Saturday 20 July 2019

How the two RUC men were gunned down in cold blood

The scene of the attack in Jonesboro
The scene of the attack in Jonesboro
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

At 10.15am on the morning of Monday, March 20, 1989, Superintendent Bob Buchanan of the RUC rang Dundalk garda station and arranged a meeting for later in the day with a senior garda officer.

Superintendent Buchanan had been a member of the RUC for almost 33 years and was the superintendent for the Border area within 'H' Division, responsible for cross-border security. A key function of his post was liaison with members of An Garda Siochana.

Later that morning, he picked up another veteran RUC officer, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, who had almost 32 years' service with the RUC and was divisional commander of 'H' Division which covered an area taking in Co Armagh and a large part of south Down.

It was dangerous territory, much of it known as 'bandit country' that was controlled by the Provisional IRA.

On April 27, 1987, Sir Maurice Gibson, a Lord Justice of Appeal in the North, and his wife, Lady Cecily Gibson were killed in a bomb attack at Killeen, just north of the Border on the main Dublin to Belfast road.

There was immediate speculation in the media that there had been a security leak within An Garda Siochana in relation to the Gibsons' travel arrangements.

Around the same time, a Monaghan Detective Superintendent, Tom Curran, received intelligence that the IRA planned to murder some RUC officers travelling to and from meetings with gardai.

For 12 months preceding his death Bob Buchanan frequently travelled south to meet with various gardai in his personal red Vaxhaull Cavalier. Harry Breen had only attended one meeting south of the Border.

On the morning of Thursday, March 16, 1989, there was a meeting of senior RUC officers with the Chief Constable, Sir John Hermon, in Belfast. After the meeting the Chief Constable spoke to a senior RUC offer about looking into certain smuggling activities in the south Armagh area.

As a result of this conversation, Chief Superintendent Breen was instructed to gather all operational information in relation to the individual concerned, a man who was later identified to the Smithwick Tribunal as Thomas 'Slab' Murphy.

Chief Superintendent John Nolan of Dundalk garda station told the station orderly that he was expecting two visitors that day and that they were to be brought up to his office by the side stairs.

About 10 minutes after the two RUC officers arrived at Dundalk garda station, at approximately 2.30pm, a white van travelling from Dundalk arrived at a vacant house on the Edenappa Road in Jonesboro, several hundred yards across the Border into south Armagh.

Five men got out of the van and went into Jordan's house. The van then left, returning in the direction of Dundalk.

It later transpired that the arrival of the men was reported to the RUC and the information relayed to the gardai.

Chief Superintendent John Nolan would later say that towards the end of his meeting with the two senior RUC men, Bob Buchanan left to speak briefly with Superintendent Tierney. He was absent for about five minutes and, on his return, both RUC officers departed the station together.

The Chief Superintendent believed the two officers had been in his office for about 55 minutes and left at approximately 3.15pm. There was no discussion as to the route they would take back to the North.

At approximately 3.30pm, the white van returned and picked up the five men from the vacant house and then parked on the right-hand side of the road in the direction of the Border.

Finbarr King and Packie O'Hanlon, who worked in McGeough's livestock business at the time, were driving back to collect a broken-down truck when their car was stopped by a man in combat gear who told them to lie down on the grass verge.

Lying by the side of the road, Finbarr King saw a car coming up from south towards the roadblock. Approximately 50 or 60 feet from the roadblock, the car was overtaken and cut off by a van. Mr King's recollection was the van was a dark colour and "definitely not white".

The van cut in front of the car and the driver's and passenger's doors opened and two people got out. The side door of the van slid back and "at least another three got out of the back of the van".

They were armed with a Ruger mini rifle and Armalites.

As Bob Buchanan desperately reversed his Cavalier back the way it came it was hit with a hail of bullets, at least 29 of them, and crashed heavily into the hedge at the side of the road.

Buchannan is believed to have died instantly. Although he had been hit several times, Harry Breen got out of the car and waved a white handkerchief.

A gunman ran down to him and there was a loud burst of shots, a pause and then two single shots. It is believed that the final shot to the head killed him and he was found later lying on the road.


Two of the gunmen searched the car and took a briefcase or folder. They also took what appeared to be two small notebooks. All of the gunmen then got into the van and the driver, who hadn't left the van, drove north turning left towards the Kilnasaggart Bridge and over the Border back into the south. After the shooting the men "all got into the van" and as they left they area "they let out a big roar like 'hurray' or whatever, and that was it" according to one of the witnesses.

An RUC log indicates that at 15.58, the UDR Regiment received a report of "a red car at Edenappa Road, believes that bodies in car"

A snow shower descended in south Armagh in the early evening of March 20, 1989, making it impossible to retrieve and remove the bodies of Bob Buchanan and Harry Breen.

It was the following afternoon before the scene was finally cleared and thoroughly checked for 'booby trap' devices.

It took another quarter of a century before the full story of the events were finally unravelled with the publication of the Smithwick Report yesterday.

Irish Independent

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