The Smithwick Tribunal was instigated in Dublin as a strategic sop to the British Government while the Republic was itself seeking various Inquiries from the UK Authorities. It originated in ultimately unsubstantiated allegations from journalists Kevin Myers and Toby Harnden. The Tribunal seems to have been determined to find Garda collusion in the murder north of the border of two RUC officers – one of whom was Chief Superintendent Harry Breen – just after they had met gardaí in Dundalk, but at the last minute evidence from the PSNI stopped it finding Special Branch officer Owen Corrigan to be the colluder, which he certainly anyway wasn’t. The Tribunal then made an abstract, ungrounded finding of “collusion”, which lazy observers have ubiquitously accepted.
Six people were murdered by UVF paramilitaries, at the Heights Bar, in Loughinisland near Downpatrick, in 1994, as Ireland played Italy in soccer, on the television. Those murders were the subject of a 2016 report by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland which found, following an earlier whitewash by the same office, evidence of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) collusion in the protection of Loyalist paramilitary informants, who may have carried out the murders. While he found no evidence that the police knew in advance about the murder plot, the Ombudsman was heavily critical of how the RUC Special Branch handled informers, and failed robustly to disrupt the activities of UVF paramilitaries operating in south Down and to share intelligence with detectives investigating this UVF gang. He claimed there was a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach. The 160-page report by Dr Michael Maguire also found police informants at the most senior levels within loyalist paramilitary organisations were involved in the importation of guns and ammunition.
Importing the arms
Five years earlier in late 1987/early 1988, the arms used at Loughlinisland had been imported as part of an order placed with an arms dealer, including for VZ58 military-grade assault rifles, by an alliance of the UVF, UDA, and Ulster Resistance, each of which was to take a specified allocation. The weapons which originated with Christian forces from Lebanon did not include explosives which were what Loyalists had keenly wanted. Much of the – Chinese – ammunition was, apparently, of poor quality. Nevertheless it is estimated that the rifles alone were used in at least 70 murders between March 1988 and May 2005.
Sources from mid-Ulster with knowledge of the entire operation explained what happened when the weapons were delivered to Belfast docks.
Knowledge of collection and distribution was tightly controlled. The UDA had been asked if they wanted their weapons to be delivered in Belfast, where they were almost exclusively based. Unusually they chose to collect them in Armagh where the UVF and Ulster Resistance, but not the UDA, were strongest. The UDA were then instructed not to travel in cars, the movement of which by outsiders would have been noted in any rural area. There were also army and police vehicle checkpoints on the roads. In the event the UDA ignored the advice and drove two hired Ford Granadas to collect the arms. An RUC The Tasking and Coordinating Group was waiting for them by the time, their cars laden down with weapons, they reached Mahon Road in Portadown. One of them, Davy Payne, UDA ‘Brigadier’ for mid and West Belfast, was arrested and ultimately sentenced to 19 years imprisonment.
Hiding the arms
With the UDA weapons captured, the Ulster Resistance and UVF weapons were then stored in a barn in Tandragee owned by a man who was a member of the Free Presbyterian Church and the Orange Order.
The same sources maintain that the original plan was for the entire cache of Ulster Resistance arms to be delivered to and held by an Ulster Resistance man, in Markethill. The plan was that he would operate as the quartermaster. However, suspicion, ubiquitous in these affairs, had begun to grow about the Ulster Resistance man who, it was rumoured, was working for various intelligence agencies. Because of this and because RUC searches were closing in on Tandragee, Ulster Resistance moved the weapons which never reached the intended recipient in Markethill.
John Weir, an RUC Sergeant, was jailed for murder for 14 years in 1980. He had been part of the South Armagh based Special Patrol Group (SPG), a notorious RUC Unit set up to combat the South Armagh IRA. Members of the group were allegedly used in the 1970s by shadowy Army Intelligence figures including Robert Nairac. The SPG operated as RUC by day and Loyalist paramilitaries by night. They were responsible for bombings and shootings in both the North and the Republic.
