Friday, January 14, 2005

Law and Orde

Pat Brosnan on policing in the north of Ireland:

NORTHERN Ireland chief constable Hugh Orde has been put on a par with the Pope. Like His Holiness speaking ex cathedra when he addresses matters of faith and morals, Mr Orde has been vested with the quality of infallibility since pronouncing that the IRA was responsible for beggaring the Northern Bank in Belfast.

The robbery took place on December 20, but the chief constable didn't say a word about it publicly until late in the first week of January. He probably didn't want to upset anybody's Christmas or new year celebrations by mentioning the empty bank vaults.

When he did say a word, everybody took it as gospel except Sinn Féin and the IRA. Having met with members of the policing board, the chief constable declared that the IRA was responsible for making the unauthorised withdrawals.

No ifs or buts, he said the organisation was to blame for the multi-million job.

No other element loyalist, freelance or imported even made the shortlist. Mr Orde was so confident it was the republicans he didn't feel the need to produce any evidence.

Probably because there was none. It was, and still is, his opinion that the IRA pulled off this monumental heist.

He said: "In my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime and all main lines of inquiry currently undertaken are in that direction." It is possible just possible that all those lines of inquiry are going in the wrong direction.

I presume the standard of evidence in the North is not simply grounded on the chief constable's opinion. If that were so, the costly business of courts of law could be dispensed with, as could a person's right to a fair trial.

True, the IRA were oblivious to that same right when they carried out atrocities that were justified in their opinion, but nobody else's.

It would be outrageous to suggest that the chief constable would give his opinion in the case of a civilian charged with murder before it was dealt with by a court of law because such an unwarranted intervention would have serious consequences.

It can be argued that the normal standards by which justice is administered should not apply to a paramilitary organisation, but that is not the norm we apply.

There is a sneaking suspicion that the IRA did rob the Northern Bank because they are perceived to have the experience and logistical capability to do so.

But, because of the fragile state of the peace process, it demands more than a sneaking suspicion or a chief constable's opinion to lay the blame squarely at the door of one particular organisation without conclusive proof.

And that, like the bank's money, is missing at the moment. The independent monitoring commission (IMC) is to investigate the matter, and while that will take some time, so too will the PSNI investigation.

Why couldn't the chief constable have kept his opinion to himself until the outcome of the IMC investigation, or until such time as he was able to produce conclusive proof?

Efforts to restore the institutions in the North were going nowhere until at least after the forthcoming British election, so the question of whether or not the IRA was responsible, and the political implications for Sinn Fein, did not warrant his intervention at this stage.

They are definitely going nowhere since Mr Orde fingered the IRA as his only suspect.

The extraordinary thing was that his unsubstantiated opinion was so readily accepted as fact by both governments, opposition parties and, gleefully, by the DUP.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appeared on TV wearing a wounded look as he described the betrayal he felt that Sinn Féin knew of the impending raid even as he was in negotiations with them.

Now he knows how the country felt when he promised so much before the general election and failed to deliver on most of it.

Tony Blair also accepted Orde's unsubstantiated opinion, stating that he would not have made the claims without evidence. Then Mr Blair said the magic words which were music to the ears of the likes of Ian Paisley.

Unionists were "entirely justified" to refuse to share power with Sinn Féin "unless there was a definitive end to all forms of paramilitary or criminal activity by one of the parties that was associated with a paramilitary group."

It could have been said to the accompaniment of a Lambeg drum or a marching band so in tune was it with Mr. Paisley's attitude.

Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin have all accepted that the IRA had nothing to do with the robbery.

What 'evidence' has emerged since?

The inevitable white van. It seems that a white van almost always features at the outset of any police/Gárda investigation.

GIVEN the number of white vans in circulation although not as many as there are Northern Bank notes one was bound to be in the vicinity of the crime scene. And this one really was not once, but twice!

This wasn't just any ordinary old white van either, according to the police, who said it was so unusual that it took time to provide a mock-up model for last week's crime reconstruction at the bank.

Apparently, all it was short was a sign on the roof saying "Biggest ever robbery in Ireland or Britain in progress."

Or possibly the strains of Roddy McCorley blaring from the van's stereo system, like the ring tone in a colleague's mobile phone, might have done the trick to grab police attention.

Then again, it might not. What it did have was distinctive lamps on the cab roof, an unusual box design and lifting tailgate, and the storage compartment did not extend over the driving position as in other models.

It was like no other Ford Transit 350 long-wheelbase model, and the PSNI have the CCTV evidence, but not the van.

It first appeared at a side entrance to the bank on the evening in question at 7.12pm and reappeared precisely at 8.12pm.

From all accounts of the laid-back way in which the robbery was carried out, it could have appeared every hour, on the hour, for all the attention this 'unusual' vehicle attracted.

Oh yes, and to make sure it had to be seen, it was driven across the border on the main Belfast road two hours before the robbery took place. Where it was in the intervening two hours we do not know, except to speculate that it could well have been in the car park at police headquarters.

This is the latest, fresh information released by the PSNI, almost as hot as the missing £26.5 million. In announcing it, Det Supt Andy Sproule, the senior investigating officer, almost plaintively asked: "Where did the van go? Somebody must have seen it."

But no, nobody saw this strange van as it travelled the main Belfast road not even when it was parked a couple of times outside the bank, and outside normal banking hours. Not even a policeman.

Well, a traffic warden apparently called the police to report two men acting suspiciously after a white van was spotted, but two officers missed the action by a few minutes. In the meantime, more than £10m in stolen notes did not have their serial numbers recorded and could prove untraceable.

Although the bank said last week it would replace all its notes in circulation, this could take several weeks, giving the thieves valuable time to launder the money.

And shop around for a new van.


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