Arts

Ricky O'Rawe on publishing his hit novel Northern Heist in the USA and its potential TV adaptation

David Roy chats to Belfast author Richard 'Ricky' O'Rawe about the US publication of his hit real life robbery-inspired novel Northern Heist, which could soon be coming to TV

Ricky O'Rawe revisits the scene of the crime. Picture by Hugh Russell

"IT WAS a work of art." That's how author Richard 'Ricky' O'Rawe describes the real life inspiration for his acclaimed 2018 novel Northern Heist: the biggest 'bank job' in Irish history, which saw £26.5 million stolen from the Northern Bank on Belfast's Donegall Square in December 2004 without a single shot being fired – or a single person being convicted of the crime.

Ballymurphy man O'Rawe knows a thing or two about robbing banks, albeit on a much smaller scale than the elaborate tiger kidnapping-based scheme which facilitated the infamous 2004 incident: in 1977 he was sentenced to eight years in Long Kesh for being part of an IRA gang that held-up a Northern Bank branch in Mallusk. They lifted just £11k and were arrested within hours of fleeing the scene.

"Aye, that was the last bank I robbed," chuckles the author, who is currently looking forward to Northern Heist's US publication next month, with a possible six-part TV adaptation to follow.

"You never saw any money when you robbed a bank for the IRA. If you got a fry at somebody's house at the end of it you were doing well."

O'Rawe's days as a republican bandit segued into him becoming an IRA press officer during his imprisonment. Published in 2005, Blanketmen was his account of the 1981 hunger strikes he helped to co-ordinate: it caused controversy by challenging the official Sinn Féin-endorsed version of events.

While the author shares the PSNI's view that the 2004 Northern Bank robbery was carried out by the IRA – "I'm 99 per cent certain the IRA did it, purely on the basis that no-one else in my view had the professionalism about them to do it," he tells me – what inspired his fictionalised version of the crime was a contrasting notion: what if the IRA didn't do it?

"I'd been thinking about the story for years," explains O'Rawe of Northern Heist's protracted gestation period between 2004 and 2018.

"'What if [the robbery] was done by some wide-boy with the wit to actually pull it off?' – that was the seed of the book. Me and my daughter Bernadette were sitting chatting about it in the Duke of York one day – that's when I came up with a name for my lead character: 'Ructions' O'Hare.

"That's basically where it started, but I had other commitments at the time like the Gerry Conlon book, so I didn't really have a chance to get a good run at it until after I'd finished that."

In The Name of The Son, O'Rawe's acclaimed biography of his late friend and wrongly convicted Guildford Four man Gerry Conlon, was published in 2017 and later adapted into a stage production with the help of playwright Martin Lynch.

The following year, readers got their first taste of the author's crime fiction skills when Merrion Press published Northern Heist, which is now about to make its American debut courtesy of Melville House.

Set in Belfast in 2004 (naturally), the book follows 'ordinary decent criminal' James 'Ructions' O'Hare as he puts together the bank job to end all bank jobs – perhaps literally, as technological advancements are already on the verge of making such real world enterprises obsolete – under the noses of the IRA and PSNI.

However, with intel suggesting a whopping £80m haul, the risks are deemed worthy of the potential reward. Ructions puts together a trusted crew of crims and devises the tiger kidnapping of two bank employees who have the misfortune to be designated key-holders for the bank vault. He's relying on the finger of suspicion being immediately pointed at republicans – and indeed some of the innocents caught up in the heist.

It's a compelling art-imitating-life caper, rivetingly written by O'Rawe without ever shying away from depicting the emotional trauma inflicted on the kidnap victims and their families in the story, whom he develops as fully fledged characters in their own right: the real skill in the telling of this tale is that the author makes the reader complicit in the crime – we are constantly willing the likeable yet demonstrably ruthless Ructions to 'get away with it' even as he pragmatically brutalises innocents.

Ricky O'Rawe. Picture by Hugh Russell

"At the end of the day, you're taking the reader through that journey with them [the victims] and you're saying to them, 'here's how bad this was'," explains O'Rawe of how he wanted to highlight the psychological damage inflicted on the victims of tiger kidnappings, which some believe the IRA actually invented during the Troubles when they would force people to deliver car bombs while holding their families hostage.

"Although no-one was physically hurt, this wasn't a victimless crime. These people are severely traumatised and left mentally scarred. It was important to me as a writer to let the reader know that.

"While in my view the actual bank robbery was a fantastic, well-planned military operation, in human terms it was an appalling thing to happen to innocent people whose only crime was that they went to work."

Of course, it's Ructions' carefully plotted and meticulously executed heist which will capture readers' imaginations in much the same way as the real life Northern Bank job led to endless speculation of how it was done and who was involved.

"My own estimate would be that there was about 30 people involved in it," offers O'Rawe, who also has a sequel to Northern Heist in the works titled Goering's Gold.

"That's because a) you've to do the intelligence on it, b) you've to hold the two people, c) you've to provide the transport, and d) you've to hide the money afterwards because you know there's going to be a hue and cry.

"They got clean away with it – they actually had to phone the cops up and say we just robbed the bank. I mean, what does that tell you?"

Of course, the author concedes that the average American reader will not be as familiar with the real Northern Bank robbery as readers closer to home – something that might actually work to his advantage once Northern Heist hits US bookshelves (or at least their online equivalent) on April 6.

"This will be all new to them," he enthuses. "I don't anticipate that American's will be au fait with 'the Northern Bank robbery'. It might be something they maybe heard of on a newsreel as a two or three-minute item and then forgot all about 17 years ago – but when they read the book or watch the television series, they're going to be thinking about it for quite a while..."

Northern Heist will be published in the USA on April 6 by Melville House and is still available to buy in Ireland and the UK as a paperback and ebook published by Merrion Press.

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