IRA killers 'cheered after ambush'

The IRA killers of two top-ranking RUC officers cheered as they fled the murder scene, an eye-witness has claimed.

Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan were ambushed and murdered in Co Armagh in March 1989 as they returned by car from a meeting over the border in the Irish Republic.

In the second day of witness testimony at the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin, two witnesses said the killers ambushed the men in a van.

Finbarr King, who worked as a scrap yard worker at the time, said the gunmen opened fire on the officers’ car.

“They all got into the van, as they were exiting the area they let out a big roar, like hurrah,” he said.

Mr Breen and Mr Buchanan were two of the highest-ranking RUC officers killed in the Troubles.

They had travelled to Dundalk Garda Station in Co Louth to discuss a possible joint RUC/Garda police operation against smuggling and were returning to Northern Ireland when they were ambushed just north of the border on the Edenappa Road.

The tribunal, established in 2005, is investigating allegations that Garda officers in the Republic or a civilian working in the force colluded with the IRA in the murders.

Another witness, teacher Maurita Halpin, said Mr Breen tried to surrender after their car was trapped but was shot anyway.

“They must have realised they wouldn’t make it and the passenger got out and came round in front of the car and put his hands up and they shot him. He fell on to the road.”

She added: “They shot him. And then the other man, I think the driver, not sure whether he opened the door, or whether they (killers) went down and opened the door, but they shot him behind the wheel.”

Mr King told the tribunal he was travelling with a colleague on the Edenappa Road when they were stopped by a man wearing combat gear.

They were ordered out of their van and told to lie face down on the ground.

He said two other cars were also stopped.

Mr King described how the car carrying Mr Breen and Mr Buchanan was overtaken by a van which cut the vehicle off.

Up to six people got out of the vehicle and “the whole lot of them opened fire on them”, he said.

The scrapyard worker said one of the RUC officers was left lying out of the car.

Ms Halpin, who was in one of the other vehicles stopped in the IRA roadblock prior to the killing, said recounting what she witnessed to Garda special branch was “the worst part”.

She said she feared being questioned by the “British establishment” as she worked in the south Armagh area and some of the children she taught were from Republican families.

Earlier, a former RUC assistant chief constable, who served as the supervising officer to the head of Special Branch, said he was not aware of any intelligence of a IRA/Garda mole in Dundalk.

David Cushley also refuted claims from another ex-RUC assistant chief constable, who gave evidence yesterday from behind a blue screen, that Mr Buchanan and Mr Breen disobeyed an order by crossing the border.

The senior officer, known as witness 18, told the tribunal yesterday the men had promised at a meeting in Armagh on March 16 not to travel into the Irish Republic – four days before their death.

But Mr Cushley said he was not aware of any order, claiming the men would have had to meet their Garda counterparts.

“Mr Breen and Mr Buchanan were very senior, experienced and truthful officers,” he said.

“I would have been amazed that they would disregard a verbal order from their regional commander.

“I would be astounded.”

Mr Cushley was also asked if he knew the British agent Stakeknife, the spy who infiltrated the highest ranks of the IRA.

But he claimed the media knew more about him than he did.

“He was just a name and an agent,” Mr Cushley said.

Earlier an RUC officer whose role was to collate information said he was present at the March 16 meeting in Armagh but stressed Mr Breen was not.

And he also cast doubt that an order was given directing the men not to cross into the Republic of Ireland.

“Certainly Mr Buchanan was at the meeting, he was a Christian gentleman, if he had been told not to go, he wouldn’t have went,” he said.

The tribunal continues on Tuesday.

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