Sinn Féin members authorised robberies

  • 11 February 2005
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^ Though they didn't specifically authorise the Northern Bank robbery, senior Sinn Féin members on the IRA Army Council sanctioned the principle of armed robberies, writes Suzanne Breen

Three prominent Sinn Féin members who sit on the IRA Army Council gave permission to their General Headquarters (GHQ) staff to carry out armed robberies, according to both security and republican sources.

The sources said it was possible that while the Army Council sanctioned the principle of robberies, it didn't have precise details of the Northern Bank raid in advance.

GHQ staff have the autonomy to choose targets and organise their own operations. "The Army Council may well not have known the wheres and whens," said a police source.

The Independent Monitoring Commission's (IMC) report didn't say that those Sinn Féin leaders, who are also senior IRA figures, had known the specifics of the Northern Bank raid. Rather, it stated they had been involved in "sanctioning the series of robberies".

The man widely credited with orchestrating the Northern Bank raid is the intelligence officer of the IRA's GHQ staff. A west Belfast-based man, he helped mastermind the 1983 H-Block escape and also a bomb attack on Thiepval Barracks in 1997. He has long been a close supporter of Gerry Adams and a firm opponent of dissent both inside and outside IRA ranks.

He has physically restrained grassroots activists from attacking the police and British Army in numerous confrontational situations over recent years.

He was responsible for the Makro cash-and-carry raid in May and the robbery of £2 million of cigarettes from Gallahers cigarette company in October.

"The IRA Army Council had no problems with these robberies. If those involved were acting without authorisation, they would soon have felt the wrath of the Army Council," said a security source.

"They weren't in any trouble because they, the Army Council, had approved such operations. So it's laughable to suggest that X (the senior GHQ staff member) is out of control and the Army Council was shocked and horrified by the Northern Bank robbery. X is as loyal as they come. He does nothing without sanction."

However, it is understood that the IRA leadership now regard the Northern Bank robbery as a major mistake. Republican sources believe the gang were unaware until that day how much money was available to them.

The huge political fall-out meant the robbery was "definitely not worth it", they said. The £10 million in notes for which the bank has no serial numbers would be spent but the source predicted the other £16 million would now possibly not be used.

"Every time one of these bank-notes turned up, it would be big news. The story would just run and run and that isn't in the republican movement's interests," the source said. "It's a lot of money to wave goodbye to but I think that is the decision which could well be made."

Another republican source believed that if the IRA leadership could turn the clock back, it wouldn't have carried out the robbery. Security sources also claimed it had been a grave miscalculation because it could mean that the "run-of-the-mill stuff" – the robberies netting £1 to £3 million – were now out of bounds.

"The IRA over-stretched the mark. Things have reverberated on them. They've made life very difficult for themselves," said a security source. The IMC report, which was met with Sinn Féin anger, is widely regarded as extremely weak on information and detail.

Yet one of the IMC's members – Commander John Grieve, former head of the Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist squad – said he had seen very strong material before compiling the report.

That material could not be published because of the danger of prejudicing any future criminal proceedings and also because it is believed that it isn't in the interests of the police investigation to put such material into the public arena.

After the robbery, the PSNI quickly built up a detailed picture of who was responsible through mobile phone records, surveillance material from the bugging of buildings and other intelligence sources. Detectives have insisted that information points "100 per cent" to the IRA.

When he addressed the Policing Board last month, Chief Constable Hugh Orde stressed that when nationalist houses were raided in connection with the robbery, it had definitely not been a case of targeting the usual suspects.

He said that with the domestic and international media breathing down his neck, and the strongly-independent Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, capable of investigating PSNI actions, it would be career suicide for him not to act in a rigorously professional manner.

Orde warned the Board against a speedy conclusion to the police investigation. Experience showed such investigations could take up to three years before they netted results, he said.

Another PSNI figure said patience was necessary. The IRA was bound to have made errors during the robbery and deviated from their original plan at some point. "Even in the average person's day, let alone in something like this, things don't go 100 per cent to plan. They will have deviated somewhere and we have to find that, no matter how long it takes," he said.

Both Irish and British government sources acknowledged that while they were fully satisfied with the IMC report, its lack of detail allowed Sinn Féin to claim there wasn't a shred of evidence against it or the IRA. Gerry Adams's challenge that he be arrested by those who persist in making these allegations was widely regarded as an effective move.

However, Sinn Féin is on flimsy ground when it claims the IMC is working to a securocrat agenda. The group is chaired by former Alliance leader, Lord Alderdice, a strong supporter of the peace process.

A former speaker of the Assembly, he was widely regarded as fair and balanced. An ex-colleague said Alderdice had a "perfectly good working relationship with Sinn Féin" in the Assembly. "John is not somebody out to get republicans," said the former colleague.

After the September 1994 ceasefire, the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was established in Dublin Castle as a way of bringing Sinn Féin into the democratic process. While the main unionist parties boycotted it, Alderdice ensured his Alliance Party took its seats.

While the majority of nationalists continue to strongly support Sinn Féin, there has so far not been an outpouring of anger onto the streets in protest at the IMC report.

Sinn Féin organised road blockades across the North immediately after the report's publication. They were made up largely of Sinn Féin members with few ordinary nationalists joining in. It certainly wasn't a case of hundreds, let alone thousands, on the streets. Ormeau Bridge in south Belfast, a major thoroughfare, was blocked by around 30 people.

It was also noticeable that, in spite of Sinn Féin's claims of heavy-handed policing, the PSNI did not attempt to move the activists from the roads, despite the ensuing traffic chaos. Police stayed away from the Ormeau Road blockade. Few nationalists believe the IMC report was justified but their protests seem set to be largely confined to voting Sinn Féin in May's Westminster election.