The operations centre of these paramilitaries was a farm owned by an RUC reservist, James Mitchell, later convicted for possession of weapons on his land, in rural Glennane which is near the border and south of Markethill. The description ‘Glennane Gang’ has been used for the paramilitaries, but also for shadowy others. It is not to be confused with the UVF gang which operated in County Down a decade later and carried out the Loughinisland, and many other, murders.
The Ombudsman implies that the arms were stashed in Mitchell’s farm but Village can reveal that Ulster Resistance took the arms from the barn and transferred them to a Territorial Army Ambulance which was then parked in the Territorial Army Centre in Armagh City. The vehicle was locked and the key held by unnamed individuals. The movements of weapons after that are known only to two men according to the sources. At that point the weapons were out of Ulster Resistance control. Moreover they were never recovered by the Security Forces.
The weapons were never stored in Glennane, County Armagh as has been widely accepted, but in a barn between Tandragee and Markethill further north. In recent months informed strangers claiming association with Ulster Resistance have been looking for information about the arms in Tandragee.
After the arrests of the UDA men on the Mahon Road, searches went on for the Ulster Ulster Resistance and UVF weapons, concentrating on farms in a large area around Tandragee and Markethill. For months and years after the arms importation the army and the RUC’s The Tasking and Coordinating Group, combed the Armagh countryside “tirelessly to bring those involved to Justice”: all without success, as the Ulster Resistance Arms escaped detection.
The big question is why.
The Police Ombudsman was heavily critical of the RUC:
“Throughout my investigation I have identified evidence of the destruction of important police documents such as the records relating to the arms importation in late 1987/early 1988 and case-specific material such as forensic exhibits seized as part of the precursor incidents and the Loughinisland murders”.
The Ombudsman’s central finding of RUC collusion either points to the normal wartime protection of informants or betrays high-level subversion by members of the police and civil establishment. This article argues for the latter.
The Ombudsman’s Report is now being challenged by the ex-RUC Retired Police Officers Association who are looking for a Judicial Review of its contents. They say the Ombudsman treated Special Branch intelligence, some of which may have been offered tentatively, as fact.
The DUP leader Ian Paisley had been holding paramilitary-style rallies since the early 1980s but the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 had spawned a movement which styled itself ‘Ulster Resistance’. It was the brainchild of the DUP’s Paisley and Peter Robinson, of Alan Wright of Ulster Clubs as well as of Noel Little from Markethill, a member of the UDR who was to play a prominent role in it. A 1987 briefing document for the British Government noted, “Since Ulster Resistance is a DUP creation, we cannot rule out the possibility of the DUP using it as its shock troops in any form of protest”. The first invitation-only meeting in Belfast attracted some of the respectable middle-classes; Paisley and Robinson donned berets and flirted with sedition.
The distribution of the Lebanese/Chinese arms would not have been possible without these links between Loyalist paramilitaries (some of whom were military intelligence and Special Branch agents), senior politicians and ‘respectable’ middle-class professionals who manoeuvred from the shadows and may on occasion have given lethal orders.
However, it was Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, key Commander of RUC districts in a large swathe of Armagh and parts of Down, who may have extended these links, in the most nefarious way, to the RUC.
Breen chaired wide-ranging RUC meetings at the highest level during the period when it was suffering heavy casualties in shootings and bombings. For the last year of his life he was Divisional Commander, had access to high-level intelligence from the British Army and Special Branch, and kept in constant touch with his men on the ground in rural RUC stations.
Shockingly, the former-Security-Forces sources say Harry Breen was sympathetic, and supplied information, to the Loyalist paramilitaries who were in control of the shipment, in particular Ulster Resistance.
Perhaps as a result of this, although the UDA and a part of the UVF arms were seized, the Ulster Resistance arms were not located. It seems that inside information resulted in the weapon’s movement escaping detection. Despite the fact that both the security services and army intelligence had informers on the ground the plotters managed to play cat-and-mouse around the countryside.
