Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Tuesday, 9 September 2008 17:50 UK

Bank man 'was £26m raid insider'

Chris Ward
Chris Ward denies the robbery allegations

A 26-year-old bank employee has been accused of being the "inside man" in one of the world's biggest robberies.

Chris Ward of Colinmill, Poleglass, denies taking part in the £26.5m robbery at the Northern Bank in Belfast, on 19 December 2004.

Prosecutors said Mr Ward changed the rota of staff with a vault key to put himself on duty on the day of the raid at the Donegall Square West branch.

He also denied two charges of false imprisonment at Belfast Crown Court.

The non-jury trial also heard that the case against Mr Ward was "circumstantial".

At the time of the robbery, Northern Ireland's chief constable Sir Hugh Orde blamed IRA members for the robbery, a claim rejected by the IRA and Sinn Féin.

However, Prosecution QC Gordon Kerr's 19-page opening statement made no reference to the IRA.

Mr Kerr told Mr Justice McLaughlin that facts could be established to properly infer the robbers had "a high degree of inside knowledge," and that it had come from Mr Ward.

Northern Bank in Belfast
At the time, the raid was the biggest in British history
He claimed the evidence excluded any "reasonable possibility of an innocent explanation" on Mr Ward's part, and that "taken as a whole they show that the defendant was a party to and was complicit in the robbery".

"The robbery was a highly-organised crime, which was clearly well-planned and planned with a knowledge of the bank and its work and security procedures," he said.

The lawyer said that in order for the robbery take place, the homes were taken over of Ward's parents and fellow Northern Bank employee Kevin McMullan and his wife.

The court heard details of the raid first emerged when Mrs McMullan stumbled out of a forest looking for help, distressed and wearing a boiler suit.

This was followed a short time later by a call from Mr Ward to police, and both he and Mr McMullan were treated as victims.

Mr Justice McLaughlin was told that both bankers were interviewed as witnesses to the robbery.

'Significant discrepancies'

However, Mr Kerr said that Mr Ward later became a suspect "as a result of the investigation and some significant discrepancies".

The prosecution QC said there was also a question mark over the accused's movements, or lack of them, in the hours before his parents' home was taken over, and suggested there were significant differences in the hostage-taking situations at the two homes.

The court heard robbers gained entry to Mr Ward's house by a simple request - the lawyer said no elaborate disguise was used, nor were any weapons shown and no hostage was removed to ensure his co-operation.

He contrasted this with the case of Mr McMullan, where the robbers tricked their way into his isolated rural home by pretending to be police officers, who once inside produced their guns and assaulted and manhandled both Mr McMullan and his wife.

A blindfolded Mrs McMullan was later taken from the house, in the full view of her husband who was told she would be "released if he did everything he was told".

The robbers threatened that Mrs McMullan would be killed if her husband did not comply with their instructions.

The prosecution lawyer added that after the two men had gone to work and Mr McMullan made the first of three ordered calls to the robbers, discrepancies began to emerge regarding their accounts of events.

The court was told that as the senior bank official, Mr McMullan was told by the robbers he was "the boss", but Mr Ward later appeared to take over and handled further telephone contact with the robbers.

The trial continues.


BBC NI's Vincent Kearney reports on the latest from the trial

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