An inquiry dreaded by all in Ulster's dirty war
The Smithwick Tribunal into the murders of two senior RUC officers opens today. Even 22 years on, its findings could still send shockwaves through Dublin and London, writes Alan Murray
On the morning of March 20, 1989, Harry Breen was consumed with foreboding. His hurriedly-planned journey to Dundalk Garda station with a colleague would be followed the next day with a top-level meeting with Customs and Excise officials and, two days after that, he was expected to slam a comprehensive report on the Chief Constable's desk outlining how effectively to dismantle the racketeering empire of the IRA's border godfather, Thomas 'Slab' Murphy.
Breen harboured thoughts of a fateful premonition and expressed disquiet to his staff officer at the presence of a particular Garda officer based in Co Louth and that officer's suspected links to the IRA.
Chief Superintendent Breen was scheduled to travel to Dundalk with a senior RUC colleague, but another operational commitment meant that the officer could not travel to Dundalk that day to fulfil the appointment.
Instead, it was determined that Harry Breen would travel to Dundalk with Superintendent Bob Buchanan who, the following week, would transfer to a much less dangerous operational posting in Newtownards, Co Down.
The two senior RUC officers would travel to Dundalk in Buchanan's red Vauxhall Cavalier car, which had been used previously by Buchanan to negotiate his way to Dundalk around 20 times in previous months.
What Breen did not know - and what Buchanan was totally unaware of - was that his Cavalier had been identified by the IRA as an 'RUC vehicle'.
Not only that, the IRA had tailed the Cavalier on a previous journey to Dundalk. Breen's sense of foreboding was completely justified.
But another thing that the two men and the RUC did not know was almost as alarming. An Army surveillance unit had actually observed and noted IRA 'dickers' following Buchanan's red Cavalier - the very car that was to be used to ferry Breen and Buchanan to and from Dundalk on March 20, 1989.
Why the Army failed to communicate the IRA's clear knowledge of Buchanan's car to the RUC's Special Branch, or why MI5 - if it received the intelligence information direct from the Army - failed to alert the RUC, is one of the compelling issues which will be probed at the Smithwick Tribunal which opens in formal public session in Dublin today.
The failure of the Garda and the RUC to take adequate and appropriate measures to safeguard the two senior RUC officers in the climate of intense IRA activity in 1989 will be one of the key aspects probed by Judge Smithwick's tribunal.
Collusion via omission has already been mentioned in the Rosemary Nelson Inquiry findings. And, if it was identified as a factor in her murder, then indisputably it was a key ingredient in the ability of the IRA to murder Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan.
The role of the Irish state in events leading up to the fatal ambush and the integrity of the Garda Siochanna will also come under the spotlight in the inquiry, which Dublin's justice minister, Alan Shatter, wants wrapped up by November.
It's not difficult to fathom why elements within the British and Irish security establishments - 22 years after the double-murder - might welcome proceedings being guillotined before the role of British Army double-agent Freddie Scappaticci could be dissected and explored in detail.
Equally difficult issues for the Dublin government that will arise will be why the decision of a Garda commissioner to approve the transfer of a garda based in Co Louth to another operational area was countermanded by Taoiseach Charlie Haughey's office not once, but twice.
Unofficially, some gardai in Co Louth were under suspicion by the force's headquarters in Dublin's Phoenix Park before Breen and Buchanan were ambushed.
Communications relating to IRA activity in Louth were routinely processed through Phoenix Park and RUC headquarters at Knock in Belfast, bypassing - where possible - gardai in the county.
The tribunal is expected to hear that the IRA had carried out surveillance of Dundalk Garda station from a building on the other side of the road and had probably first 'clocked' Bob Buchanan's red Cavalier as he parked it in front of the station during one of his 20 visits in the weeks prior to the Jonesborough ambush.
In spite of Harry Breen's foreboding about the trip to Dundalk, he would have been comforted slightly by the fact that the meeting with the Garda had not been long in the planning.
The IRA didn't have weeks to lay their deadly trap in Jonesborough. Perhaps they had only hours to prepare after learning that Buchanan's car was back again outside Dundalk Garda station.
Three former Garda officers have been granted legal representation at the Smithwick Tribunal, as has west Belfast IRA man Scappaticci - the British Army agent known as 'Stakeknife', who interrogated IRA members suspected of working for the British and who allegedly liaised with rogue Garda officers stationed along the border.
Scappaticci's involvement in the interrogation and torture of Cooley peninsula farmer Tom Oliver in July 1991 may be relevant to the Smithwick Tribunal.
It will be especially relevant if the Garda officer who betrayed Oliver - a registered Garda informant - is the same officer suspected of betraying Breen and Buchanan.
In spite of the Irish government's desire to guillotine Smithwick, it is inevitable that details embarrassing for both the British and Irish administrations will be made public.