IRA unit ‘responsible for up to 80 murders’

A MAN who Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy once described as a good friend has been named as the leader of a south Armagh IRA ambush in which the two most senior RUC officers to be murdered during the Troubles were killed.

Sean Gerard Hughes was named by a former RUC Special Branch detective inspector as being in charge of the North Louth/Drumintee unit of south Armagh IRA that murdered Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan on March 20, 1989.

The RUC witness asked for his identity to be protected as he gave evidence to the Smithwick Tribunal yesterday – he was referred to as witness 62 and gave his evidence from behind a blue screen.

The Dublin-based probe is examining allegations that members of the garda colluded with the IRA in the murders of the two RUC men.

Witness 62 said the IRA in south Armagh operated in three main units, one in the North Louth/Drumintee, one in Crossmaglen and an offshoot based in Silverbridge.

He said for big operations all three would come together.

The tribunal had previously heard that up to 25 IRA men were involved in the murder of Chief Supt Breen and Supt Buchanan.

Witness 62 said from his knowledge of the North Louth/Drumintee group, they had only 15 experienced terrorists with blood on their hands. He said he believed it was likely that some of the Crossmaglen group would have joined in to boost the numbers.

The witness said some of the men would have been armed with two guns, a pistol and a rifle but all would have been armed except perhaps the driver because they would have feared coming across an army unit.

He named Sean Gerard Hughes as being in charge of the North Louth/Drumintee group.

Witness 62 claimed the same group were responsible for up to 80 murders in that area, including the roadside bombs which killed Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and the Hanna family

The witness said he was “certain” the IRA group had carried out the murders of four RUC officers at Killeen on the main road between Newry and Dundalk, and another four RUC officers at Forkhill just inside Northern Ireland.

“At one time I could have named almost 80 deaths,” he told the tribunal.

Witness 62 said police classified IRA volunteers into three groups: A, B and C. He said members of the C group would have thought they were fully fledged activists but would only have played minor roles such as serving as a driver or lookout.

He said the most senior volunteers would have been in group A, which he alleged was headed up by Sean Gerard Hughes. He said Mr Hughes was later appointed to the army council of the Provisional IRA.

Senior counsel for the tribunal Mary Laverty asked witness 62 where was Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy in relation to the organisation. Witness 62 said Mr Murphy was different. He said Mr Murphy was more of a “patriarch” and also claimed he was on the IRA army council.

“He was very much in charge of the whole show,” Witness 62 said

In 1989. witness 62 was a detective inspector based at Gough Barracks in Armagh. He was involved in surveillance work.

He said the murder of the Hanna family in July 1988 caused deep division among the south Armagh IRA.

Robert Hanna, along with his wife Maureen and seven-year-old son David, died when their car was blown up by a roadside bomb at Killeen.

It is thought they were mistaken for Judge Eoin Higgins.

Witness 62 said another theory at the time was that the IRA mistook the Hanna car for an RUC Land Rover. He said that the IRA were deeply divided over the bombing – some put it down to losses in war while others were outraged and there were physical fights in south Armagh bars over the matter.

Mr Hughes has never been convicted of IRA membership or any terrorist related offences. His wife Annette signed Conor Murphy’s nomination papers in 2005.

Hearings at the Smithwick Tribunal will continue tomorrow.