Photograph with Loughgall terror arsenal may have sealed officer’s fate

Chief Superintendent Harry Breen shows the guns the eight IRA men were carrying when they were shot dead by the SAS at Loughgall
Chief Superintendent Harry Breen shows the guns the eight IRA men were carrying when they were shot dead by the SAS at Loughgall

A photograph of Superintendent Harry Breen appeared on the front page of the News Letter the morning after the SAS operation at Loughgall in May 1987.

The biggest loss of life suffered by the IRA in a single incident since the 1920s – eight members as they launched a bomb and gun attack on Loughgall RUC station in Co Armagh – had thrust the RUC’s deputy divisional commander for the Armagh area into the media spotlight.

The photograph accompanied an image of the police cordon on the outskirts of the sleepy village under the headline: ‘Wipe-out...Provo death squad blasted.’

The May 9, 1987 article quotes the senior officer as saying: “The men were masked and armed and were clearly terrorists.”

A police spokesman at the scene is reported to have told journalists he could see no reason why the deaths should spark renewed controversy over the claimed ‘shoot to kill’ policy alleged to have been in operation during the early 1980s.

“These were terrorists clearly involved in an attempt to bomb a police station – I cannot see why those allegations would be made,” he said.

Within days, pictures of Superintendent Breen posing with the arsenal of weapons recovered at the scene were circulated to the media.

Almost two years after the IRA’s setback at Loughgall, and by now promoted to chief superintendent, Harry Breen was shot dead along with Superintendent Bob Buchanan as the pair crossed the border back into Northern Ireland after meeting their Garda counterparts in Dundalk.

The Smithwick Tribunal concluded that police officers in the Irish Republic had colluded in the murders of the two RUC officers near Jonesborough in March 1989.

Delivering his findings in December 2013, Mr Justice Smithwick said there was much evidence that C/Supt Breen was “the specific target of this operation”.

He said the two RUC officers had arrived at the police station in Dundalk no earlier than 2.20pm, and that within 10 minutes the IRA had placed gunmen on the road at the ambush site.

“This was as a direct result of confirmation having been received that the officers had arrived at Dundalk,” he said.

The judge added: “Either the IRA did have an extraordinary piece of good fortune, or Harry Breen was the target of this operation. I believe that the evidence points to the latter conclusion.

“I also think that this makes it significantly more likely that the Provisional IRA knew that Chief Superintendent Breen was coming, and were not simply waiting on the off-chance that he might turn up.”

The judge also said he believed Harry Breen was the IRA’s main target – due to his links with the SAS operation at Loughgall and in particular having been photographed with the weapons recovered by the bodies of the dead IRA men.

“There was, in the wake of the murder, triumphalism in relation to the fact that the Provisional IRA had killed the officer who had appeared in that photograph ‘etched in every republican’s mind’,” he said in his 2013 report.

Former RUC officer Alan Mains was a staff officer to Chief Superintendent Breen at the time of the double murder.

Speaking following publication of the Smithwick report, Mr Mains said his former boss had passed on concerns that he had “difficulties” with certain members of the Garda in Dundalk in terms of their trustworthiness.

Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Loughgall operation, Mr Mains said be believed the link between the deaths of the eight IRA men and Mr Breen’s murder has been overstated by Judge Smithwick and others over the years.

“On that day it just happened to be two high-ranking RUC officers discovered travelling through south Armagh, but anyone connected with the security forces, of any rank, identified crossing the border would have been murdered in similar fashion,” he told the News Letter.