Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, What You Weren’t Told

RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, killed in a 1989 ambush by the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army
RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, killed in a 1989 ambush by the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army

In all of the discussions emanating from the controversy around last year’s Smithwick report it is strange that no one in the media in Ireland or elsewhere has examined in any detail the professional histories of Superintendent Bob Buchanan and Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, the two senior officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) killed in the ambush at Jonesborough by an Active Service Unit of the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (the wounded Breen almost certainly shot dead while attempting to surrender). Both men had served as British paramilitary police officers in the north-east of the country since their twenties and Harry Breen in particular had a colourful career. A small part of that history has been the focus of several newspaper reports (and indeed Judge Smithwick himself) with tenuous claims that Breen was specifically targeted by the Republican Army because he was photographed in 1987 with weapons captured from the ambush site at Loughgall, an engagement that saw eight volunteers of the East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA and one civilian killed by British Special Forces (at least three of the wounded men were killed while surrendering or shortly thereafter). Most cogent observers have dismissed the “revenge” allegation as a motive for the ambush yet it continues to be stated as an established fact by some tabloid media pundits.

However before 1987 and his subsequent death in 1989 Breen was rather better known for the allegations circulating in security and political circles north and south linking him to the so-called “Glenanne Gang”. This was a British terrorist grouping composed of serving or former members of the British army and paramilitary police attached to the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force or UVF (the name stems from the farmhouse the gang met and stored arms in, Glenanne, which was owned by the RUC officer James Mitchell). These suspicions accounted for the supposed “coolness” that existed between Breen and representatives of An Garda Síochana in contrast to the warmer relationship enjoyed by Bob Buchanan. In fact Harry Breen was specifically named in a 1999 witness statement by Sergeant John Weir, an RUC officer who served with the elite Special Patrol Group (SPG) while at the same time being an active terrorist with the Glenanne Gang. The testimony was made to the Irish government’s tribunal under Justice Henry Barron re-investigating the 1974 British terrorist attacks on Dublin and Monaghan where the sequential detonation of four car-bombs killed thirty-three men, women and children as well as wounding three hundred others. The terror strikes were carried out by members of the Glenanne Gang under the direction of British Military Intelligence and senior British officials at a time of strained relations between the governments in Ireland and Britain.

The parts relating to Chief Superintendent Harry Breen are highlighted below.

“3rd January 1999

1. I am a former member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) which I joined in 1970 and served until 1980. After initial training in Enniskillen Training Depot, I began my police career in Strandtown RUC Station in East Belfast.

2. I left the RUC in 1980 following my conviction for the murder of William Strathearn at Ahoghill, Co. Antrim, which occurred in April 1977. I will deal with this incident later in this statement.

3. I recall that in 1970 or 1971, while I was serving as a young constable, aged 20, in Strandtown there was an arms amnesty in which members of the public handed in substantial quantities of guns and ammunition of different types. Many of these guns were then given out by RUC officers to local members of a Loyalist paramilitary organization, the Ulster Defence Association, with the knowledge of the senior officers in my station. On one occasion I was ordered by Inspector Don Milligan to remove a number of rifles which had been handed in under the amnesty, and place them in the boot of his car. I do not know where he took them but it was common knowledge among my colleagues that such weapons were being given to Loyalists whom my colleagues supported.

10. Sometime after my transfer to Belfast, I received a visit from two of my former colleagues in Armagh SPG, Gary Armstrong and Ian Mitchell. They told me that ACC Rodgers had spoken to their unit once more and that they had expressed their view to him that a drastic change of policy was necessary to combat the IRA more effectively in South Armagh. They told me that they had decided for themselves, as a result of the discussions stimulated by his visits, that the time had come to take direct action against not merely known Republicans or IRA activists but against the Catholic population in general. I agreed with them that the only way to stop the IRA murder campaign was to attack the Catholic community itself, so that it would put pressure on the IRA to call off its campaign. After I had indicated my interest in their plans, Armstrong and Mitchell informed me that they had already begun to implement them. They had started their campaign by carrying out a bomb and gun attack near Keady village, in June 1976, at the Rock Bar which is located within yards of the border with the Irish Republic.

