Why you should care

Because it could have derailed the peace process.

Hands Up: A look at history’s greatest heists and most intriguing robberies. Read more.

The bank had finally closed for the day, and two of its executives — Chris Ward and Kevin McMullan — had their orders. When the doors were shut, the two loyal employees led a group of masked armed men to the underground vaults and watched, without alerting authorities, as more than $40 million was loaded onto trucks and driven away, most of it never to be seen again.

It’s still the largest bank robbery ever to hit Ireland and has been predictably linked with the Emerald Isle’s political history. The masked and armed raiders weren’t just any men: They were — police, authorities and historians are largely certain — members of the Irish Republican Army, and because the robbery occurred at a Northern Bank branch in Belfast on Dec. 20, 2004, it fell smack-dab in the middle of a long and troubled peace process.

They ended up with 10 million pounds in new notes, which is more or less useless [because it’s impossible to launder so much].

Adrian Guelke, Queen’s University Belfast

Ward and McMullan weren’t working for the IRA — they’d seen their families taken hostage the day before by a group of armed men pretending, at first, to be police. The men ordered the two bank officials to go to work as if nothing were wrong. At lunch, Ward was instructed to meet one of the robbers at a bus stop and hand over a gym bag containing about 1 million pounds ($1.5 million). That was the test run: The real haul began when the bank closed and the armed gang confiscated all the cash the bank had stockpiled for ATMs for the holiday season. McMullan’s wife escaped her captors and managed to alert authorities, but it was too late — the money was gone, and so was the gang.

Over two-thirds of the loot hasn’t been seen since, and for good reason: It’s not easy to spend that much cash, especially when everyone’s looking for it. “They may not have known how much they would net from this,” says Adrian Guelke, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “They ended up with 10 million pounds in new notes, which is more or less useless,” because it’s impossible to launder so much, he explains. Police raids turned up more than $3 million, and another $100,000 was planted in the bathroom of a club for retired police officers — though, understandably, officials saw that as a prank at best, or at worst a diversion.

British and Irish authorities, along with an independent monitoring commission, all concluded that the IRA must’ve been behind the crime. But, says Paul Dixon, a professor of politics and international studies at Kingston University, “it was very difficult to convict people of these crimes because witnesses feared intimidation, and evidence is hard to come by.” Most murders during the conflict, he points out, were also unresolved. In the case of the robbery, there wasn’t much direct evidence, and trust — invaluable to the ongoing peace negotiations — quickly disintegrated. Sinn Fein officials were furious at being accused, while the Irish government was livid that Sinn Fein representatives — with whom they’d been negotiating in good faith — appeared complicit in the heist, which was a big enough deal that some of the 2010 WikiLeaks cables deal with the prime minister’s certainty that Sinn Fein knew the IRA was behind the robbery.

A few months later, seven people were arrested — including one member of Sinn Fein. But nothing concrete came from those detainments, certainly no convictions, and the following November, police made another arrest: Chris Ward, one of the men whose families had been taken hostage. Police were suspicious of his movements in the days leading up to the raid, but Ward and his legal team maintained his innocence and insisted he was being harassed because he was Catholic. Ward was charged with the robbery a week later, but when his case finally came to trial in 2008, he was acquitted. In the end, a single person was convicted of money laundering, but to this day none of the robbers has been caught.

Sinn Fein remains adamant that it had nothing to do with the robbery, but many suspect that such a massive, well-planned heist could only have been carried out by the immensely well-organized group. They also point to a rather convincing, albeit hypothetical motive: With peace being negotiated, longtime IRA gang members would have to retire. “There was some suggestion that they needed the money to pension off people,” says Guelke. The bank robbery was followed by the IRA murder of Robert McCartney in a pub brawl, another act of violence that severely damaged the group’s public image. In response, the IRA announced the following July that it would completely decommission its military campaign, marking the end of The Troubles.

These days, the Northern Bank robbery has been reduced to a footnote, a splashy heist near the tail end of Northern Ireland’s long stretch of violence. For those who supported the IRA then, the robbery would hardly have shaken their loyalty — and for those who saw the group as murderous terrorists, bank robbery was considered the least of its crimes. But all those millions could still be out there somewhere, buried in a field or stacked in a shed. “The degree of planning may have been clever, professional, all the rest of it,” says Guelke, noting that the robbers apparently failed to work out beforehand “what they were going to do with the loot.”

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