Had the Garda known a Real IRA gang was about to carry out an armed robbery it would have prevented it and one of the raiders would not have been shot dead, a retired senior Garda officer has said.
Former assistant commissioner Dermot Jennings was giving evidence at the first day of public hearings of the Commission of Investigation into the fatal shooting by gardaí of Ronan MacLochlainn on May 1st, 1998.
Mr Jennings told the hearing that at the time of the fatal shooting the Garda was concerned about the emerging Real IRA which had just split from the Provisional IRA the previous year because it objected to the peace process.
However, he said that on the day the six-man Real IRA gang tried to rob a Securicor van on the main Dublin-Wexford road near Ashford, Co Wicklow, members of the Garda were following convicted Provisional IRA members Paschal Burke rather than the other men he was with.
“The aerials would go up,” he said of the Garda’s heightened focus in any surveillance operation where Burke was spotted.
Mr Jennings added it was clear Burke had defected at the time from the Provisional IRA to the Real IRA and because of that a van linked to him was being monitored.
However, there was no specific information on any crimes Burke or the others with him were planning.
“To me it was to move explosives towards Northern Ireland for car bombs; that’s what they were doing,” he said of the concerns around the Real IRA at the time.
Mr Jennings said gardaí were also fearful the group was training members at the time but insisted the force had no knowledge of a dry run robbery staged by the gang the week before the raid near Ashford.
“We would have prevented it if we knew what they were going to do,” he said of the Securicor van raid.
"We might not be in the situation we are in today and Mr Mac Lochlainn would not have lost his life."
Mac Lochlainn (28), from Ballymun, Dublin, was part of the gang of six men who mounted an attempted armed robbery on a Securicor van at Cullenmore bends in Ashford, Co Wicklow, during the “blue flu” Garda protest over pay and conditions.
He was in possession of a revolver and when gardaí moved in he tried to hijack a car carrying an elderly couple who happened upon the scene on the Friday evening at the beginning of the May bank holiday weekend.
No shots were fired by the robbers, while 12 were fired by three gardaí.
Mac Lochlainn, who died of a single bullet to his chest, was a member of the Real IRA. The 32 County Sovereignty Movement commemorates his death every year.
The opening session of the commission of Investigation also heard the Garda failed to supply key evidence to the dead man's family despite repeated requests and a High Court order to do so.
The dead man’s partner, Gráinne Nic Gib, was still to receive confirmation that all of the relevant evidence had been disclosed by the State. This was despite a hearing being ordered more than a year ago.
“This remains a concern to her,” said Hugh Hartnett SC for Ms Nic Gib.
He added the State had delayed for more than 16 years before it acted in July 2014 to establish the commission, which was now beginning in Dublin before Mary Rose Gearty SC.
Mr Hartnett also told the commission it would never have been established had Ms Nic Gib not persisted and taken her case to Europe. She had alleged the investigation into the death of her partner had not satisfied the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.
When the court found against the Government, it established the commission. Since its inception 14 months ago, it has carried out investigations and is now commencing public hearings of evidence from witnesses.
Mr Hartnett said the dead man’s partner wanted to establish the truth around the planning of the Garda operation on the day and the possibility to intervene sooner to prevent loss of life.
Ms Nic Gib was also concerned about the issuing of an official Garda statement on the day that stated the armed gang had been fired at only after they shot at the gardaí on the scene, despite no shots being fired by the gang.
Michael Durack SC, for current and past members of the Garda, said the attempted robbery and the actions of Garda members on the day had to be viewed in the context of the emerging terrorist campaign by the Real IRA at the time.
He said it emerged from the Provisional IRA after the former quartermaster general of the organisation Michael McKevitt and his supports disagreed with the peace process and splintered from the Provisional IRA at a convention in Donegal in October 1997.
Mr Durack told the commission the Garda had no prior knowledge that any robbery was about to take place on the day Mac Lochlainn was shot dead.
He said gardaí were following the gang, which had procured three vehicles for the robbery, only because one of their number, Burke, was under surveillance at the time.
Because of the monitoring of Burke, the National Surveillance Unit was following the gang and along with the Emergency Response Unit appeared on the roadway almost immediately when the robbery began.
Mr Durack said the men who carried out the botched robbery were not known to gardaí as a group and that some of them had no convictions and were not known in any way to the force before that day.
He added the Real IRA gang was armed with a pump action shotgun which had 18 cartridges, a Smith and Wesson revolver with six live rounds, an AK assault rifle with 28 live rounds and replica rocket launcher.
The gang members also hand a nail bar, lump hammer, concrete saw, chisel, a quantity of petrol and a modified fire extinguisher capable of throwing petrol about 20 feet when lit.
He added the main road to Wexford where gardaí moved in on the attempted robbery as it was underway would have been “bumper to bumper” with bank holiday commuters at the time.
Against that backdrop, with so many people in the area and so many weapons produced, the gardaí had no option but to intervene “and try to be as careful as possible”.
He pointed out despite the large volume of members of the public, none were shot or injured and that the other five men, including Paschal Burke, involved in the would-be armed robbery were arrested at the scene, charged and later jailed for between seven and eight years.
The hearing continues.