this action was not picked up by the internal CCTV. But cameras did capture Ward leaving the building with the bag, a mundane image that is transformed into something tautly surreal by the knowledge that he is carrying a lifetime's earnings. He delivered the bag to a bus stop round the corner from the bank, where a man in a trilby and scarf arrived and walked away with £1m.

Experts believe this was a dummy run, to check that the two men were capable of following their instructions, and to detect any unforeseen systems in Northern Bank's security. It turned out that leaving the building with a seven-figure sum couldn't have been easier. Now the robbery could go ahead in earnest. Back in the cash centre, Ward and McMullan loaded trays of money on to a trolley used to collect rubbish. They also put in old chairs and other detritus to make it appear more authentic.

At around 7pm, the van arrived to pick up the 'rubbish'. The van was driven earlier that day from across the border in Louth. Its exact origins remain unclear, though police say its licence plate belongs to another vehicle. Neither is it by any means certain if this refuse collection was a regular event, or whether it required the rubbish men to present some form of ID. What is known is that the ease with which the robbers escaped with a vanful of cash encouraged them to return for another load.

An hour later, security informed McMullan and Ward that the rubbish men had returned. As instructed by phone, they had already stacked another trolley, and taken it upstairs. It is said that during this second pick-up, a security man left the building on a cigarette break, and chatted to Ward as he loaded the van with his employer's money. The Northern Bank's security procedures are currently undergoing a comprehensive review. As one insider said to me, 'Operation Stable Door is a familiar phrase in Northern Ireland.' Shortly afterwards, the young couple passed by, which led to the traffic warden's phone call, and the arrival of a patrol car. By then the van had disappeared, and with it £26.5m in cash.

Later that night Karen McMullan, who had been kept bound and blindfold, was released in a wood outside Belfast, in such distress that she was nearly hit by a passing car. Her own car was found burnt out. She is still said to be severely traumatised by her treatment. The only hostage to have spoken about his ordeal is Chris Ward, in an interview with Kevin Magee on BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight. Because he is a Catholic from Poleglass, a republican stronghold, Ward has been the subject of malicious innuendo. In the minds of more sectarian observers, these unfounded rumours gained substance when Ward opted to wear a Celtic football shirt in the TV interview. The tribal folklore of Northern Ireland and Scotland sees the Glasgow football club as representatives of Catholic republicanism in opposition to Glasgow Rangers' Protestant loyalism.

Yet the PSNI has emphasised that Ward is a victim of the crime, not a suspect, and nothing in his performance on Spotlight suggested otherwise. A short, boyish 23-year-old, with a shaved haircut and a gold earring, he looked dwarfed by his experience, as if it were too large and too lethal to squeeze into a life shaped by a steady job and a sporting obsession. He just seemed like the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Everybody likes a good heist story, as is demonstrated by the popularity of films like Ocean's Twelve, which opened in Belfast shortly after the Northern Bank robbery. And the Irish are no different. Within hours the joke went about that Donegall Celtic, a tiny football team in republican west Belfast, had put in a £26m bid to buy David Beckham. Mocked-up Northern Bank notes were circulated on the net with the faces of Sinn Fein's president Gerry Adams and chief negotiator Martin McGuinness superimposed on the money. Ocean's Twelve posters were also adapted to feature Adams and McGuinness alongside Brad Pitt and George Clooney. And in west Belfast, young lads waved their cash at police patrols. All this guerrilla artwork reflected the widespread belief that it was the IRA that had pulled off the heist. As one former IRA volunteer told me: 'It's the loyalists that take £26 from post offices. Somebody else does £26m.'

On the early February afternoon I visited Hugh Orde, the chief constable of the PSNI, at police headquarters in a leafy suburb of east Belfast, he was keen to dismiss the idea that what took place at the Northern Bank was in any sense a rollicking caper. He was fed up with the international fascination with the crime. 'I went to speak in Dubai on leadership,' he complained, 'and all they wanted to know about was this wretched robbery.' For the sake of accuracy, and perhaps his own professional pride, he also let me know that, when inflation was taken into account, the Northern Bank was a smaller haul than the Great Train Robbery.

