FORMER leader of the Progressive Democrats Des O’Malley, when attending an international conference at Adare Manor Hotel, was surprised to meet, Special Branch detectives, Jerry McCabe and Ben O’Sullivan.
They had often provided protection to Mr O’Malley and his family.
Det McCabe told him they were on duty at the conference as there were ‘a lot of dangerous men’ living in the area. Those dangerous men struck some months later on the morning of June 7, 1996, a short distance away on the main street of Adare.
An IRA gang gunned down the two detectives in cold blood. Det McCabe died instantly. Det O’Sullivan survived massive wounds.
Both had turned in for duty at 6am at Henry Street Garda headquarters that morning. They were deployed to provide an armed escort to the An Post lorry delivering £81,000 pension money to post offices in west Limerick.
They arrived outside the post office in Adare at around 6.50am. As Det O’Sullivan brought their Ford Mondeo to a halt behind the postal lorry, he noticed a Pajero 4x4 jeep driving up behind them at speed. Two men wearing balaclavas jumped from the Pajero.
One carrying an AK-47 stood by the detectives’ car and without warning fired off a hail of bullets. Neither detective had time to draw their guns — a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver and an Uzi submachine gun.
Det O’Sullivan later described it as a “deliberate, controlled shooting”.
Two bullets hit Det McCabe; one severed his spinal cord, killing him instantly. Det O’Sullivan was hit by 11 bullets. Doctors said afterwards that his strong upper body developed through his love of rowing had saved him.
Members of the gang who had gone into the back of the post office lorry were surprised to see that all the postal delivery consignments had been locked in individual metal baskets for each drop. They immediately abandoned the attempted robbery and made off in a Mitsubishi Lancer.
The IRA active service gang was led by Kevin Walsh from Patrickswell, the man who shot the two detectives. He was accompanied by Michael O’Neill, also from Patrickswell, Jeremiah Sheehy from Rathkeale, Pearse McAuley from Strabane, Paul Damery from Cork, and Gerry Roche who lived in Shannon.
As they sped from the scene their stolen Mitsubishi Lancer was damaged and they abandoned it near Ballingarry. Other vehicles were then commandeered as the gang made their way by secondary roads to a safe house near Toomevara, Co Tipperary.
Two timed incendiary bombs planted in the Pajero and Mitsubishi Lancer failed to detonate and the Garda technical bureau was able to get critical clues as the chase for the gang went nationwide. Suspicions that an IRA unit led by Walsh was responsible were quickly confirmed by prints on the vehicles.
Kevin Walsh had been linked to numerous IRA robberies in the Limerick area. During one Christmas raid at the Crescent Shopping Centre in Dooradoyle the gang ran through the crowded shopping mall brandishing AK-47s which they fired as the sped from the carpark.
Hours after carrying out the Adare attack the gang split up and left the house in Toomevara. Damery and Roche made their way out of the country. Damery got to South America and Roche went to ground in Holland. Both are still wanted for the Adare attack. Sheehy, O’Neill and McAuley were arrested within days. McAuley had previously escaped from Brixton Prison in 1991 with Limerickman Nessan Quinlivan while awaiting prosecution over an IRA campaign in the UK.
Meanwhile, gang leader Kevin Walsh got access to an isolated safe house in Co Cavan. Gardaí said while on the run he was visited by senior Sinn Féin figures from the North.
After months in hiding, he was arrested by members of the Garda Emergency Response Unit which stormed the house. As gardaí burst into his bedroom Walsh tried to grab an AK-47 near his bed. He was heavily disguised and gardaí found forged passports, fake driving licenses and other documents indicating he was planning to skip the country.
In the hours after the gun attack in Adare, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams initially denied republican involvement. He later said the operation was “not authorised by the Army Council, but authorised at a lower level by an authorised person”.
Walsh, Sheehy, O’Neill and McAuley were charged with the murder of Det McCabe and the attempted murder of Det O’Sullivan. However, the State case at the non-jury special criminal court hit major problems when witnesses refused to give evidence due to what the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell described as ‘provisional movement’ intimidation.
The State accepted pleas of guilty to the manslaughter of Det McCabe. In sentences backdated to February 1999, Kevin Walsh and Pearse McAuley were each jailed for 14 years. Jeremiah Sheehy got a 12-year sentence and O’Neill was jailed for 11 years.
Walsh and McAuley were released on August 5, 2009; O’Neill was released on May 15, 2007 and Sheehy was released on February 4, 2008. After the trial, Ann McCabe fought a relentless campaign to prevent the killers getting early release as part of the Northern Ireland peace process. She had several confrontations with then taoiseach Bertie Ahern demanding him to say there would be no early release.
Mr Ahern told the Dáil in December 2004, that they would be released early as part of the Northern peace process. Mrs McCabe only learned of this statement on radio. She produced a letter from then justice minister Michael McDowell which told her: “I want to reiterate my assurance to you that if it had ever been necessary to deal with the issue of releasing prisoners or if it ever becomes necessary to do so in the future, it would not and will not happen without you and Ben O’Sullivan knowing in advance.”
After Bertie Ahern’s Dáil statement, Ann McCabe said she wondered who was leading the country, the government or Sinn Féin-IRA. During their time in Castlerea prison, the four IRA men were given special privileges.
Pearse McAuley was allowed out on temporary release for a big wedding party when he married Sinn Féin councillor, Pauline Tully in Kilnaleck, Co Cavan, in January 2003.
Pictures of the celebrations sparked public outrage. McAuley is now serving a 12-year jail sentence for a frenzied attack on Ms Tully.
Since the shooting 20 years ago today, Ben O’Sullivan has kept clear of all the controversies, spending his time on the farm he bought near Limerick.
In an interview with this reporter last month, Det O’Sullivan said: “If somebody asked me if I had forgotten it — forgetting something is an impossibility if your memory is okay and thankfully mine is. I have learnt to live with it. What I wouldn’t give to have Jerry still alive, but that is an impossibility.”