20. I was friendly at that time with RUC Constable Billy McBride and I visited his home on one occasion at a time when Chief Inspector Harry Breen was present. We discussed McBride’s connection to a group of Loyalists in Co. Down called Down Orange Welfare, which was headed by a retired Army officer, Lt. Col. Edward Brush. McBride told us he was a member of this group, which was almost entirely composed of members or ex-members of the security forces. He produced a .38 revolver from a drawer in his living room and after I had examined it he replaced it in the drawer. He then went into another room and brought out two homemade sub-machine guns, copies of the Sterling machine-gun. He explained that Down Orange Welfare was manufacturing Sterling sub-machine guns and that the two he had shown me were the prototypes and were of imperfect design. McBride added that the group were in the process of making an M1 carbine, an American rifle, and that the only remaining problem to be tackled was the ejector mechanism for spent bullets. He anticipated that this would not present any insuperable difficulty. In Chief Inspector Breen’s presence he then offered me the two sub-machine guns because he knew about my connections to Loyalist paramilitaries. I accepted them and took them to Mitchell’s farmhouse.

21. Constable McBride was a gunsmith and, following this initial meeting with him, guns changed hands on several occasions. On one occasion, after McBride had told me that he had received four new sub-machine guns from Down Orange Welfare, I contacted Armstrong who soon arrived with McClure at Newry RUC station. Armstrong had a conversation with Chief Inspector Breen, whom he knew well, and the three of us went to McBride’s house where we collected the guns. These sub-machine guns were transported to Mitchell’s farmhouse where I later test fired them in a hayshed. They worked perfectly. Mitchell subsequently sold these weapons to Jackie Whitten, a UVF paramilitary leader in Portadown for 100 pounds each. I then gave the 400 pounds to McBride so that the money could be used for the manufacture of further weapons. In summary, Down Orange Welfare was using RUC officers in Newry RUC station – McBride, Breen, myself – and another RUC officer, Sergeant Monty Alexander from Forkhill RUC station – to supply weapons to the UVF in Portadown. I later learned that these weapons were being manufactured by Samuel McCoubrey in Spa, Co. Down.

25. I was on duty in Newry RUC station when I received a phone call from RUC Constable William McCaughey asking me to meet him in Armagh. We met in a pub in Armagh and he discussed with me a reported shooting incident in Ahoghill in which a police officer was, as I recall, shot in the leg. McCaughey raised the issue of the need for a retaliation but nothing specific was planned at that stage. McCaughey then asked me if I would accompany him to meet Robin Jackson in Lurgan and I agreed. We travelled to Lurgan in my car and we met Jackson at his home. When we arrived, I soon realised that the proposed retaliation was at a more advanced level than McCaughey had indicated or than I had appreciated. It quickly became obvious to me that the proposed attack had already been discussed in detail and I was taken aback to discover that Jackson and McCaughey proposed to carry out the operation on that particular night. I listened when McCaughey told Jackson that the gun to be used in the attack had never been used in any shooting before, that he had taken it from Lurgan RUC station and that it was in his home. I heard McCaughey and Jackson agree how they would proceed with Jackson saying he would go and collect his helper on the lorry R.J. Kerr while McCaughey would take me with him to his house, where he would collect the gun, before going on to rendezvous with Jackson and Kerr at the roundabout in Moira, Co. Antrim. I did not know at that stage the identity of the proposed target in Ahoghill nor did I know for certain whether Jackson and McCaughey merely intended to frighten a particular person or to kill him. I found I was participating in an operation that I had not discussed fully and whose consequences I did not properly appreciate. The entire discussion at Jackson’s home lasted a few minutes. However, I wish to make it clear that I took part in this operation voluntarily and that I went along with the arrangements made by McCaughey and Jackson.

