TO OUTSIDERS it might seem madness. Why would the Provisional IRA set the peace process back months, if not years, and risk Sinn Fein's growing political respectability by robbing the Northern Bank?
It's not as though the IRA is short of money. It already earns up to A£30m ( 42.9m) a year from a range of legal and illegal businesses. It no longer has a war to wage or prisoners' families to support.
But netting A£26.5m ( 38m) in one night is difficult to resist. The IRA robbed the Northern Bank because it could. Experience led it to believe it could weather the storm of unionist and media reaction.
Although there has been a hullabaloo after other events . . . Colombia, Castlereagh, Stormont-gate, gun-running in Florida, the Bobby Tohill abduction, 'punishment' shootings, and a range of killings and robberies . . . ultimately, the fall-out is limited.
There have been no serious political repercussions for Sinn Fein from the state or the electorate to far more violent incidents. "Do you think anybody around here isn't going to vote for us in May's Westminster election because of a bank robbery?" asks an amused IRA member in west Belfast.
Billy Lowry, former head of Special Branch in Belfast, says: "In 1994, the IRA stopped killing soldiers and police officers. It didn't stop other criminal activities. The robberies and scams continued as normal. The surprise is that anybody is surprised by this latest job."
A total of A£22m of the stolen money is made up of Northern Bank notes which will be recalled over coming months. Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Hugh Orde presents the robbery as a failure . . . "the largest theft of waste paper" in Northern Ireland.
"That's nonsense, " says a security source. "There are A£4.5m in notes from other banks which the IRA will have no problem with, and they will try to get rid of as much of the A£22m as possible over the coming weeks.
"They won't be able to shift the whole lot, or even most of it. But they should move A£5m or A£6m in that period through their business network, or by selling it to ordinary punters at half its value or to fences at a quarter of its value."
Another security source says: "There are plenty of ordinary citizens who would buy this money. People buy copy DVDs and CDs. If it's going cheap, they'll buy real money during the next few weeks that it remains legal tender."
Despite official Sinn Fein denials, it's widely accepted in republican areas of the North that the Provos were responsible for the robbery. Indeed, many grassroots members and supporters take pride in the fact.
"The loyalists, the Conts [Continuity IRA] and the Reals [Real IRA] . . . none of them are capable of an operation like that, " says a south Belfast IRA member. "The IRA alone is professional enough to do it and get away with it."
Orde said it wasn't a victimless crime. He stressed it was a brutal ordeal for the bank officials' families held hostage. "It mightn't have been a pleasant 24 hours for them but nobody got hurt, " says the IRA member.
"Nobody even got a thump.
As for sympathy for the Northern Bank . . . don't make me laugh."
A minority of former IRA members are sceptical about the organisation's increasing wealth. "I'd like to see the money going to the thousands of men and women who did big whack [time in jail], whose family lives were ruined, but that's not happening. It's hard to take in but the IRA has become some kind of capitalist institution, " says a Belfast ex-POW.
The IRA gang, believed by both republican and security sources to have carried out the robbery, is led by the IRA's director of intelligence, a west Belfast man who helped organise the 1983 H-Block escape.
The gang was also responsible for the A£1m robbery of Makro cash-and-carry in Belfast last May and the A£1.2m cigarette heist at Gallaher's warehouse in Belfast three months ago.
"They're not some breakaway or out-of-control group, " says a security source.
"They're not internal PIRA dissidents. They're intensely loyal to the leadership. This isn't their first robbery and it won't be their last."
After he blamed the IRA for the robbery, Sinn Fein condemned Hugh Orde as "a securocrat". That sits uneasily with its decision to meet him just last month . . . until then Sinn Fein had steadfastly refused to meet any chief constable.
Far from using the robbery to hammer the IRA, Orde actually remained out of the spotlight in the aftermath of the robbery. He didn't make a statement for 18 days. It's difficult to imagine Sir John Stevens, outgoing head of the Metropolitan Police, adopting such a low-key approach to a similar crime in London.
"This is the biggest bank robbery in British history, " said the DUP's Sammy Wilson who sits on the Policing Board which holds the PSNI to account. "Had it happened elsewhere in the UK, we would have seen daily press briefings by police.
"The authorities probably hoped the story would die over the Christmas holidays, especially with the tsunami disaster. But it didn't, so Hugh Orde had to make his statement."
Arrests are expected over the coming months but the IRA gang is highly trained in anti-interrogation techniques. Security sources said neither the bank officials nor the witnesses held hostage had been able to provide police with descriptions.
The PSNI is under massive pressure to secure convictions but inexperience and sloppy practices have led to failures in several recent cases, including for counterfeit goods.
Security sources have confirmed to the Sunday Tribune that, before the Northern Bank heist, police had received intelligence that the Provisional IRA was planning a major bank robbery in Belfast.
"We have a series of questions for Hugh Orde at the next Policing Board meeting, " said Sammy Wilson. "We want to know exactly what intelligence reports suggested beforehand and what action was taken."
Wilson also said banks must revise their security measures. "Practices which allow access to tens of millions of pounds through just two employees seem to be very poor."
A Northern Bank spokesman said: "Security systems dependent on human beings are always vulnerable. We give staff comprehensive training in dealing with potential hostage situations."
Wilson says there are serious questions about the monitoring of CCTV in the Northern Bank: "It took two hours to move the money from the bank to the van. Was nobody watching the footage?"
The failure to reach agreement in talks last month meant a settlement leading to a power-sharing executive at Stormont was a non-runner until after the British general election in May.
But senior DUP sources now rule out the establishment of any administration this year. During the last negotiations, the DUP was willing to settle for a fourmonth period to assess the IRA ceasefire before entering government with Sinn Fein.
"We wouldn't go for that now, " says the source. DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson says the political process cannot be "held to ransom" by the IRA. The DUP is calling for the restoration of devolution without Sinn Fein.
But a government source dismissed that as a non-runner: "A DUP-SDLP government wouldn't command broad support in the nationalist community. Sinn Fein represent a majority of nationalists and no administration will work without them. In their hearts, the DUP know this. They're just electioneering."