Smithwick Tribunal: IRA gang ‘sprayed car with bullets’

PACEMAKER BELFAST                   MARCH 1989        PF''SCENE OF SHOOTING OF SENIOR RUC OFFICERS, BOB BUCHANAN SUPERINTENDANT AND HARRY BREEN CHEIF SUPERINTENDANT NEAR JONESBOROUGH ON THE SOUTH ARMAGH BORDER.''297/89/C
PACEMAKER BELFAST MARCH 1989 PF''SCENE OF SHOOTING OF SENIOR RUC OFFICERS, BOB BUCHANAN SUPERINTENDANT AND HARRY BREEN CHEIF SUPERINTENDANT NEAR JONESBOROUGH ON THE SOUTH ARMAGH BORDER.''297/89/C

A MURDERED RUC officer’s car was peppered with up to 29 bullet holes from a gang of IRA men using high velocity weapons, an inquiry has heard.

Yesterday, the Smithwick Tribunal took evidence in what lawyer Justin Dillon termed a “document day”.

The tribunal is examining allegations of collusion between the garda and IRA in the murders of police officers chief supt Harry Breen and supt Bob Buchanan on March 20, 1989 as they returned to Northern Ireland from a meeting at Dundalk garda station.

Retired PSNI detective supt David McConville acted as a witness to help the tribunal with police terminology.

The documents shown to the tribunal contained a wide range of information ranging from eyewitness accounts of the murders to inquest reports, police journals and a letter from the Commonwealth Office.

One of the main documents was an RUC report after the murders.

It recorded the officers as having travelled to Dundalk via the main road, arriving at Dundalk garda station at 2.10pm.

The meeting finished and they left at 3.15pm. They were recorded as using a different route to the way they came, crossing the border at a bridge at Jonesborough on to the Edenappa Road.

At 3.54pm, an individual rang police to say that two people were dead on that road.

At 4.22pm, an ambulance confirmed the men had been shot dead.

The bodies of the two men had to be left at the scene overnight. The area was cordoned off.

Ammunitions technical experts from the army inspected the scene at first light to check for booby-trap bombs on the bodies.

The bodies were taken to Bessbrook Mill by helicopter initially where the men were declared dead by a doctor.

Examination of the scene found that supt Buchanan had tried to reverse at an angle to turn the car and flee – however, he died following heavy gunfire to his side of the car. It was shot on 24 times.

Supt Buchanan was shot in the head and chest while chief supt Breen died after a gunshot to the head at close range. A white handkerchief was found at his side, backing up a statement from a witness that he had walked towards the gunmen waving a white handkerchief.

Both officers had been unarmed, as required by Irish law.

Chief supt Breen’s body showed signs that it had been searched. It is thought his wallet and pager were stolen as he lay dead on the road. Supt Buchanan’s body is not thought to have been searched.

It also recorded that supt Buchanan had been driving his red Cavalier since December 8, 1986 but that he had been awaiting delivery of a new car for a month. He had the option to change the number plates on his Cavalier but did not take this opportunity.

Inquest reports described chief supt Breen as 6ft and of a “fairly heavy build”. He had no health concerns when he died.

Supt Buchanan was 5ft 9in, of “heavy build” and at the time of his death had raised blood pressure.

The police journal of supt Buchanan was examined with reference to the high frequency with which he crossed the border. At the time of his death, he was the border superintendent.

The journal records frequent visits to border stations, in particular Monaghan and Dundalk.

Concerns had been voiced by some witnesses earlier on in the proceedings that supt Buchanan was known to use the Edenappa Road.

However, a military document records “vengeful sightings”, a term which was explained as a trademark name for the recording of vehicles crossing the border.

In this document, Mr Breen is recorded frequently varying his route while crossing to Monaghan and Dundalk so that on some dates when he crossed the border, he is sighted, while at other dates, when it is known he crossed the border, he was not sighted.

For example, on January 10 and January 13, Mr Buchanan was sighted at the Middleton checkpoint, while on January 15 and January 17, he was not seen there, making it likely that he had used back roads on those occasions.

Chief supt Breen’s journal showed far fewer visits across the border to garda stations. On January 18, the chief supt travelled to Monaghan with supt Buchanan and on February 2 he travelled to Dundalk, again with supt Buchanan.

The cream-coloured van used by the IRA gang was stolen from St Mary’s chapel at Mullaghbawn, near Forkhill, according to an RUC report.

It was reported stolen on March 19, the day before the two RUC men were murdered.

The van was later discovered burned out on the border.

An NIO document referred to part of the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions Act 1978 that forbade traffic on the main Dublin road to stop while crossing the border at Killeen.

Mr McConville explained that, from 1978, no vehicle was to stop at any time from the Forkhill Road or it would come under suspicion.

Killeen became an infamous stretch of road where four police officers in the Brinks Mat security van, Lord Justice Gibson and his wife, as well as the Hanna family, all died in bombs.

Another document showed a desire by the then chief constable, Jack Hermon, to have surveillance equipment installed at Killeen.

The hearings continue today.