Inside the Northern Bank robbery: ‘I was waiting for the bullet in the back of the head’

TV review: Several moments chill the blood in ‘Heist: The Northern Bank Robbery’

£26.5 million was stolen in the 2004 raid

£26.5 million was stolen in the 2004 raid

 

For those underwhelmed by the Line of Duty finale, Heist: The Northern Bank Robbery (BBC One, 9pm) is a Belfast-set mystery with a far more morally ambivalent denouement. It’s brimming with unlikely twists and features a cast of dozens. The only problem is here the villains are all too real.

Several moments chill the blood. These include recordings of a sobbing Karyn McMullan, the wife of a Northern Bank assistant manager, who was kidnapped and left to fear for her life during the £26.5 million raid in December 2004.

Viewers may also experience a shudder at footage of IRA planner and enforcer, Bobby Storey, widely believed to have masterminded the break-in, bellowing “we ain’t gone away you know”.

Reporters Darragh MacIntyre and Sam McBride, political editor of the Belfast News Letter, set out in easily-digestible detail the case for Provisional IRA involvement in the heist. They also convey the sheer horror McMullan went through during the 24 hours she was held hostage (her mouth was sealed; she feared she would be sexually assaulted and then shot in the woods).

However, MacIntyre and McBride get lost in the weeds slightly chronicling the aftermath of the hold-up. With authorities in the North cleverly withdrawing all Northern Bank notes from circulation, the haul was rendered more or less worthless. A bin full of half-burned notes was later discovered in Cork and the Garda swoop. This, alas, is where the sheer accumulation of information becomes overwhelming, so that it’s hard to keep track of who was arrested and on what charges.

What really stands out is the sheer bungling. Outfoxed by the PSNI, the IRA couldn’t dispose of the the bulk of the cash, while the outcry over the robbery almost derailed the peace process. Gerry Adams is shown sifting in his seat as, of all people, American politician John McCain, upbraids the IRA for its criminality.

“Adams and McGuinness did ultimately want the IRA to go away,” says former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre. “But at the time of their choosing. They [saw] [the IRA] as a valuable bargaining tool.”  

“The brains behind these activities was Bobby Storey,” adds author Brian Feeney. “That is generally acknowledged by security forces, army intelligence, the lot.”

As if reading viewers’ minds, MacIntyre and McBride next cut to footage of senior Republicans attending a commemoration to mark Storey’s death in Belfast last year. They are flanked by activists wearing matching uniforms of black trousers and white shirts.  

MacIntyre and McBride have assembled a impressive line-up of interviewees including former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern,and ex-PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde. Their film paints a dispiriting portrait of the criminality that inevitably flows from terrorism. That is supported by Ahern’s conclusion that the cash was to pay off IRA men.

“The views of those who might have known, that I ever asked, told me that it was as simple or complicated as this, that it was the pension fund … for guys who were pulling away from IRA activities.”

But the words that cut to the quick are those of the kidnapped Karyn McMullan, as MacIntyre quotes a statement she later gave in court.

“For hours I thought they were going to kill me,” she said. “I was waiting for the bullet in the back of the head. I asked him to get my body back to my family.”