With his slicked-back hair, quick wit and informal manner, Orde is a long way from the dour caricature of a Northern Ireland policeman. For a start, he's English. Though an outsider, he's earned a measure of respect across both nationalist and unionist communities. A veteran of the Met's Operation Trident, he is a man who is at ease with the modern language of diversity and inclusiveness. In accordance with the Patten recommendations on policing, he's successfully instituted a policy of 50/50 recruitment among Catholics and Protestants. And his time spent working for Sir John Stevens on the inquiry into the murder of the lawyer Pat Finucane (which highlighted collusion between the intelligence services and loyalist paramilitaries) means that he cannot be dismissed out of hand by republicans.

I asked him what kind of specialist skills were needed to execute the Northern Bank job, and he shot back: 'The ability to terrify people. You don't need people to break safes. They'd never have got into that bank vault without the keys in a million years. It would have blown the middle of Belfast apart. It's the skills people have learned over the 30 years of terrorism. People forgot that there were a number of victims in this crime. It was seen as a Robin Hood crime. That needed to be dealt with.'

Orde's answer, three weeks after the crime, was to name the Provisional IRA as the prime and only suspects in the investigation. He says this was a purely policing decision, without external or internal political influence. But it was an unprecedented step, and considering the consequences, it's hard to think that he was not given some kind of green light by the Northern Ireland office, or even Downing Street. In any event, it would not be an overstatement to say that Orde's announcement shifted the political landscape of Northern Ireland.

Having previously turned a blind eye to a series of IRA robberies and punishment shootings, both Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, made known their frustrations with the republican movement. In response, the IRA withdrew its offer to decommission its weapons and issued a terse warning to the two governments of Britain and Ireland: 'Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation.'

It seemed incredible that just two months earlier the IRA was reported to be on the point of disbanding, a deal on decommissioning was all but concluded, and Sinn Fein was ready to share devolved power with its old enemy, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. One IRA source was quoted in Ireland's Sunday Business Post: 'I was visited [by a figure within the IRA leadership] and told that the whole movement was going to be dismantled - the structures, the lot. I was asked if there was anything I wanted, anything they could do for me. There would be just a small team left to protect the core leadership from assassination.'

Suddenly, in the wake of the robbery, the peace process was in a greater crisis than at any time since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. If the raid on the Northern Bank was a financial success for the IRA, it had turned into a political disaster for Sinn Fein. And it would get worse. Last month, Robert McCartney, a well-known Catholic from east Belfast, was killed in a bar-room brawl. Word soon got out that IRA volunteers were involved, and that CCTV evidence had been destroyed and witnesses intimidated. After republicans took to the streets to protest against the IRA, Sinn Fein was forced to issue carefully worded statements in support of the McCartney family. With the Northern Bank, though, it continued to attack those who named the IRA without producing any evidence. But Orde was adamant he had identified the guilty party in the Northern Bank job. He told me his team of senior detectives had put together what he described as a 'world-class' briefing, based on intelligence and inquiries, that convinced him of the IRA's culpability. The Independent Monitoring Commission, the peace process watchdog, agreed.

The police believed the money was driven to the Grosvenor Road neighbourhood of west Belfast, where it was transferred to another vehicle, which headed south for the border. Raids followed on addresses in north and west Belfast, including the homes of John Trainor, a former republican prisoner said to be an IRA intelligence officer, and Eddie Copeland, once described in court as a senior IRA figure, but who has no criminal convictions. Police opened wrapped Christmas presents at Copeland's house, and took away clothing, a mobile and 16 pairs of shoes, earning Copeland the local nickname of 'Imelda'.

But no arrests were made, and at that stage the case against the IRA, as far as it had been revealed, seemed not only speculative but purely negative. The IRA was responsible, the reasoning went, because no one else was capable. Who else, everyone asked, could drive into a republican area of Belfast and take a household hostage for 24 hours? Similarly, the fact that the thieves were meticulous in erasing forensic evidence was also seen as a hallmark of IRA robberies. The absence of fingerprints has effectively become an IRA fingerprint. And indeed the denials issued by the IRA and Adams and McGuinness were also seen by many as confirmation of IRA guilt.

