Sunday Business Post

IRA could unravel RUC deaths riddle

15/08/04 00:00
By Barry O'Kelly

In IRA circles, the killings of RUC men Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in 1989 represented a coup for the most active and ruthless unit of all, the South Armagh Brigade.

Breen, a chief superintendent, had overall policing responsibility for South Armagh, the so-called Bandit Country, heartbeat of republicanism, and a virtual no-go area during the Troubles.

Breen was the highest ranking member of the RUC to be killed by the IRA, and the kudos - in IRA circles - attached to his death 15 years ago has grown subsequently, with recent revelations that he was deeply involved in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.

So it is with a queasy trepidation that the IRA leadership is preparing to take the unprecedented step of assisting an official inquiry into his assassination and that of his driver, Superintendent Buchanan.

The inquiry is to examine claims of garda collusion in the ambush near the border town of Jonesboro in March 1989.

The Sunday Business Post has learned that the IRA is now privately urging a number of volunteers from the original South Armagh Second Battalion to provide limited co-operation with the government probe announced earlier this year into the deaths of the RUC officers.

Republican sources disclosed that senior IRA figures made the approaches to members of the original unit, republicans living close to the Armagh-Louth border, over the past five weeks.

At least one volunteer agreed to give the request serious consideration. Others were non-committal about the idea of supporting a tribunal into an operation that was once acclaimed within the republican movement.

A source close to the volunteers said: ``There was an informal approach, sounding us out about it, and then a request was made to attend a meeting.

``They were saying things [at the meeting] like `we could be friends again' - the implication being that a `no' would not go down well.''

The republican movement's influence over those involved is limited.

The source added: ``What's in it for anyone who does co-operate?

"Who wants to put their head on the line? This is going to be a huge bone of contention.''

It was stressed to the volunteers that co-operation of only a limited nature would be given. There is no suggestion that they would be exposed to prosecution.

The sources said that no firm decision had been made to cooperate with the inquiry. ``They [senior figures in the republican movement] wanted to have the co-operation available,'' a source added.

The assistance of IRA members in any such inquiry would be as significant as any act of decommissioning, republicans said.

Most volunteers in the Second Battalion, which covered the border hinterland straddling Jonesboro, Meigh and Forkhill, left the IRA after the 1997 ceasefire.

The battalion was headed by leading dissident republican Liam Campbell (39).He is currently serving five years in Portlaoise Prison.

Campbell and others close to him have not been approached about the inquiry.

The inquiry will focus on the alleged collusion by two former Dundalk-based gardai in the deaths of Breen and Buchanan, who were returning from a meeting with gardai when the ambush happened. Ironically, Breen was at the centre of the allegations of collusion by RUC officers and loyalist paramilitaries in the 1970s.

He was recently named by former RUC sergeant John Weir as being a central figure in a group of officers who assisted a UVF unit that carried out the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

Weir said the chief superintendent was fully aware of his activities with sectarian killers such as the late Robin Jackson, alias The Jackal, one of the most notorious loyalist killers of the 1970s.

Republican sources suggested last week that at least one of the officers named in the House of Commons may have been wrongly implicated.

The government agreed last February to establish a tribunal of inquiry after receiving a report into the collusion claims by the retired Canadian judge Peter Cory.

Outlining the plans for an inquiry, the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, noted: ``The success or failure of the inquiry which will be held into these horrific murders will, in substantial part, depend on the degree of co-operation which will be forthcoming from potential witnesses.

``The material available to Judge Cory was limited; the perpetrators of the Breen and Buchanan murders will now face a simple choice.

"Do they expect others to co-operate fully with all of the Cory inquiries?

"If so, do they intend co-operating in like manner with the Breen and Buchanan inquiry? That is the issue for the so-called republican movement to answer clearly.''

In his report, Cory relied heavily on the word of the controversial informant `Kevin Fulton', who claims to have met the garda in the company of IRA men.

Cory also considered claims about garda collusion in the killings made by Toby Harnden, author of the acclaimed book Bandit Country, and by columnist Kevin Myers.

However, the eminent judge concluded: ``The investigations into the book Bandit Country and the article [by Myers] `An Irishman's Diary' indicate that the authors' allegations that there was a Garda mole, or that a Garda member facilitated the murder of Officers Breen and Buchanan, appear to be based upon hypothesis, speculation and a source or sources of information that the authors refused to disclose.

``Statements and allegations were put forward as matters of fact, when in reality they were founded upon speculation and hypothesis.

"It would have been preferable if the book and the article had made this clear. Fairness to the victims' families demanded no less.''

Breen and Buchanan were ambushed and shot dead by the IRA as they returned to the North from a meeting in Dundalk in March 1989.

Cory's report suggested that the IRA originally intended to interrogate Breen and Buchanan to find out who betrayed eight volunteers gunned down two years earlier by the SAS in Loughall, Co Armagh.

A garda intelligence report from the period, quoted by Cory, states that more than 20 IRA men were involved in an operation planned with extraordinary military precision.

Cory said: ``On the day of the shooting the IRA had men in position on the main Dublin-Belfast Road, the main Omeath-Newry Road and the Carrickmacross Road, in addition to the road on which the ambush occurred.

``The largest concentration was on the Carrickastrickan Road - that is to say the main Dundalk-Forkhill Road."

The judge continued: ``The [garda] report indicated that about four minutes before Buchanan's car arrived at the site of the ambush, two men with rifles halted three cars on the Jonesboro side of the hill where the shooting occurred.

``The officers' car was followed by a white or cream-coloured Liteace van.

``The van passed the Buchanan car and pulled in front of it. The car stopped, and four masked men with guns jumped out from the back door of the van.

``The officers tried to reverse their car, but were shot by the four gunmen. The van then drove off in the direction of Jonesboro, taking the six gunmen with them.

``The two men who halted cars on the road did not wear masks [and were wearing official British Army combat gear, according to republicans], and had no transport with them.''

The Department of Justice has said that ``the specific terms of reference of the tribunal will be drafted in due course by Minister McDowell, in consultation with the Attorney General, and will be the subject of a separate government decision and approval by the Oireachtas''.

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