Northern Ireland news

Bertie Ahern: £10m from Northern Bank robbery could have been used for IRA pension fund

The biggest heist in British history happened just four days before Christmas in December 2004. Picture by Hugh Russell

AROUND £10 million of the money stolen during the Northern Bank robbery may have been used for a Provisional IRA pension fund, it has been claimed.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern suggested that the cash, part of £26.5m taken in the biggest bank heist in British history, was "for the guys who were pulling away from IRA activities".

The claim is made in a BBC documentary, to be broadcast tonight, which recalls the raid in Belfast city centre in December 2004.

In a sophisticated operation, a gang took two families hostage for 24 hours, forcing two bank employees to rob £26.5m from the cash centre.

Suspicion immediately fell on the Provisional IRA and a political storm ensued which threatened to derail a fragile peace process.

Sixteen years on, despite an international police investigation, it remains unsolved.

Journalists Darragh McIntyre and Sam McBride took a fresh look at the notorious case and used 999 calls along with internal bank CCTV and court documents to attempt to piece together what could have happened.

They also interviewed key players in politics, policing and financial crime and asked whether the robbery may, inadvertently, have helped the peace process.

The documentary looks at how £10m of the money was never accounted for after £16.5m was rendered worthless when the bank pulled the freshly-printed notes from circulation.

Mr Ahern said it may have been used to as a "pension fund" for the IRA during the peace process.

"The view of those people that might have known, that I asked, told me it was as simple or as complicated as this: that it was the pension fund... for the guys who were pulling away from IRA activities," he said.

Former PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde told the programme "I don't disagree" with the claim made by Mr Ahern.

"Whilst it's entirely unjustifiable - of course it is - if you are trying to keep people on board and keep them behaving in a way within the context of a peace process, that would be an understandable thing for them to try and do, to almost pay them off, I suppose," he said.

Alan McQuillan, former head of the Assets Recovery Agency, is also interviewed and said by the time the notes were taken out of circulation, they "could well have been laundered".

"The IRA already had a substantial network stretching to various countries around the world where they could send money, get it converted into property or other transactions and then it would gradually be filtered back into the UK or Ireland in a form that appeared to be legitimate," he said.

Among other figures interviewed are former Irish justice minister Michael McDowell; Dr Mitchell Reiss, US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland under the Bush administration; Tom Kelly, who was Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesperson; and former First Minister Peter Robinson.

There is also an interview with Ted Cunningham, the Cork-based financier who was the first person convicted in relation to the robbery.

Heist: The Northern Bank Robbery is on BBC One at 9pm

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