To this end, Michael McDowell, the Irish minister for justice and a tenacious critic of Sinn Fein and the IRA, brought attention to a statement made by Adams after the murder of a policeman, Jerry McCabe, during a robbery in the Republic in 1996. 'The IRA has denied any involvement and I accept that,' said Adams at the time. 'Crimes like this can play no part in the republican struggle, and those who are seeking to blame Sinn Fein know this.' It was not until some time later that the IRA admitted responsibility. Sinn Fein continues to campaign for the release of McCabe's killers.

This is the paradox which all parties linked to paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have difficulties reconciling. On the one hand they are bound to condemn crime, but on the other, they are seen to benefit from it. Since the Good Friday Agreement, there have been more than 400 armed attacks on cash-delivery vehicles alone, and most of them are thought to be the work of paramilitaries. Sinn Fein is said to be not only the wealthiest party in Ireland, but one of the best-funded in Europe. Adams insists that the money comes from America and legitimate membership activities, but, leaving the Northern Bank aside, the IRA is suspected of a spate of multimillion-pound robberies in the past year. If the money is not being spent on weapons, where is it going?

One reading of the Good Friday Agreement is that it does not cover criminal activity, like bank robberies. McDowell insists 'the fundamental position of the Provisionals - including, of course, Sinn Fein - still remains that the lawful and legitimate power of government of the Irish people is vested in the IRA and not elsewhere'. Therefore raids on banks and superstores are not crimes because they are not carried out in legal statehoods.

North of the border, at least, it's obvious that Sinn Fein does not fully recognise the authority of the criminal justice system. For example, it refuses to take up its two seats on the police board to which Orde must report. Its argument is that the Patten reforms have not yet been properly implemented. Alex Atwood of the SDLP, the moderate nationalist party, told me that in his opinion not only had Patten's recommendations been put into practice, but that, 'The republican movement had done virtually nothing to prepare its community for lawful authority.' Yet it is Sinn Fein that has superseded the SDLP at the polls.

Orde sees it as crucial that Sinn Fein plays its part in overseeing policing. 'I've always said since the day I came here, they should join the board. That's what the law says, that's what the structure says, that's what the constitution says.'

I wondered if he would have minded if Sinn Fein had joined the board the day after he declared the IRA responsible for the Northern Bank robbery.

'It's not a matter if I care or not,' he replied. 'They've got a right to be on it. Now what would happen to the board is a matter you could speculate on; I couldn't possibly comment. It would be interesting.'

Orde was not without sympathy for Sinn Fein's predicament: 'They're in a difficult position. We didn't need the bank robbery and I'm sure someone could argue they didn't, if one assumes they are committed to a peaceful political solution.'

Which begs the question that has divided republican watchers. Is it possible the Sinn Fein leadership could have been left in the dark over such a politically damaging operation? British and Irish security services have long maintained that Adams and McGuinness sit on the Provisionals' army council. Sinn Fein insists this is untrue, and Adams even goes so far as to deny that he was ever in the IRA, though there is no shortage of persuasive counter-evidence.

Orde skirted the question when I put it to him, and it's notable Blair has avoided linking Sinn Fein to the raid. By contrast, Ahern has shown no such reticence. Much to the anger of Sinn Fein, he made public his opinion that Adams was fully aware of what was going to take place even as he sat across the table from the Irish PM during the negotiations on decommissioning. Another who puts Adams in the frame is the republican dissident Anthony McIntyre, a former member of the IRA who served 18 years in prison for killing a loyalist and is now one of Sinn Fein's most vocal tormentors.

'The Sinn Fein leadership effectively runs the IRA,' he told me, 'and given the control freakery that besets the Adams leadership and in particular Adams, there is in my view no doubt that he knew. Would the British army go to war in Iraq without Tony Blair knowing? Do the IRA do one of the biggest bank robberies in the world without the leadership of Sinn Fein knowing?'

