Irish police colluded in IRA killing of Northern Irish officers

Superintendents were betrayed by Garda counterparts after visit south of border, inquiry concludes

The Irish government has made two separate apologies after an official inquiry concluded that Irish police leaked information to the IRA that led to two of Northern Ireland’s most senior police officers being assassinated.

Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan were ambushed and shot dead just north of the border as they travelled home on 20 March 1989 after visiting a Garda station in Dundalk, County Louth.

They had been discussing ways of tackling highly lucrative IRA smuggling activities with their counterparts in the Irish Republic. Today, Peter Smithwick, a retired Dublin judge, concluded that although he had not uncovered direct evidence of collusion, he was satisfied, following an eight-year investigation, that someone in the Garda station tipped off the IRA about the officers’ movements.

The double murder was regarded as a coup by the IRA since Mr Breen had been associated with an earlier ambush in which eight members of a feared IRA unit had been shot by the SAS. He had posed for photographs beside weapons recovered from the dead IRA members.

The ambush of the police officers caused particular shock at the time because of the seniority of the victims, and the revelation that they had often journeyed south, unarmed and in their own cars, through the IRA stronghold of south Armagh.

Several previous inquiries into their deaths had produced no direct evidence of collusion, but the Smithwick report took a stronger line.

The judge said that while there was “no smoking gun”, he was satisfied “that the evidence points to the fact there was someone within the Garda station assisting the IRA.”

He added: “It also seems to me to be likely that the Provisional IRA would seek to exploit that resource by having that individual or individuals confirm the arrival of the two officers.”

Superintendent Buchanan’s son, William, said a “mole” theory had been in the background as soon as they were killed, but had been very quickly discounted by police on both sides of the border.

Judge Smithwick said in his 500-page report: “It is particularly regrettable that both police services acted swiftly to dismiss speculation of the possibility of collusion rather than to deal with that by means of a thorough and credible investigation.

“This was an example of the prioritisation of political expediency in the short term, without due regard to the rights of victims and the importance of placing justice at the centre of any policing system.”

Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore said members of the police force, whom he described as the “guardians of peace”, would be shocked by the findings, which he said they would see as “a betrayal of their values and their ethos”.

The report’s findings will come as a major embarrassment to the Irish government, which has often registered complaints about the activities of the army and security services in Northern Ireland, for example in the Bloody Sunday deaths and the killing of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.

The Irish authorities have been fiercely proud and protective of the image of their police force and the Irish army, but in this instance have accepted that the IRA had help from within the police service.