Sunday 20 April 2014

Jim Cusack: Dublin gardai didn't trust Dundalk and kept them in the dark for years

The Smithwick Report into the murders of two RUC officers in south Armagh found that garda collusion with the Provisional IRA was not confined to just this tragic incident

The scene following the IRA murders of senior RUC officers Harry Breen, left, and Bob Buchanan in south Armagh in 1989
The scene following the IRA murders of senior RUC officers Harry Breen, left, and Bob Buchanan in south Armagh in 1989

THE single most striking instance of IRA infiltration of An Garda Siochana does not appear in the bulk of the Smithwick Report into the murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan. It appears later in the report's examination of garda intelligence files on subsequent matters concerning the IRA in north Louth.

On Friday, January 26, 1990, almost three years after the murders of Breen and Buchanan, a direction was given from the Crime and Security Section at Garda Headquarters in Dublin for a search to be carried out on the home of Micky McKevitt, then quartermaster of the Provisional IRA, in Blackrock, just south of Dundalk.

A fax was sent from Garda HQ to Dundalk garda station for McKevitt's home to be raided early the next morning on the grounds that HQ had intelligence, based on the tapping of his phone, that McKevitt had fake passports.

Later that evening, the same phone tap recorded a male voice calling McKevitt and saying words to the effect: "You will be having visitors in the morning. Make sure that they don't get that little booklet or that they don't get what they're looking for."

McKevitt's home was raided early on the Saturday morning and nothing was found.

Evidence was given by former Detective Inspector Dan Prenty of travelling to Dublin early the next week and being brought into the Crime and Security section in the Phoenix Park depot and being played the tape on a "small cassette machine". One of the interlocutors on the recording, the report states, was identified to him as Michael McKevitt.

Judge Smithwick states: "Former Det Insp Prenty emphasised that he wasn't precisely sure of the exact words, but that it was clear from the recording that Michael McKevitt got a message 'sufficient to tell him that the guards were coming to his home'.

"It seems to me that this evidence clearly leaves open the possibility that members of the Detective Branch and, by sight of the relevant faxes, members of the uniform branch, would have been aware that Mr McKevitt's house was going to be searched.

"The most that can be said is that I have accepted that a search of Michael McKevitt's house by Dundalk gardai was compromised in January 1990 and that one of the possible means by which this occurred was by a deliberate and conscious act on the part of a member of the gardai in Dundalk."

The import of this passage was largely overlooked last week when Gerry Adams drew yet another political storm over his party by asserting that Breen and Buchanan had been murdered because of their own "laissez-faire" attitude towards their personal security.

Micky McKevitt was probably the most important Provisional IRA member living in the Republic. As quartermaster, he had control of all the IRA arms dumps in the Republic and was responsible for providing the IRA in Northern Ireland with all its arms and explosives.

McKevitt would subsequently be central to the worst single atrocity in the history of the Troubles when he broke from the Provisional IRA in 1997 and formed the break-away 'Real' IRA, which killed 29 people, including a mother with near-term twins, in August 1998 in Omagh.

Although it was never publicised, the intercepted call to McKevitt's home from someone who had evidently seen the fax sent to Dundalk garda station created a remarkable situation whereby the station was subsequently kept in the dark about sensitive intelligence collected by the Garda Special Branch in Dublin.

This continued over subsequent years. In November 2001, the Garda Special Branch in Dublin mounted a surveillance operation in the Dundalk area on dissident republicans without informing Dundalk garda station. This only emerged when a member of the National Surveillance Unit (NSU), Det Garda Des Dixon, was killed on duty in a car accident outside Dundalk. Local gardai had no idea that the operation was under way until the accident.

Though not widely reported last week, Thomas Slab Murphy's diesel-smuggling activities were central to the Smithwick Report. It emerged in evidence that the visit by Breen and Buchanan to Dundalk station on the day of their murders was at the direction of the then Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Tom King, who wanted Murphy's smuggling operation closed down. There had been newspaper reports on the extent of the diesel-smuggling in south Armagh.

Evidence was given that the British Army had recorded the movement of 28 oil tankers in a 60-hour period from Murphy's plant at Ballybinaby. Each tanker marked a profit of £14,000, according to a British intelligence report given to the inquiry – nearly £400,000 in a three-day period.

Stories about Slab's smuggling activities had received coverage in the British national press and had come to the attention of Margaret Thatcher, who may have ordered her Secretary of State to do something.

Evidence given to the tribunal showed that Tom King was clearly very exercised about the issue and "thumped the table" during the meeting with the RUC when reservations were expressed. Chief Supt Breen was at the meeting and colleagues gave evidence that he was deeply concerned that the Secretary of State was interfering in policing operations.

Harry Breen reluctantly agreed to initiate the action against Murphy's premises, despite his misgivings over the mounting of what would necessarily have to be a major cross-border police and customs action to stop diesel-smuggling – at a time when the IRA was causing deaths and destruction on a major scale.