The counter-hypothesis is that there exists a genuine tension between the Sinn Fein leadership and IRA hardliners. One republican suggested to me that unionist intransigence in the peace process had led Brian Keenan, a legendary hardman and said to be a leading member of the IRA's ruling army council, to gain the upper hand over Adams and McGuinness. In his auto-biography, the IRA informer Sean O'Callaghan recalls hearing Keenan refer to Adams and McGuinness as 'two fine fucking Catholic boys', something of a put-down from a staunch Marxist like Keenan. O'Callaghan argues that while Keenan was imprisoned in the Eighties and early Nineties, his uncompromising anti-state approach had lost ground to the Catholic pair's pragmatic nationalism. Was the Northern Bank a case of the Keenan faction reasserting itself?

Even if this were so, it's doubtful the raid could have gone ahead without some form of sanction by, or at least the knowledge of, the Sinn Fein leadership. Another republican observer painted a scenario in which Adams reluctantly gave a go-ahead to a 'bloodless spectacular' as a means of avoiding a split within the IRA, or worse still, a return to war. If nothing else, that would make the robbery a unique kind of peace mission.

I took a circuitous route to Sinn Fein's headquarters in the Falls Road in west Belfast. First I dropped into the offices of the Progressive Unionist Party in east Belfast to talk to David Ervine, the chief spokesman for the PUP, which in the way of politics in the province is linked to the UVF paramilitaries. One of Northern Ireland's more colourful politicians, and known as 'Shakespeare' for his rich oratory, he served six years in prison in the Seventies on charges of possessing explosives. He professed himself mystified by the Northern Bank raid. 'You can't imagine that Adams would have remotely considered the consequences and thought where we are now is a good option.'

Ervine was damning of the 'grand militarists of the republican movement' but, in direct contrast to mainstream unionists, he argues that the IRA's weapons are less important than their words.

'I think unionism and the British government have always been asking the wrong questions, and when you ask the wrong questions it should be no surprise that you get the wrong answers. The question always should have been "Is the war over?" and the weapons follow logically, I believe.'

That is not Ian Paisley's outlook. The collapse of the decommissioning deal that preceded the Northern Bank robbery occurred when Paisley demanded filmed evidence of the IRA's weapons. In a now infamous speech in Ballymena, he called for the IRA to be 'humiliated'. 'They need to wear their sackcloth and ashes,' he said, 'not in a back room, but openly.'

Part 2

Sunday March 6, 2005
The Guardian

It has been suggested by many observers that the Northern Bank raid may have been the IRA's response to this speech. Certainly, of the many human qualities the IRA could be accused of lacking, pride is not an obvious one. Paisley's words hurt, as they were intended to. 'I've discussed it with some republicans,' said Ervine, 'and they said, "It wasn't just that I was upset about what he said in Ballymena, my mother went bonkers, too, because it wasn't that long ago that he accused her of being a Catholic incubator for Rome."' Nonetheless, Ervine was dismayed at how easily the republicans had allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred by their old foe, so that they were now out in the cold, with a badly damaged reputation abroad, and Paisley, of all people, was in danger of assuming the mantle of a wise old man.

As I left to get a minicab from the firm up the road to Sinn Fein's place across town, Ervine offered me a word of advice. 'Don't tell them you're going there, they won't want to take you.' So I kept quiet and listened to my driver talk about 'lying republican scum'. A former soldier in the UDR, in one respect at least he did not conform to the loyalist cliche: he was a Celtic supporter. He took me to the centre of town, from where I caught another taxi. The two-cab ride was a journey through Belfast's past, present and future. In the dilapidated sectarian strongholds in the east and west, you can still see the giant murals celebrating various three-lettered paramilitaries, but they look increasingly like period pieces, not devoid of menace perhaps, yet almost stripped of relevance. In the centre, once made a ghost town by terrorism, the busy shops, bars and cafes pay testament to the city's current confidence in itself and booming economy. And everywhere on the horizon, giant cranes map the promise of a new dynamic city.