Loyalist sources have made it clear to Village that Breen was not ‘rogue’ but was following what he believed was an Intelligence agenda. If so, this was one of the most serious acts of subversion by any member of the Security Forces. This wasn’t about shielding informants or covert encouragement but subverting the very State to which loyalty was professed. After the importation for the first time Loyalist paramilitaries killed more people than the IRA did.
Harry Breen was murdered in an IRA ambush in March 1989 on the Edenappa Road, South Armagh, near the Border with the South, after he had left a meeting at Dundalk Garda Station.
Breen of course was at the centre of the Republic’s Smithwick Tribunal into allegations of Garda collusion in his death. It reported in 2013. Village has previously shown how the last-minute receipt of murky evidence from the RUC resulted in Smithwick, who seemed committed to finding Garda collusion, being left without anyone upon whom to pin the collusion. His intention to find collusion by Owen Corrigan was blown apart by evidence. He nevertheless found collusion, in the abstract. Collusion but no colluder.
John Weir implicates Breen
In a long statement in 1999, John Weir, by then out of prison, alleged that in the 1970s Harry Breen, then a Chief Inspector in uniform, was aiding Loyalist paramilitaries by supplying them with weapons and encouraging their activities. Breen was close to an RUC Sergeant who was an expert gun-maker for the UVF, he claimed.
Among the allegations Weir made was that “RUC Officers from Newry RUC Station – McBride, Breen and myself…[were supplying] weapons to the UVF in Portadown”. He claims that when he privately told Breen about the murder of an innocent Catholic, Breen told him to “forget about it”. John Weir later somewhat modified his story and in 2006 commented that while Breen “knew all about our activities, he was not for one minute directly linked to the UVF. He was doing his job as a policeman but could not say that publicly” (Interview with Frank Connolly, Politico 2006). Weir was later to say that he was encouraged in the “bad apple” theory in order to limit the spread of collusion allegations against more senior RUC Officers.
Liam Clarke, famously well-connected, repeated most of this in the Sunday Times in the early 2000s.
However, sources formerly in the Security Forces have recently claimed to Village that Breen was, later, sympathetic to Ulster Resistance and gave them information during the searches for the Armagh weapons in 1988/89 when he was in a pivotal position in the RUC.
Breen’s RUC Diary
Tending to confirm this, Village has obtained details of all Breen’s movements between March 1988 and March 1989, when he was shot dead by the IRA. It is apparent from that information that Breen had access to the planning meetings associated with the searches in Armagh; and that he was on-site for many of them.
Although based in Armagh, Breen’s itinerary between mid March 1988 and 1989 shows a high level of activity on the ground: visiting RUC stations and the site of searches and carrying out routine administration. Breen was at the site of searches for both IRA and Loyalist arms. He also crossed the Border on a number of occasions to Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk and Monaghan.
The diary shows the comprehensive extent of Breen’s involvement in all the arms searches in Armagh and South Down in the period up to his death.
Whenever there was a search, Breen as Divisional Commander would turn up, though his presence was not necessary. And of course the arms were never found.
Loyalist and Security sources have told Village that Breen liaised between the arms-hiders and the arms-searchers to ensure the arms were moved when necessary, and so were never found.
The significance of all this is that it shows Breen spent a lot of time in Tandragee, Hamiltonsbawn, Richhill and Markethill. This is the Loyalist/Orange Order heartland and where the arms were – not Glennane which is much further South where less informed RUC officers believed the arms were stored. It suggests he had inside information from Loyalists and that he may have been attempting to defuse the efficacy of search operations for the arms.
- 21.9.88 I chaired Divisional meetings with 2 UDR about searches in the Division. Travelled to Gough Barracks and Newry South RUC Station and briefed [redacted] re. searches planned for 22.9.’88.
- 25.9.88 Meeting in Armagh with 2 UDR. Directed ops. Liaison with CID, Special Branch and ACC Rural East.
- 26.9.88 Liaison with Special Branch and CID and Directed Ops.
