IRA emerged as chief suspect in #26.5m Northern Bank robbery

Belfast robbery - how it unfolded: The £26

Belfast robbery - how it unfolded: The £26.5 million raid at the Northern Bank in Belfast last December was the biggest bank raid in the whole of Ireland, and one of the biggest anywhere in recent years. It sparked a series of political recriminations and plunged the Northern peace process into crisis.

In an operation planned with military precision, a gang of up to 20 individuals held hostage the families of two senior bank officials while they set about stealing the huge sum of money from the vaults of the bank's headquarters, which were swollen with cash in the week before Christmas.

On the Sunday before Christmas, masked and armed men arrived at the home of one of the officials and gained entry to the other house by pretending to be police officers informing the family of a serious accident involving a family member.

The two officials were kept separate, interrogated about security at the bank and told to go to work as normal the following morning or their families would be hurt.


At 6 p.m. one of the officials took a hold-all containing about £1 million to Upper Queen Street, a few yards to the rear of Northern Bank headquarters.

For the next two hours, the remainder of the stolen cash was loaded into plastic containers and on to trolleys.

It was then loaded on to what is believed to have been a modified white Ford Transit, with a lift at the rear. The van was subsequently identified as having been driven across the Border at Co Louth a few hours previously.

The van is believed to have carried out two separate runs and was captured on CCTV driving away towards the Westlink in Belfast, which links the two Northern motorways.

Within hours of the robbery becoming public, speculation was rife that the IRA had organised the heist, and the PSNI confirmed it was one of the chief suspects.

Two days before Christmas, however, the IRA indicated through sources that it was not behind the robbery.

By early January the focus of the PSNI investigation was firmly on the IRA with a number of searches on premises in west Belfast, amid warnings from various political parties about the repercussions if it was identified as being responsible for the operation.

On January 7th the Chief Constable of the PSNI, Mr Hugh Orde, issued a statement identifying the IRA as the chief suspect.

The Irish and British governments reacted angrily, with the Taoiseach claiming that senior Sinn Féin figures must have known about it.

Sinn Féin denied the claim, while the IRA also issued a statement, signed by P. O'Neill, denying involvement in the robbery.

The dispute worsened during the following four weeks between Sinn Féin and the rest of the political establishment, especially parties in the South, whom Sinn Féin accused of electioneering over statements about IRA criminality, and claims that senior party members were also on the IRA army council.

The crisis, which involved the main Northern parties and the British government, culminated in the withdrawal by the IRA of last year's offer to decommission all weapons, followed by a further statement warning the British and Irish governments not to "underestimate the seriousness of the situation".

The statement emerged against rumours of growing divisions within the republican movement about the course of the peace process.

Before yesterday's developments, the crisis was dominated by last week's report by the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) blaming the IRA for the raid. Sinn Féin came under increasing pressure as the report also said senior party members would have sanctioned the raid in advance.