IRA 'could not have mounted opportunistic attack' on RUC

Fri, Feb 10, 2012, 00:00

SMITHWICK TRIBUNAL:BRITISH MILITARY intelligence determined the IRA could not have simply seized a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to follow and kill two senior RUC officers as they left Dundalk Garda station, the Smithwick Tribunal has been told.

Retired brigadier Ian Liles who spent 36 years in the British army – 14 of them in senior intelligence positions in Northern Ireland – said about 70 IRA members or sympathisers were involved in the murders of Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan.

The officers were shot in an ambush in south Armagh and the tribunal, which is examining suggestions of collusion between the IRA and members of the Garda in Dundalk, has been told the gunmen may have just been fortunate in spotting the RUC officers.

But yesterday Mr Liles said British army monitoring of IRA radio use in the area had detected a “heightened” and “unusual” level of radio signals from about 11.30am. Mr Liles said the signals indicated the IRA “was on the move” from about 10am. This was before Chief Supt Breen left Armagh to meet Supt Buchanan in Newry, and before both men crossed the Border just before 2pm. They were the most senior RUC officers to die in the Troubles.

Mr Liles said there was discussion in security circles that notice of the operation would have been given to the IRA.

He said security among the IRA in south Armagh was “water tight” and from early in the day “dickers” or watchers would have been monitoring local roads – very likely unknown to one another. He said he believed three possible routes the RUC officers might take on their way back from Dundalk had been “covered” by IRA squads.

The dickers would have been monitoring the roads from early in the day to ensure they were “clean” of RUC or British army personnel. He said the IRA would have never gone into an area without doing so. In addition to the watchers and the assassins, there would have been those who supplied the guns from secure locations.

He said the IRA looked after their guns, keeping them in secure, environmentally protected conditions. “Beaters” would check the hedges in the area for British army undercover personnel before arms were retrieved, he said.

Mr Liles said RUC Chief Supt Frank Murray, who was one of the first to note and express concern about the IRA activity, did not trust the gardaí in Dundalk. He said Mr Murray believed gardaí there leaked information to the IRA. Three former Garda sergeants based in Dundalk at the time are legally represented at the tribunal. They are Owen Corrigan, Finbarr Hickey and Leo Colton. All three deny any involvement in passing information to the IRA about the RUC officers’ visit.

On cross-examination by Michael Durack SC for the Garda, Mr Liles said he did not think the British army had not known in advance of the RUC visit to Dundalk and, while it became aware of unusual IRA radio traffic, it was not conversations, but code. Computer analysis was not available in “real time” at that stage, he said.

The evidence which was heard in private at an earlier date for security was read into the record by tribunal barrister Dara Hayes.