Hours later, Warde's relatives were left unharmed at their Belfast home, while Karen McMullan was released in a public forest, where she walked in the dark and cold for nearly an hour before coming upon a house and calling the police.
From the beginning, police were accused of bungling. Former policemen charged that Orde's reformers had weeded out informants suspected of criminal activities, eliminating a large part of the intelligence network that might have given warning of the operation. Investigators also found that a traffic warden had reported a suspicious white van outside the bank's side door but that police responded too late to stop the robbery. Police said they responded to the call in five minutes.
For nearly three weeks, police resisted making claims about who pulled off the job. But they raided the homes of known IRA members, as well as a job center, a thrift store and recycling depot, industrial warehouses and the frozen food section of a supermarket -- all in West Belfast, the heart of the organization's turf.
At the same time, many working-class Catholics celebrated what they assumed was the IRA's deed. "Some are for the IRA, and some are against it, but almost everyone's saying, 'Great job!' " said Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA militant who is critical of the movement.
Orde told reporters that no one should glorify the robbery. "This was a violent and brutal crime," he said. "It was not some Robin Hood effort."
The links between the IRA and Sinn Fein are close, long-standing and secret. Police officials and independent analysts say they believe Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, and McGuinness remain in effective control of the outlawed paramilitary organization, or at least wield a veto over its activities.
The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, told reporters in Dublin he was disturbed by Orde's declaration. "It is of concern to me, more than anything, that an operation of this magnitude . . . was obviously being planned at a stage when I was in negotiations with leaders of the Provisional movement," he said, referring to Adams and McGuinness.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair reiterated the British leader's contention that "political institutions in Northern Ireland can only be restored if there is a complete end to all paramilitary activity by those involved, and that includes all criminal activity."
More than 3,000 people have died in sectarian violence in the province since 1969. The IRA declared a cease-fire in 1997, and the number of sectarian killings last year fell to four, the quietest year since the conflict erupted. But IRA leaders have made clear that the truce applied to what they defined as sectarian violence and did not include other activities. The group has been implicated in several robberies in recent years, raising speculation that members might turn to crime if the peace process permanently halted their political activities.
Banks in Northern Ireland print their own banknotes, and the equivalent of about $31 million of the robbers' haul was in freshly minted notes. Northern Bank announced it was taking the unprecedented step of recalling all new notes in an effort to render useless those taken by the robbers. That could reduce the haul to about $19 million in used notes.
Special correspondent Mary Fitzgerald contributed to this report.