Sinn Fein's HQ seems to look backwards and forwards at the same time. A whole exterior wall is taken up with a mural in memory of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker and Sinn Fein MP. And in the reception the anti-imperialist solidarity posters and legal-advice leaflets might put you in mind of an old-fashioned human-rights organisation if you could circumvent the IRA's summary knee-cappings and murders - what Mo Mowlam, the former secretary of state, once referred to as 'housekeeping'. But upstairs, the youthful party workers stationed at their computers give the impression of an operation as up to the moment and on message as that of the Millbank modernisers.

Upstairs is where I met Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Fein representative for north Belfast in the suspended assembly at Stormont. A former IRA volunteer, Kelly was part of the notorious Maze prison break-out in 1983. He shot a prison guard in the head, though it was not fatal, and escaped to live in Holland. He was later captured with an arms cache and extradited back to Britain. A tall, lean man with chiselled good looks, he conveys that air of almost austere authority that republicans seem to have made their own. Orde told me that he thought Kelly came across as cold and implacable on TV, and he was surprised to find him charming and approachable in person.

It used to be said in the Maze that Kelly was so quiet because he said what he thought, but there is no doubting his intelligence, and if anything the problem was getting him to limit his answers. He spoke in dense polemical paragraphs, full of history, nuance, get-out clauses and negation, finally arriving at the Northern Bank robbery. 'The accusation that the IRA did this is one thing,' he said in a voice of stifled outrage, 'and the IRA has spoken on that. But the accusation that leading members of Sinn Fein knew about this - I mean, let's be frank: that's a criminal charge.'

His argument was that Orde, Blair and Ahern had all based their accusations on 'a single funnel of information that comes from the PSNI and the intelligence agencies'. He then outlined the dubious history of Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and the disbanded RUC, many of whose officers continue to work in its replacement, the PSNI. Of course, there is compelling evidence that the British intelligence services have in the past played a sinister role in Northern Ireland, conspiring with loyalist paramilitaries. But if, for argument's sake, the Northern Bank was British black propaganda, that doesn't explain why the Taoiseach is convinced of the IRA's and Sinn Fein's guilt.

'Bertie Ahern has created a civil war within the nationalist community,' he said, 'which can do absolutely nothing for the peace process.' He rationalised Ahern's comments as a crude attempt to combat Sinn Fein's growing electoral presence in the Republic. 'This is the first time in republican history we've had a project throughout all of Ireland,' said Kelly. Sinn Fein has increased its share of the vote in the previous 12 elections on both sides of the border.

But even if Ahern was simply running scared, and the Irish secret services had no intelligence of their own on the Northern Bank, that still wouldn't explain why Tony Blair, who has visited Northern Ireland 34 times in an effort to secure peace, would want his spooks to undermine the process.

'You will notice,' Kelly countered, 'I haven't accused Tony Blair of being one of the ones to put pressure on [Orde].' So Tony Blair, universally seen to have the intelligence services in his pocket over Iraq, is powerless when it comes to Northern Ireland? He can't even protect Orde from the so-called securicrats?

'In fairness,' replied Kelly, with an expression that did not quite qualify as a smile, 'I don't have an answer to all the questions that you're asking.' Anthony McIntyre almost laughed when I mentioned Kelly's analysis. 'The minute Sinn Fein say it's securicrats,' he said, 'it's a guilty plea.'

McIntyre fell out with Sinn Fein after leaving prison, becoming disenchanted with the lack of internal debate and what he saw as mindless deference to the leadership. He was particularly scathing about the level of honesty at the top of the republican movement.

'People say that Adams wears a beard to stop himself from being accused of being a bare-faced liar,' he said. He once questioned Adams at a party meeting and says he was met by an angry Orwellian chorus of 'Gerry's lies are true'. 'Not literally, but their attitude was: the leadership have sat up all night thinking of lies - how dare a selfish bastard like you not believe them?'

