Belfast Telegraph

March 1989: How events unfolded in the days and hours before two top RUC police officers were ambushed on a quiet country road

By Rebecca Black

March 6

Secretary of State Tom King and Chief Constable Jack Hermon are among those at a meeting at Stormont Castle which decides to wage a massive anti-smuggling operation in south Armagh.

March 16

Jack Hermon speaks to one of his Assistant Chief Constables privately after a meeting, telling him that he wants information gathered ahead of an operation against smuggling in south Armagh. The ACC – described in the Smithwick Tribunal as Witness 18 – said he recalled that Mr Hermon said the men involved were not to cross the border. Witness 18 then travels to Armagh to meet Chief Supt Breen to issue the Chief Constable's instructions about gathering information but not crossing the border to obtain it.

March 20

9.20am: Supt Bob Buchanan rings Dundalk garda station to organise a meeting. Neither Supt Tierney or Chief Supt Nolan is available, so he leaves a message.

10am Supt Tierney returns calls to Armagh RUC but Supt Buchanan is not available.

10.03am Supt Buchanan speaks to Supt Tierney and tells him that Chief Supt Breen wants a meeting with Chief Supt Nolan in Dundalk. Supt Tierney tells him to ring Nolan directly to organise the meeting.

10.15am Supt Buchanan calls Chief Supt Nolan and arranges to hold discussions about suspected border smuggling activities in the Dundalk station at 2pm. Chief Supt Breen also arranges a meeting with Customs & Excise for the following morning with the intention of filing a report with RUC HQ by lunchtime on March 21.

11am Garda Chief Supt Nolan advises his border inspector Frank Murray of the proposed meeting. The Chief Supt does not mention the meeting to any other member of the Dundalk station.

1.40pm Garda Inspector Murray informs Supt Tierney of the proposed meeting as they are returning to Dundalk after a mobile patrol in the border area.

Before leaving Armagh station, Chief Supt Breen voices misgivings about attending the meeting to his staff officer, Sergeant Alan Mains. He says he is uneasy about going to Dundalk because he believes one of the officers stationed there is in contact with a suspected smuggler and IRA member and would pass information to him.

1.40pm Chief Supt Breen arrives at Newry RUC station to meet Supt Buchanan.

1.50pm Officers leave Newry and drive to Dundalk in Supt Buchanan's car.

Around 2.20pm Chief Supt Breen and Supt Buchanan arrive at Dundalk garda station. Their car is parked in front of the station. At the meeting the RUC officers inform Chief Supt Nolan of the smuggling activities.

3.15pm Meeting finishes. Chief Supt Breen and Supt Buchanan do not discuss the route they are taking back across border. However, it is known that Supt Buchanan often uses the Edenappa Road in order to avoid setting a pattern of constantly using the main road.

3.35pm RUC officers leave Dundalk garda station.

Shortly before the shooting, two men dressed in battle fatigues and with camouflage paint on their faces are seen near the ambush scene. Both men are armed. One is stationed in the ditch at the side of the road while the other controls traffic. A few minutes before the RUC car appeared, three southbound vehicles were stopped. Their drivers were forced to park at the side of the road, get out of their cars and lie on the roadside with their hands over their heads. When the last southbound vehicle was in position, there was room for only one vehicle to proceed slowly past them along the road.

The position of the ambush was such that it could not been seen from Romeo Two One watchtower on Jonesborough mountain.

3.45pm Supt Buchanan's red Vauxhall Cavalier appears, driving north. It is flagged down, and the RUC officers may have assumed it was an Army checkpoint.

As the vehicle slows, a cream-coloured van which had been following overtakes and pulls into a laneway opposite the RUC car. Four armed men in camouflage gear and balaclavas get out of the van and approach the car. They start firing on it immediately. The RUC officers are both unarmed as required by Irish law. Their car attempts to back up to escape. It appears to stall and there is a second attempt to drive away, but the car stalls once more. Some sources say the car hits a wall. Both occupants of the car are hit several times. Wounded, Chief Supt Breen gets out of the car and walks towards the gunmen waving a white handkerchief. One of the gunmen steps forward and shoots him in the head.

March 22

The IRA admits the murders and says in a statement the policemen "acted suspiciously and attempted to drive off". They claim the IRA men feared for their own lives and took what they called "preventative action".

Later

The south Armagh anti-smuggling operation goes ahead but is nowhere near the size nor as effective as originally envisaged.

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