26. After McCaughey had collected the gun from his home in Lurgan I drove him in my own car to the roundabout at Moira where Jackson and his helper were already waiting in a lorry. Jackson drove the lorry and we followed him towards Ahoghill, stopping behind him when he parked approximately one mile before reaching the village. I now recall, on the basis of my conversation with McCaughey in the car, that McCaughey, like me, did not fully appreciate that Jackson was going to commit a murder. And even after Jackson and Kerr had got into my car outside Ahoghill village, McCaughey seemed still to think that Jackson was merely going to frighten the chosen person rather than kill him. I believed, wrongly as it was soon to turn out, that Jackson and Kerr were merely going to fire into the house to frighten the occupants and it was evident to me that McCaughey also held the same opinion. After giving Jackson the gun, McCaughey told him just to fire through the upstairs windows so as to make sure the occupants got the message. My main concern, at that late stage, was that my car number plates would be easily identified but when I shared this concern with McCaugheyhe assured me there was nothing to worry about and that he was certain that there were no security forces in the area. McCaughey and I waited in the car not far from the target house and we both heard the shooting. After Jackson and Kerr had returned and got into my car, Jackson said that he had shot the man twice and we then left the village calmly. I drove my car back to the lorry, where Jackson and Kerr got out so they could go on to their ultimate destination to deliver a load of chickens. I drove McCaughey to his father’s house in Ahoghill and McCaughey told his father, in my presence, that Jackson had shot somebody dead in the town. He gave his father the gun for safe keeping. Next morning I learned from the news on the radio that the victim had been William Strathearn.

27. After leaving McCaughey’s father’s house I drove McCaughey back to Armagh and dropped him off at the RUC station. I then proceeded to Bessbrook RUC station where I had living quarters even though I was still stationed in Newry. I went to work early on the morning after the killing and carried on with my normal work. However, over the following week I told three colleagues about what had happened. These were Chief Inspector Breen, Constable Bob Hamilton and RUC Special Branch Constable Ian Begley. All of these three men already knew about collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and RUC officers including McBride, Sergeant Monty Alexander and myself. Chief Inspector Breen also knew about similar illegal activities by McCaughey and Armstrong. Ian Begley, for example, had previously told me that he thought McBride had been involved with Jackson in the murder of a Catholic close, I believe, to Mayobridge in South Down in the early 1970s.

28. I think it is important to make it clear that this collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries such as Robin Jackson and my RUC colleagues and me was taking place with the full knowledge of my superiors. I recall that after I had told Chief Inspector Breen about my involvement in the Strathearn murder, that he told me to forget about it. I also recall later witnessing a conversation between Chief Inspector Breen and Inspector Harvey who was in charge of Newry CID when both men discussed with approval McCaughey and Armstrong’s continuing activity in Loyalist terrorism with Robin Jackson. And I recall another occasion, in the toilets at the Pitbar near Bessbrook when RUC Special Branch Constable David Miller indicated to me that he knew I had been involved in the Strathearn murder and suggested he would not object if I was to kill an identified IRA man in Newry. For these and other reasons I did not think there was the slightest possibility that I would ever be arrested or charged with my role in the Strathearn murder.

29. Some months after the Strathearn murder I was called to a meeting with the head of RUC Special Branch in Newry, Chief Inspector Brian Fitzsimmons. He confirmed what I had already been told by Chief Inspector Breen that I was to be transferred to Newtownhamilton RUC station. During this meeting Mr. Fitzsimmons let me know that he was aware that I had been involved in Loyalist terrorist activity for some time but it was clear he was not bothered by this. He told me that he knew all about my paramilitary past activities with James Mitchell and that my local connections to Loyalist paramilitaries were part of the reason why I was being placed in charge of Newtownhamilton RUC station. I understood the message of my meeting with Chief inspector Fitzsimmons to be that I had the green light to carry on with my activities. I now know that Chief Inspector Fitzsimmons rose to the rank of Assistant Chief Constable and that he was killed in the Chinook helicopter crash in Scotland in 1994.

John Oliver Weir

Signed 3rd February 1999”

The aftermath of the Jonesborough Ambush in 1989 where senior RUC officers Bob Buchanan and Harry Breen were killed by the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army
The aftermath of the Jonesborough Ambush in 1989 where senior RUC officers Bob Buchanan and Harry Breen were killed by the South Armagh Brigade of the Irish Republican Army

While some have challenged Weir’s testimony his detailed statements have yet to be refuted and both Justice Barron and investigatory officers from the Garda Síochána accepted him as a highly knowledgeable and credible witness. In addition Harry Breen’s membership of the far right Down Orange Welfare seems to have been widely known given the organisation’s apparently inviolate position under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Brush CB OBE, a former officer of the British Army and member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Likewise his relationship with Robin “the Jackal” Jackson in the 1980s, a notorious soldier-turned-terrorist with close links to the RUC’s Special Patrol Group and British Military Intelligence, was believed to be common knowledge in so-called “Loyalist” terror circles and to several journalists (Jackson has been repeatedly counted amongst the suspected coterie of Captain Robert Nairac, the alleged British army “death squad commander” detained and executed by (P)IRA in 1977).

So why, in all the reporting around the killing of officers Breen and Buchannan, were the serious allegations of Harry Breen’s involvement with British terrorism not brought to public attention? Why, by all accounts, did the national news media in Ireland and Britain simply gloss over these crucial background facts to Breen’s career and untimely death? These are the questions asked by the Irish journalist and author Paul Larkin of RTÉ and its news and current affairs department and the reaction is revealing of the political intent that shaped the reporting of the Smithwick Tribunal (while blithely ignoring the findings of the earlier Barron Tribunal).

The people of Ireland need to know the truth about the dreadful nature of the conflict in the north-east of our island nation – but evidently our journalistic “betters” believe we should only know part of the truth.

UPDATE: New revelations about the role of the ubiquitous British terrorist Robin Jackson in the assassination of the Donegal-born, Catholic RUC officer Joseph Campbell have come to light through the efforts of Dr. Paul Maguire, the Police Ombudsman in the north of Ireland. Sergeant Campbell was killed by Jackson and his UVF colleagues in February of 1977 shortly after he had begun a personal investigation into the close links between serving police officers in his division and local British terror gangs. The Ombudsman’s new research has revealed that the then Chief Constable of the RUC, Sir Kenneth Newman, knew through intelligence briefings that Campbell had become a target but ordered no extra measures to protect his life. The family of Campbell claim that the sergeant had threatened to publicly name at least one senior Special Branch officer who was working with the UVF just days before he was shot down at the fortified gates of his RUC base.

Former policeman-turned-gunman John Weir has sworn in his affidavit that Robin Jackson planned the assassination of Joseph Campbell with a “…senior Special Branch officer“. At the time of the killing Harry Breen was an officer with the RUC’s Special Branch.

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7 comments

  1. It was East Tyrone that did Loughgall recce surely? As for collusion try looking at Gardai in border counties passing “suspected subversives” details to RUC/PSNI/UVF/UFF.

      1. Apropos Loughall, SAS had one KIA. He omitted to check on whether one of the PIRA was dead (and knowing he would not be caught and sent to jail merely killed on the spot) said Provo shot one of the SAS guys. Don’t tell anyone it’s a big secret.

        1. Somewhat sceptical on that one, to be honest. From reports all the Volunteers were incapacitated in the initial volley of fire (being struck by several rounds each before all eight received a fatal head-shot at close-range while lying in a prone position). At least three were still alive when “finished off”, two possibly subject to a short interrogation with ill-treatment before hand. The reaction of the participatory SAS and RUC people was of “euphoria” and “celebration”. Several parties were held in the wake of the ambush in British military circles. I have not heard or seen any evidence of an SAS gunman being killed?

  2. great article, sionnach, as well as last piece there by Pól Ó Lorcáin – rté ‘primetime’ have long been discredited in my view – no amount of rebranding will work as long as same attitude exists there in the wider community (not dissimilar to ‘all Irish speakers are provos’) as well as mainstream parties, and listening to FF TD and justice spokesman Niall Collins rebut sinn féin criticism of section 31 in Dáil debate today on repeal of censorship laws @

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