Real IRA members seen meeting leaders before botched raid

Incident took place around time Provisional IRA splitting over peace process

A colour party forms a guard of honour as the coffin bearing the remains of dissident IRA man Ronan MacLochlainn leaves Massey Brothers Funeral Home in Finglas Village. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

A colour party forms a guard of honour as the coffin bearing the remains of dissident IRA man Ronan MacLochlainn leaves Massey Brothers Funeral Home in Finglas Village. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Members of a Real IRA gang who carried out a botched robbery in 1998 during which one of the group was shot dead by the Garda were seen meeting the leadership of the dissident organisation in the days leading up to the fatality.

Retired assistant commissioner Dermot Jennings told the Commission of Investigation into the shooting dead by gardaí of Ronan MacLochlainn on May 1st, 1998, that the dead man was seen with known terrorists during a surveillance operation in the week to 10 day period before his death.

He was spotted with convicted Provisional IRA member Paschal Burke using a van at a car park beside Heuston train station in Dublin city in April 1998.

Mr Jennings, who was a chief superintendent in crime and security at the time, said Burke had defected from the Provisional IRA to the Real IRA and that the surveillance operation was aimed at him rather than Mr MacLochlainn.

He told the commission Burke was also seen in the same location during the same period meeting the leadership of the Real IRA which had splintered from the Provisional IRA the previous autumn.

“It was a leadership meeting without a doubt,” he said.

“These were the people who were running the organisation. Some of them were already the subject of charges. The top man was there and his number two.”

On one occasion during the surveillance operation, MacLochlainn was seen walking across the bridge on the River Liffey from the car park at Heuston station and going into the nearby Aisling Hotel as Burke went to a bar on Thomas St in the south inner city.

After going into the hotel MacLochlainn then returned to the van in the car park across the river in a vehicle with a number of other men.

He took a sports bag out of the locked van and placed it into the car carrying the other men who then drove away.

Mr Jennings said that at the time the Garda force was working hard to establish who was leaving the Provisional IRA for the newly formed Real IRA, whose aim was to “wreck” the peace process the provisionals were committing to.

The PIRA was in “disarray” and was unsure who was going to leave and join the new dissident group. And while the Garda was also unsure generally about the identity of defectors, they were sure Burke was one of them and so placed surveillance on him.

From watching him, the Garda was hopeful of building up “a picture piece by piece about who was meeting who”. And in the absence of direct and specific intelligence, physical surveillance was an effective way of gathering information, especially about such a new organisation.

The commission also heard it was not unusual that the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) would travel with the National Surveillance Unit (NSU) when its targets were moving around in vehicles.

Mr Jennings said it was his understanding that when some of the men gathered a Heuston station on May 1st had moved off around lunchtime, the NSU members watching them decided to follow and requested the ERU accompany them in the event they may be needed.

“That would have been the catalyst; ‘look, you need to be getting on the road with us’,” Mr Jennings explained of the nature of the request that would have been made by the NSU to the ERU.

He said the ERU providing armed back up to the NSU “would have been a regular feature” on operations.

The former senior officer added the Garda had no intelligence suggesting the men were on their way to Wicklow to carry out an armed robbery on a Securicor van.

“The policy would have been to prevent it,” he explained of what the Garda team would have done had it had specific intelligence.

When the men followed the Securicor van in Wicklow and attacked it in traffic at Cullenmore bends near Ashford, the NSU was behind and the ERU not far way.

When some of the men, including MacLochlainn, tried to hijack passing vehicles from unsuspecting motorists at gunpoint, 12 shots were fired by the Garda members on the scene and MacLochlainn was fatally wounded in the chest.

The other men were arrested at the scene, later charged and jailed for seven-year and eight-year terms.

The dead man’s partner Grainne Nic Gib is questioning the level of information about the robbery plans available to gardaí in advance and why the gang were not intercepted before the robbery began in order that lives would not have been put at risk.

At the first public hearings of the commission on Tuesday, Hugh Hartnett SC for Ms Nic Gib said the State had delayed for more than 16 years before it acted in July 2014 to establish the commission, which has now begun 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.

Mr Hartnett said the dead man’s partner wanted to establish the truth around the planning of the Garda operation on the day.

Ms Nic Gib was concerned about the issuing of an official Garda statement within hours of her partner being shot dead 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 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 very busy 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”.