A large mound of a man with a goatee beard and glasses, McIntyre seemed to confirm the old saw that loyalists leave prison with a tattoo, while republicans walk out with a degree. He has not only a degree in politics but also a PhD - he wrote his doctorate on the Provisional IRA. The unification of Ireland, he had concluded, 'was not worth a single death'. Of the likelihood of unification, he said: 'There's as much chance as us, Northern Ireland, uniting with France. As much chance as Bradford uniting with Pakistan.'

He thought the IRA should have made a conditional surrender rather than become entangled in an endless peace process. Adams warned the two governments last month that if the IRA was targeted, the peace process could turn out to be as 'transient' as Blair's premiership. 'That was an implicit threat,' said McIntyre. 'But also it was a giveaway, because it showed you that from Adams's point of view the peace process should be endless. For the rest of us it should be transient.'

'At times,' he continued, 'Adams is the most popular politician in the south. Why? It's not due to his policies, they are no different to anyone else's down there. It's the result of the tremendous international public profile that the leader gets. If the peace process ends, the wind in the sails goes down rapidly. So the object of unionism is to bring the process to a conclusion, and the object of republicanism is to postpone the conclusion.'

McIntyre also has an answer to the other big question about the Northern Bank robbery: what was the £26m for? Early reports claimed that the cash was earmarked for pension money for IRA volunteers, one last big job to reward the troops. Orde refused to speculate, other than to say that criminal organisations need money to run themselves. McIntyre has finessed that argument. He thinks that the money was meant for Sinn Fein's electoral coffers, possibly for a presidential campaign in the Republic in 2007.

For all his antagonism towards Adams, McIntyre did not underestimate his ability. The Sinn Fein leader was a brilliant strategist, he said, and he was sure he would reclaim his status as international statesman. And that is what worried him. 'My opposition to Sinn Fein is that they are totalitarian, that they would be a terrible, terrible danger if they got power. If they got power, the police would rob the banks.'

'The largest theft of waste paper in history' is what Hugh Orde called the Northern Bank robbery. He was referring to the historic decision of the Northern Bank to withdraw its entire currency and replace it with a new set of notes by the middle of March. In Northern Ireland there are three banks, including Northern Bank, which are licensed by the Bank of England to print money. Thus each of the major banks has its own bank notes, technically known as 'promissory notes' rather than legal tender. Around £4.5m of the cash stolen from Donegal Square was made up of untraceable 'exchange notes', money from other banks which would be simple to launder. A further £5.5m was made up of untraceable old and high-denomination Northern Bank notes, also relatively easy to disperse, though the clock was ticking on them. The other £16.5m were new notes that would be very difficult to move, especially in the limited time available.

Early on there were stories of people using £50 and £100 Northern Bank notes to pay for small car-park charges, but they were just that: stories. As the weeks went by, not a note with a serial number from the robbery cash was reported anywhere. Orde believed the withdrawal of Northern Bank notes had taken the IRA by surprise. 'In terms of the endgame,' he told me, 'I think that's one thing the gang never thought of. I didn't think of it, one of my detectives did. It had never been tried before.'

Orde believed that the robbers would write-off the £16.5m, but that still left £10m, which is expected to be laundered abroad and in the bars, clubs, minicab offices and various other cash-intensive businesses that the IRA owns. Not a bad return, especially as according to some sources the robbers never intended to steal so much. Apparently it was sheer bad luck that the IRA found themselves with an unanticipated excess of loot, thus forcing the PSNI to voice its suspicions. The major flaw in this argument is that police estimate the crime took upwards of a year to plan, and the same republican sources claim the IRA looked at doing the job as far back as 1997. It defies belief that they failed to realise how much money was in the cash centre, let alone how much they stole.

Orde told me that he was prepared for a long investigation. There were few leads, and the police's best hope seemed to be DNA from the septic tank at the McMullans' home, where the kidnappers are thought to have left their human waste. But, in the middle of February, two significant developments took place. Talking on radio in Spain, Adams acknowledged that he could be wrong about the IRA, that it was possible they were responsible. He later backtracked, but he is too seasoned in the business of dissemination to make statements that could be 'taken out of context'. Then the following day in a fishing village outside Cork, a charred bank note blew into the back garden of a sedate bungalow. The suspicious owner took it along to a nearby garda station, and shortly afterwards armed police raided a neighbour's house, where, in keeping with the cinematic dimensions of the story, they found a middle-aged man feeding a bonfire with Northern Bank notes.

