13 February 2006

Withdrawal symptoms

Irish Examiner

13 February 2006

By Caroline O’Doherty and Noel Baker
CRIME capers don’t come much more sensational than the saga of the Northern Bank robbery.

Painstakingly plotted and brazenly executed, it netted the raiders one of the biggest cash hauls in history while the suspected involvement of the IRA plunged the peace process back into crisis mode.

Weeks later, however, it seemed the crime gang's grand plan had come unravelled with almost comic consequences.

A stash of over £2 million (€2.93m) was found in a rural bungalow overlooked by a grotto to the Virgin Mary and a man was arrested at a train station in Dublin with a washing powder box full of money.

Another was discovered allegedly burning wads of notes in a wheelie bin and yet another although he disputes this account reportedly walked in unannounced to his local garda station and plopped a bag of money on the counter.

In another twist it was suggested that plans to buy a bank in Bulgaria to provide a one-stop money laundering shop had been foiled by the swoop.

Hailed as a major success for the gardaí and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the operation, now known as Operation Phoenix, was declared a breakthrough in the Northern Bank robbery probe and proof the authorities had the IRA racketeers on the run.

A year on, the excitement has died down and the gallop of events has slowed to a shuffle.

Developments have been more pronounced in the North where, 12 people have been arrested and questioned about the robbery and four have been charged with having roles in the raid.

Dominic McEvoy, 23, a building contractor from Co Down, was charged with the robbery, holding a bank employee and his wife hostage, and possession of a firearm.

Martin McAliskey, 42, a salesman from Co Tyrone, was charged with providing a vehicle for use in the robbery and British Telecom worker Peter Kelly, 30, from Co Down was charged with making and having records containing information likely to be of use to terrorists.

The fourth man charged with the robbery turned out to be Northern Bank official Chris Ward. The 24-year-old's family had been held hostage while he was apparently forced to assist with the robbery and he had recalled his ordeal in detail in a BBC television programme.

In the Republic, just one person arrested as part of the investigation has been charged with anything. Don Bullman, a 31-year-old chef from Cork, faces trial in March for membership of an illegal organisation, the IRA.
Bullman was arrested at Heuston Station and it was during this operation that the washing powder box, containing over €80,000 worth of sterling notes, was discovered.

The only other person to see the inside of a court room as a result of Operation Phoenix was Phil Flynn.

Flynn's offices were searched and an antique pen gun found in a drawer.

A charge of unlawful possession of a firearm was brought but the judge accepted the item was only of curiosity value to Flynn and he escaped a criminal conviction.

So what's been happening behind the scenes and when will it translate into arrests, charges and convictions?

According to the gardaí, a lot of work has been going on.

The operation was put under the lead of Assistant Commissioner Martin Callinan, who has pulled together the strengths of the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, the Criminal Assets Bureau, the National Bureau of Criminal Investigations, the Special Detective Unit, as well as local uniform and detective units in many districts around the country.

A dedicated liaison system is in place to ensure communication and co-operation between the gardaí and the PSNI.

Law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions have also been consulted.

It has been one of the most successfully secretive investigations in recent times, with a virtual media black-out in effect that has prevented the usual leaks turning scraps of information into speculative stories.

Even the fresh series of raids that took place on businesses, offices and homes in a number of counties in Leinster in the last week of January remained unpublicised for some days.

Though they were carried out as part of Operation Phoenix, it is not clear if they were linked to the Northern Bank robbery and subsequent money laundering.

That's not the only question that remains unanswered.

Superintendent Kevin Donohoe of the Garda Press Office confirmed that one file in relation to those offences has been submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions and that "it is expected that file on the substantive part of the investigation will be submitted to the DPP within the next few weeks".

Whether any of these files finger the Mr or Messrs Big in the whole scam is not at all certain. A massive gap exists between those ordinary joes in the North suspected of carrying out the aid and handymen in the South believed to have provided the money-laundering outlets.

Who was responsible for the planning and co-ordinating of the heist and subsequent cash dispersal is so far a mystery. One thing is clear though they needed to have significant standing and experience in the criminal/subversive world to have the clout and contacts to pull off such a scheme.

Sinn Féin have spent the last year feeling aggrieved at the suspicion that party members or associates in some way fill that gap, or at least have knowledge of who does.

Sinn Féin MPs in Westminster only last week had their allowances restored after they were withdrawn as a sanction for alleged party involvement in the raid.

Louth TD Arthur Morgan claims the robbery has been used for political motivations by those opposed to the peace process and opposed to Sinn Féin.

"Last February we had a number of people rush to judgement. Twelve months on there is not one iota of any evidence being produced so far to support those judgments," he said.

He said he wanted those responsible for the raid and subsequent laundering attempts brought to justice but questioned the pace of progress in the investigation.

"It seems to be taking an inordinately long time. I just want those involved to get on with the job."

That may be easier said than done. Sources have said that the prosecutions sought by gardai rely on evidence that is notoriously difficult to procure and prove, and every bank note seized during Operation Phoenix has been subjected to tests and retests to try to determine beyond doubt that it came from the Northern Bank raid.

The fact that little of the haul was recovered is of concern to Fine Gael justice spokesman Jim O'Keeffe. It was weeks after the raid before the Northern Bank began withdrawing notes in circulation and reissuing a new design of notes in a bid to render the remaining stolen money useless.

Said O'Keefe: "The vast bulk of money is unaccounted for. I would want the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Assets Recovery Agency (the Northern version of CAB) to ensure that money is not and can not be laundered. Essentially I want to see early results in this investigation."

Labour justice spokesman Joe Costello is also concerned at the lack of visible progress and dearth of information relating to the investigation.

"What happens too often in these cases is that there is a big hullabaloo and then everything dies down and nobody knows what the true story is. Considering the political implications, it would be very useful if a public statement was made.

"The Garda Commissioner and the Chief Constable in the North had a joint meeting and press conference this time last year to outline what was going on. It would be no harm if they had another meeting and informed the public as to what is happening."

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