Garda had shotgun pointed at face in botched robbery - Real IRA raider inquiry
A member of the Garda surveillance team has described how a raider pointed a gun at him waiving at him to “get back” during a botched robbery in which one member of the gang was shot dead by gardaí.
Peter Brien, a member of a garda surveillance team came on the scene as the robbery of a Securicor Van was in progress at Cullenmore Bends near Ashford, Co Wicklow on May 1st 1998.
Ronan MacLochlainn (28) a member of the Real IRA was shot dead at the scene with a single gunshot.
Today Mr Brien told the MacLochlainn Commission of Inquiry into the incident how he had been trailing a stolen white van from Dublin to Ashford that day before the robbery.
Arriving on the scene of the attempted robbery he saw a staff member from the Securicor Van on the ground on the passenger side of the van holding his hands over his head.
There was a man standing over him with what was either “a gun or a rocket launcher”.
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On the other side another masked raider was “trying to get into the van”
Mr Brien said one of the raiders had come at him with a shotgun.
“He pointed it at me and waived at me to get back”.
All this time the Detective Garda was in radio contact with the National Surveillance Unit describing the robbery in progress.
Mr Brien had been detailed to follow a stolen white van from Heuston Station in Dublin that day and followed it through Ashford as far as Rathnew where he left the scene to get away for a while.
En route he had reported by radio about the presence of a blue van on the roadside outside Ashford with what looked like road maintenance work signs on the road and a gold Carina car parked up a side road with its brake lights on.
He identified the registration numbers on these vehicles as ones of interest to the gardaí.
Having left the stolen van when it was parked up near Rathnew, he drove back towards Dublin but pulled in to the yard of a coop near Ashford to wait.
Once he saw a Securicor Van pass on the road “I immediately gave it out” on the radio and drove after it but was hampered by heavy traffic.
As he came around a corner at Cullenmore Bends “some traffic was u-turning on the road in front of me”.
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Other vehicles, he said, had “gone through the scene” and were waiting at traffic on the far side to turn back.
He drove up to the scene but was forced to stop by a man standing in the road. It was this man who pointed the gun at him.
The head of the Garda Emergency Response Unit at the time, has also described to the Commission a “violent struggle” with one of the raiders.
Mr Basil Walsh who was in charge of the ERU at the time, said when he arrived at the scene he had drawn his weapon but put it back in the holster to assist a colleague who was struggling with the masked man.
Once they had the man handcuffed and on the ground he went over to a Green Mazda where Ronan MacLochlainn was “laid out on the ground”.
He had not seen what happened Mr MacLochlainn, a member of the Real IRA who died from a single gunshot wound at the scene on May 1st 1998 at Cullenmore Bends near Ashford Co Wicklow.
Asked about whether he knew beforehand that the raiders were armed, Mr Walsh described them as “six big strong men” who would not have needed guns for a kidnap but would have needed them for an armed robbery.
He said they had not known beforehand whether or not the men were armed.
They did not have any idea what they were going to do.
Mr Walsh insisted, however, that if other members of the gang “had put up a fight like Ronan MacLochlain put up there could have been more of them killed and some gardai killed as well”.
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A total of 12 shots were fired by gardai at the scene.
The gang, who were armed with guns and live ammunition, did not fire any shots.
Mr Walsh described how he had joined the operation with two others and headed in a car for Wicklow because they knew “these member of the Real IRA were headed that way.”
On the way down they decided to use back roads to get ahead of the gang.
They had pulled in at Hunters Hotel outside Ashford and he rang a colleague.
“We didn’t know what these men were going to do. I asked him if there were any wealthy farmers living in the area that could be kidnapped and he said there were loads of them.”
They then travelled to the forecourt yard of the Glanbia cooperative south of Cullenmore Bends where they parked up.
“Up to the time we saw a Securicor Van pass by we had no idea what might be going to happen. When we saw the van that’s when we knew there was a crime going to be committed”.
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Mr Walsh told the hearing it had never entered their heads there would be a robbery until they saw the van.
They pulled out from the yard and followed the van but lost sight of it as they got “bundled up” in rush hour traffic.
They had to leave the vehicle in the middle of the road and run towards the scene of the robbery.
He had heard shots as he ran and when he arrived on the scene the first thing he saw was his colleague struggling violently with one of the raiders who was later identified as Saoirse Breathnach.
He went to assist him because the man was “resisting violently”.
Mr Walsh said when he approached the car where Ronan MacLochlainn was lying he saw a gun in the area beside the handbrake.
Mr Brien explained he was unarmed that day and he got back into his car when the gunman threatened him but kept transmitting on the radio to the National Surveillance Unit.
A colleague pulled up in a car beside him. “The gunman was waiving the gun at us”. As his colleague, who was armed, got out of his car, Mr Brien revved his own car and “jumped it” to distract the gang member.
He said he heard the gunman say “they’re here, they’re here” as he ran back to his own car and tried to reverse it. Mr Brien’s car hit the gunman’s car as he moved forward.
When members of the Emergency Response Unit arrived in two jeeps the gunman was arrested.
Mr Brien said the scene was “complete panic”.
At one point he heard shots and he got a civilian woman and two men who were on the road to kneel down and “I told them to stay down”.
A number of shots had been fired but he could not say how many.
The hearing continues.