- 3.10.88 Attended briefing re searches (for Loyalist weapons).
- 20.10.88 Loughgall, Newry, Warrenpoint.
- 24.10.88 Tandragee, Gilford, Banbridge.
- 14.11.88 Duty re searches; liaised with Special Branch, and CID and visited scenes of finds of arms and ammunition in Loughgilly area. To Gough met Special Branch and CID and discussed arms finds etc. Duty to Bessbrook and met 1 para re operation on
- 22.11.88. To searches of arms finds in Armagh, and Hamiltonsbawn area.
- 16.11.88 DAC meetings. Duty re searches for arms and munitions. Liaison with CID and Special Branch.
- 17.11.88 Liaison with Special Branch and CID re searches in the area. Duty with [redacted] in Armagh, Hamiltonsbawn and Glennane areas re searches. Duty with [redacted] in same area. (Glennane was searched for weapons).
- 18.11.88 Duty with CID, Special Branch and Ops Planning re [redacted].
A threat to peace
Around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement senior members of RUC Special Branch are believed to have made it clear to Officials in the Security Services and Government, that they were completely opposed to any new direction that involved appeasement. Harry Breen was seen as a leader who would stand against the appeasement. He was so influential and well-connected that, “If Breen had lived there would have been no Ceasefire” was the opinion of one former member of the UDR in Armagh who spoke to Village.
The fate of Breen, the most senior RUC officer to be killed in the Troubles, was sealed the day he appeared, apparently reluctantly, on television displaying the IRA weapons recovered after the SAS ambush at Loughgall that killed eight IRA members and an innocent civilian.
That was the implicit finding of Judge Peter Smithwick in his monumental but confused 1,652-page report.
Smithwick Tribunal fails to scrutinise provenance of Harry Breen
According to the Irish Times at the time of its publication, “in terms of fallout it seems unlikely that there will be a major negative political dimension to the Smithwick report”. This is because, as the Irish Times unquestioningly noted:
“The judge found there was Garda collusion but that it was localised and, it seems, at a low-ranking level. Such corruption is hard to come to terms with, but will hardly damage British-Irish or North-South relations”.
Incredibly, not once did the facts surrounding the arms emerge in the Smithwick Tribunal. The Intelligence Services’ plan to keep the focus on Dundalk Gardaí and the one-hour visit of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan, allegedly to discuss ‘Slab’ Murphy, succeeded magnificently. The plan was drawn up by senior figures and dictated to key participants who were then used to “shape” evidence.
While the Ombudsman struggled to get crucial ex-RUC sources to talk about events, from 1987-1992 Smithwick had an embarrassingly rich array of potential witnesses, perhaps because they knew how benign the forum. Over thirty senior members of the former RUC and present PSNI came to Dublin to give evidence, most under a cipher number. A substantial number of officers were interviewed but not called to give evidence. Among the witnesses were the (present) Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI as well as former RUC Officers including: Assistant Chief Constables, a Deputy Chief Constable, Heads of Special Branch Northern Ireland, Chief Superintendents who had served in Special Branch in Armagh and Down, Chief Inspectors in CID who had served on the Border, Border Chief Superintendents, members of TSG South, and Army Intelligence Officers from FRU and the Royal Fusiliers who served on the border. Many of these men had intimate knowledge of events on the ground in Armagh in the relevant period.
On the other hand, although some former RUC Special Branch and CID Officers spoke to the Ombudsman, important witnesses refused to co-operate with his investigation. He was hampered by destruction of documents and “the decision of the only Special Branch officer identified… not to assist my investigation”. The Ombudsman also found the treatment of forensic and ballistic evidence was highly questionable.
Harry Breen was murdered by the IRA. Anyone with an interest knows that the Smithwick Tribunal failed to ascertain how and why. Credible sources are now telling Village why Harry Breen may have been of particular interest to the IRA.
More interesting still is why Smithwick almost systematically failed to address the importance of Harry Breen to Loyalists and therefore to their enemies.
By Deirdre Younge