More arrests followed in Dublin and Cork, including that of former Sinn Fein councillor Tom Hanlon, who has shared public platforms with Adams and McGuinness (he was released without charge). A chef was arrested in a car with £54,000 hidden in a box of washing powder. And more than £2.5m was seized in an operation targeting the Provisional IRA's money-laundering network, which Irish police believe extends to Bulgaria and Libya. No one would confirm in public that any of this money came from the Northern Bank robbery, but off the record some garda officers said they were confident the link could be established.

While plainly rocked by the turn of affairs, Sinn Fein kept up a disciplined front, with the leadership reminding an increasingly cynical audience that there was still no proof implicating the IRA, much less Sinn Fein. Adams spoke of a trial by media, and tore into his gloating opponents. There was no shortage of candidates to fit this bill, but he may have been thinking specifically of justice minister McDowell, who said: 'The Provisional movement is a colossal criminal machine laundering huge sums of money. Their mask has now slipped. Their balaclavas have come off.' Adams also began to protect himself from the smoke billowing from the raid in Cork. 'I don't want to be tainted with criminality,' he told reporters. 'I don't want anybody near me who is involved in criminality. I will face up to these issues if and when they emerge.'

McIntyre thought the only restraining influence on the IRA was the Southern electorate. Disillusioned with the institutional corruption in the Republic, voters had been turning to Sinn Fein. Now they had glimpsed sight of the criminal network that supports the republican movement. By coincidence, last month five men were convicted in the Republic of IRA membership, after they had been found with a stun-gun, pick-axe handles, a sledgehammer, CS gas and Sinn Fein posters in a van used for Sinn Fein canvassing.

Perhaps the strangest twist in the tale was the discovery of a stash of shrink-wrapped Northern Bank notes, the only confirmed robbery money, in the Newforge Country Club in south Belfast, a leisure centre used by the PSNI. The police said it was a diversionary tactic to reroute the investigation and public attention. I'd visited Newforge a couple of weeks earlier, to attend a function hosted by Orde. Just about every senior police officer in Northern Ireland was there, and I was struck by how easy it was to slip into the event with only the most cursory flash of a press card, and how no one checked my bag. At the time, I thought this a sign of the peace process's progress. A fortnight later, the PSNI placed all police stations on high alert after intelligence warned of a possible bomb attack.

However, not a single person I spoke to in Belfast expected hostilities to resume. Nor did anyone doubt that when the break in negotiations was over, Sinn Fein would have to be involved in any deal worth making. If the situation looks precarious at the moment, it's worth remembering that the people here have endured far gloomier periods, as indeed has Sinn Fein.

The party's extraordinary ability to bounce back from the ropes was illustrated by a minor footnote in this drama. The Northern Bank is owned by the National Australia Bank, or rather it was. In an unfortunate piece of timing, a longstanding deal to sell the bank to Danske Bank was finally completed just after the robbery, leaving the NAB saddled with the £26.5m loss. When the Australian TV station Channel 9 sent a film crew to Belfast, Sinn Fein decided to put up Alex Maskey, a celebrated republican, to make the necessary denials of IRA participation and Sinn Fein knowledge. Maskey, a former amateur boxer who won 75 of his 79 fights, was twice interned in the early Seventies and later survived a number of loyalist assassination attempts, including one in 1987 in which he was shot in the stomach. At the end of the report, the Australian interviewer reminded Maskey that in 1971 he was convicted of stealing money from the Waring Street branch of the Northern Bank.

A surprised Maskey said it was the mistake of a young man, which he regretted. If Sinn Fein is to prosper, and genuinely represent the aspirations of the Irish on both sides of the border, it also needs to turn its back on crime. It worked for Maskey. Three years ago he was elected Belfast's Lord Mayor, and took charge of City Hall, the grand municipal palace opposite the bank in Donegal Square.

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