Breen visited counterparts in the Republic on relatively few occasions. Garda and RUC intelligence reports agreed that he was one of the IRA's top targets.

He had been pictured with the weapons used by the eight-man IRA unit which had been wiped out by the British Army's Special Air Services (SAS) at Loughgall in County Armagh in May 1987.

The threat to Breen and Buchanan had been signalled in advance in garda intelligence reports. One states: "PIRA are monitoring the movement of plainclothes RUC officers who, since the triple fatal explosion at Killeen border crossing on 24.7.88 (three RUC officers killed in a bomb explosion while waiting to escort a security van across the Border) are travelling on a regular basis to Dundalk garda station."

By contrast with Chief Supt Breen, Supt Buchanan was a very frequent visitor to garda stations along the Border. Records before the inquiry showed that between March 1988 and March 1989 he crossed the Border unaccompanied on no less than 82 occasions.

Senior gardai gave evidence that he had been warned on at least one occasion that he was being watched by the IRA. Yet from August 1988 he continued to cross unaccompanied in his highly distinctive red Vauxhall Cavalier car. He visited Dundalk station on 20 or 21 occasions, according to the report. His visits most often were on Mondays or Tuesdays. He parked his car in the same spot in the car park in front of the station, in clear view from the street.

Harry Breen was well aware of the threat to his life and, his colleagues recalled, was unhappy about the visit to Dundalk with Buchanan.

He had every right to be.

The Smithwick Report contains, for the first time in any known official State document, the debriefing notes of a Provisional IRA murder operation. The IRA provided Smithwick with its detailed 'Final Approved Note' on the operation. This gives very precise detail of the "surveillance" and "military" operation mounted by the south Armagh IRA.

While otherwise a straightforward blow-by-blow account of the operation, the document states at the outset something which appears to be self-serving if viewed in the context of seeking to hide any possible garda collusion.

It states: "This operation was executed as a result of lengthy and detailed surveillance initiated and conducted by IRA volunteers. At no time was there any input from the gardai or any other outside source or agency regarding the planning and execution of this operation."

It would appear from Gerry Adams' political faux pas, in effectively blaming the two RUC officers for their own deaths, that he was referring to this document and the subsequent secret testimony of a senior IRA member that Buchanan was "sloppy" about his personal security.

At the time the inquiry was set up, there was speculation in sections of the media that the IRA team that killed Breen and Buchanan included informants working for the British Army or RUC. It was speculated that the order was given by the IRA's army council that the senior RUC officers were to be kidnapped and interrogated about the source of the intelligence that led to the killings of the eight IRA men in Loughgall the previous year – before being killed.

This part, at least, was borne out by another garda report, which stated: "PIRA's intention had been to kidnap Breen and Buchanan. The PIRA operation was planned and led by [redacted] and involved other members of south Armagh PIRA. [Redacted] was directly involved in the shooting attack on

Breen and Buchanan's car. There was a major dispute amongst those directly involved as to how the attack was to be conducted."

The "major dispute" is understood to have taken place between the leaderships of the Tyrone IRA brigade and the south Armagh leadership. The head of the Tyrone brigade, a man now in his 70s and still living near the Border in Co Monaghan, was said to have been incensed at the killings. He wanted the RUC officers served up to his men so they could torture them into revealing the IRA mole who had given up his men in Loughgall.

This caused a rift between the Tyrone IRA and the rest of the Adams-McGuinness leadership, to which south Armagh was loyal.

This belief has continued in Tyrone: that the dispatching of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan as they crossed the Border was part of a cover-up to protect moles operating with high-level protection within the IRA as part of a strategy to purge militant elements who were opposed to the coming ceasefire and peace process.

It subsequently emerged that the Tyrone suspicions were well founded. The central IRA leadership had indeed installed a mole in the heart of the Tyrone IRA, Denis Donaldson, a Belfast man and close associate of Gerry Adams.

Donaldson was finally exposed in 2005 while he was running the Sinn Fein offices in Stormont. The following April he was shot dead at his holiday cottage in Donegal. No group claimed his killing – but, according to usually reliable sources, his killers were members of the Tyrone Provisional IRA who were close associates of the eight IRA men who were killed in Loughgall.

Gardai had accurate intelligence that Harry Breen was the main object of the IRA operation – it was clear from evidence the IRA had plenty of opportunities to kill Bob Buchanan beforehand.

Bob Buchanan was killed almost immediately in a hail of rifle fire as he sat in the driving seat. Harry Breen was able to get out of the car and wave his handkerchief in surrender before he too was gunned down. The lead gunman then walked up to Breen's body and fired a single shot through the back of his head.

It was, at least, a quick death compared to what would have lain in store for them had they been delivered to the Tyrone men.

Sunday Independent

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