Northern Bank murk

Update. Here is an impressive account by Jonathan McCambridge in the Bel Tel of the reasons for failure in the case and others, minus the conspiracy theory. “In the end, the problem was the same as in the Omagh bombing and Robert McCartney murder trials – how do you solve a crime without evidence?”

Our old friends the dogs in the streets will have a complete theory about the Northern Bank robbery and I doubt if Chris Ward is central to it. I have to say I’m totally ignorant of the gossip but let’s see if I’ve got it right what the Times and the Guardian are trying to tell me.

Henry McDonald The Guardian

In the weeks after the Northern Bank robbery, security sources in Northern Ireland and the republic hinted that at least one branch of the security services had prior knowledge the IRA was preparing just such a heist….. At the time, this was dismissed as a conspiracy theory. But in light of the Omagh revelations, would it be a complete surprise if it emerged the authorities knew in advance about the biggest bank robbery in UK history but failed to act?

Henry said earlier in the piece:

“Following the heist on December 20 2004, the PSNI chief constable, Sir Hugh Orde, claimed it was “the biggest theft of waste paper in history”. Orde was referring to the bank’s decision to immediately recall all its notes and reprint an entire set of new ones that were radically different in colour and design.

But he goes on to give weight to this contradiction:

The IRA southern commander turned police spy Sean O’Callaghan was adamant the Provisionals had the ability to absorb and “wash” the cash through their various assets relatively quickly. Most of the stolen money, O’Callaghan said, was digested through the IRA’s financial system even before the Northern Bank’s reprinted notes hit the streets.

If this is true, Orde is bound to have known it so why did he play down the scale of the financial loss?

David Sharrock in the Times points out that Sir Hugh Orde has scored three of the UK’s most controversial cases – the 1998 Omagh bombing, the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney – at the end of which he has scored a legal 0-3 with not a single conviction achieved.

“A harder question to answer is how much blame should be shouldered by Sir Hugh and how much is the result of the peculiarities created by the peace process and the blurred point at which justice and politics meet in Northern Ireland.”

David concludes:

Almost three weeks after the raid he told a news conference in Belfast: “In my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime.” His delay in publicly attributing blame – in a province where the police were usually more swift to do so – may have been because of the febrile political atmosphere of the time.”

(What’s the precise suggestion here?)

These reports seem to imply first, that Orde had to have the IRA attribution dragged out of him at the time and second, that he played down the significance of the real money loss of £20 million – contrary to O’Callaghan’s view that the loss was real and substantial – a view which Orde is bound to have shared from his knowledge of the IRA racketeering.

Did Orde take this line (if he did), in order to minimise the threat to the peace process, or did he do the opposite – defy pressure to get him not to give the IRA attribution at all? There’s a suspicion of cover-up of prior knowledge held by either by MI5 or the CID. There’s no conclusive knowledge of this that’s fit to print – it’s hard to imagine anybody fessing up – but I think I’ve got the message.

The further impression I’m left with is that Ward was put up for a show trial that was bound to fail, so that yet again the book can be closed on a politically inconvenient case. What I’m confused about is whether the suggestion is that it’s the prior knowledge is being covered up as such or a cover up for political reasons or both. I somehow doubt if that’s all we’ll hear of the Northern Bank saga…

Whatever the truth behind the murk, this is not the best of times for Hugh Orde to get such coverage

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London