Just watched the Big Heist – a tv documentary on robbery of the Northern Bank in Belfast. In the words of Robert de Niro’s Al Capone, they certainly ‘don’t got the book keeper’, but they ain’t got nothing. It was a classic case of the whole adding up to substantially more than the sum of the parts. As Kevin Toolis repeats ad nauseum there have still been no charges.But someone had form. In May 2004, Macro in Belfast a member of staff was taken hostage, and £1 million stolen. Then in October 2004, a manageress was held overnight and then forced to steal £200,000 from her Iceland store in Strabane. A similar MO was used when the manager of a bonded warehouse was similarly forced to steal £2 million in tobacco.
Johnson Brown, a former RUC/PSNI man: “When they take over houses like this and take families hostage that is an IRA scenario. They are good at it; they have it down to a fine art”. Not proof. But, still an indication of a slick professional and practised operation.
The two hostage families (both were Catholic and aspirant middle class) lived in the staunchly Republican area of
Twinbrook Poleglass and the more mixed community of Loughinisland. Even this early stage of the operation required complex organisation, familiarity with the locations, and the ability to move freely in paramilitary dominated areas. Henry McDonald, notes: “Someone had to be watching them from their work in central Belfast back to their homes in West Belfast and South Down”.
It wasn’t until after the Northern Bank robbery that the IMC reported on 10th February this year that the IRA had been behind all of the previous robberies. The IMC is now charged (and presumably trusted) with the key task of adjudicating on whether the IRA is actually keeping to their order to dump arms and stick exclusively to political means to achieve their long term goal of a United Ireland.
One person who looks to be in big trouble is Phil Flynn. Whilst on a trip to Bulgaria he is alleged by two businessmen, the Yazov brothers, to have presented them with his card stating he was Chair of the Bank of Scotland, Ireland, and gave them the impression they were dealing with the bank. The deal they were discussing at the time would have left Flynn and his partners with 75-80% of the equity in a shopping mall for an initial investment of €20 million.
One of his partners with him in Bulgaria was Ted Cunningham who was MD of Chesterton Finance, a small and apparently unprofitable money lending operation in Cork, which specialised in high interest loans to small farmers. He was arrested (without charge) on 17th February when Gardaí discovered £2.3 million in seventeen plastic bags in the compost heap of his garden. It came in the wake of a series of bizarre events. Even within the Republican leadership an uncharacteristic ambivalence was visible.
The Bulgarian deal was called off at just about the time of the Northern Bank robbery.
So who actually dunnit? Well there’s no charges, so still no one knows for certain. But the line from An Phoblacht that Loyalists were behind it should be taken with a family sized bag of salt. The former Provos story could still hold water, but given the scale of the operation, it’s unlikely that it could have gone ahead without active collaboration and support from the IRA at the highest level.
The problem is that everyone has an axe to grind in this story: the media, politicians, perhaps even Ministers in the Republic’s government, and most certainly Sinn Fein and the IRA.
Whether you believe their numerous accusers, and not all of whom can be said to be acting out of a narrow political agenda, or not, Sinn Fein’s biggest credibility problem is that their people were only ones standing next to the cookie jar.
This one is going to run and run.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty