Northern Ireland bank robbery charges dropped

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The Independent Online

Charges against two men accused over the £26.5 million Northern Bank robbery were dramatically withdrawn in Belfast today.

Dominic McEvoy, 23, a builder from Co Down, was told he would not have to stand trial for the IRA heist in December 2004.

Allegations that another man, Martin McAliskey, 40, withheld information and attempted to pervert the course of justice were also dropped.

Solicitors for both men protested at the city's Magistrates' Court, and later Northern Ireland's Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, admitted: "It's a setback."

The Public Prosecution Service decided McEvoy, of Mullandra Park, Kilcoo, no longer had a case to answer after studying a police file.

But a third man, Northern Bank staff member Chris Ward, 25, from Poleglass, west Belfast, is still accused of the robbery.

He was remanded on bail to appear again later this month.

Allegations that McEvoy had also imprisoned bank supervisor Kevin McMullan and his wife Karen at their home in Loughinisland, Co Down were also withdrawn.

Mrs McMullen was seized, blindfolded and held for 24 hours as her husband was ordered to go into work as part of the plan to clear the vaults at the Northern's Belfast City Centre HQ.

McAliskey, a salesman from Ballybeg Road, Coalisland, Co Tyrone, had been blamed over the white Ford Transit van allegedly used to load the stolen money.

The robbery, which at the time was the biggest cash heist in British history, wrecked attempts to revive Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.

With police chiefs on both sides of the Irish border blaming the IRA for the raid, outraged unionists refused to consider any new devolved administration involving Sinn Fein.

The Northern Bank also issued a complete batch of new notes in a bid to make the stolen currency worthless.

But with the authorities under increasing pressure to secure convictions, the dropped charges was a major blow to one of the biggest investigations yet mounted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

"These cases are extremely complicated," said Sir Hugh after the court hearing.

"The robbery itself was carried out by a competent group of criminals. We attributed it to the Provisional IRA at the time and I don't detract from that statement one bit.

"This was a particularly brutal crime, people were extremely badly treated and assaulted by the gang.

"Today is a setback, it would be fair to say."

But the Chief Constable stressed one of those charged by his officers is still due to stand trial, and he pledged to press ahead with the inquiry.

With some of the stolen notes having later turned up in the Irish Republic, Sir Hugh also confirmed he has held recent talks with Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy.

"Their case is continuing," he told BBC Radio Ulster.

"This one (investigation) still has a very large number of detectives on it."