A former IRA commander involved in the ambush and killing of two senior RUC officers has been questioned by a tribunal probing allegations of garda collusion in the murders.
The ex-high-ranking figure was among three members of the terrorist group quizzed by lawyers for the Smithwick Tribunal over the killings of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.
The officers were returning from a meeting with a top Garda in Dundalk, Co Louth, when they were ambushed and killed just north of the border in Co Armagh in March 1989.
Senior tribunal counsel Mary Laverty called the recent face-to-face talks unprecedented but did not give details about the meeting, claiming it would be premature and inappropriate at this stage.
“Those former members included former leadership at both national and local (south Armagh) level,” Ms Laverty said.
“One of the three former personnel had first-hand knowledge of the Provisional IRA operation on March 20, 1989, and had a command role in that operation.”
Ms Laverty said the former personnel gave a detailed account of the events leading to the RUC officers’ deaths and replied to questions posed by the tribunal’s legal team.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the tribunal asked the party’s leadership if it could facilitate an engagement with the IRA.
Mr Adams, who won a Dáil seat for the Co Louth constituency in the March general election, said party chiefs found there could be no engagement as the IRA had “left the stage”.
But he added that former volunteers worked on a voluntary basis with the tribunal through Sinn Féin.
“Having established the process between the tribunal and these former volunteers, Sinn Féin played no further role in the process, though our understanding is that the people involved were in a position to answer all questions about the IRA action in which the two RUC officers were killed,” Mr Adams said.
Mr Breen and Mr Buchanan were two of the most senior officers killed in the Troubles.
Ms Laverty revealed the inquiry is still awaiting documents from British authorities that could be relevant as she gave a detailed 72-page opening statement to the tribunal at the beginning of its first substantive public hearings since it was established six years ago.
The senior counsel said the inquiry had also received four new intelligence reports from Northern Irish authorities as recently as last week.
Ms Laverty named three gardaí identified in a 2000 garda investigation, which found no evidence of collusion.
Two – retired Detective Sergeant Owen Corrigan and retired Sergeant Leo Colton - were the focus of allegations made by journalist Toby Harnden in his book Bandit Country and newspaper columnist Kevin Myers.
The third, former sergeant Finbarr Hickey, was convicted for counter-signing eight passport application forms which ended up in the hands of three active members of the IRA.
All three men deny any allegations of collusion and have been granted legal representation before the tribunal.
Ms Laverty revealed Mr Breen and Mr Buchanan had travelled to Co Louth to discuss a possible joint RUC/Garda operation on lands owned by prominent republican Thomas 'Slab' Murphy.
The senior counsel said that on that March morning in 1989, just hours before the ambush, Mr Breen claimed Dundalk-based Mr Corrigan was receiving payments from Murphy.
After the killings, Mr Breen’s staff officer Alan Mains passed the information on to senior colleagues. But Ms Laverty said the force did not pursue the allegation.
Mr Buchanan also expressed concern about an officer based in Dundalk to a high-ranking garda officer. The garda claimed he relayed the information to a senior officer at garda headquarters.
The same officer also told the tribunal that he subsequently received intelligence of a threat to Mr Buchanan’s life six months before his death.
Ms Laverty claimed there was an unwillingness by police forces on both sides of the border to “get to the heart” of the theory of a mole within the gardaí.
She said the inquiry’s team was repeatedly told by former RUC officers that there was a wariness among officers in the 1980s about travelling to Dundalk as it was a “subversive heartland”.
“For others, the wariness extended to one’s dealings with Garda officers and, in some instances, particular named officers,” the senior counsel said.
“Some said they were put on their guard by RUC colleagues, others that they were put on guard by members of An Garda Síochána.”
The tribunal, headed by Judge Peter Smithwick, was established in 2005 and has cost €8m so far.
It has conducted its investigations to date in private, interviewing 214 potential witnesses.
These include 107 members or former members of the gardai, 42 retired RUC officers or serving PSNI officers and 65 others, including politicians and telecoms personnel.
Among those prepared to give evidence is DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson and journalists Kevin Myers and Toby Harnden.
The Government has altered the tribunal’s terms of reference to have an interim report by the end of June and a final report by late November.
Alleged IRA double agent Stakeknife, Freddie Scappaticci, has been granted legal representation at the tribunal.
The tribunal sits again on Thursday.