DERRY – Over £20 million (nearly €29 million) was stolen on Monday from a Belfast bank headquarters in what was one of the largest robberies ever carried out in Ireland or Britain.
Sam Kincaid, Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), said the robbery “was a well-organized crime”, and “could be paramilitary-related”. Former Special Branch police chief in Northern Ireland, Bill Lowry, told the pro-unionist Newsletter newspaper that the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) was the most likely suspect.
Northern Bank headquarters, which holds cash for business clients and for the bank’s network of ATMs, was targeted in what appeared to be a meticulously planned operation. A busy weekend of trading swelled the amount of money in the vault, just days before Christmas and at the height of the Christmas shopping season. The amount taken is roughly equivalent to Belfast city centre shop takings for the week leading up to Christmas.
Two senior Northern Bank officials were forced to cooperate in the robbery, as their families were taken hostage on Sunday by gang members posing as police, The officials went to work as normal on Monday, having to facilitate other gang members gaining access to the bank vault after closing time.
The cash haul weighed around 20 tons and would have filled 3,000 large holdalls (sports bags), according to estimates. The operation is believed to have involved up to 20 participants and took over 24 hours to carry out. Police are not ruling out inside intelligence as a factor in the gang’s planning. The officials were released on Monday evening.
It is understood that no hostage has been hurt, though a female hostage is being treated for hypothermia after being left in a forest on Monday night. Police are studying a possible link between the robbers and a car found burnt out in a County Down forest.
Northern Bank, which maintains around a 30 per cent market share in Northern Ireland’s banking, and is affiliated to National Irish Bank in the Republic of Ireland. National Australia Bank recently sold Northern Bank to Denmark’s Danske Bank.
Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed, most of them civilians, as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republican paramilitaries, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalist counterparts who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded into Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force and were regularly targeted by the IRA.
Paramilitaries on both sides of the ethno-religious divide in Northern Ireland have maintained their criminal activities and networks — even as their guns largely fall silent. Widely regarded as the most effective criminal groups in Northern Ireland, paramilitaries maintain a diverse array of operations, with the IRA reputedly involved in cigarette and petrol smuggling, and loyalist groups selling drugs.Show