A Garda weapons search of an innocent farmer’s land, which involved the Emergency Response Unit and the Army, put him out of business. But the Garda knew he had no arms and were trying to frame him. Gerard Cunningham reports.
The meeting was arranged in a hurry. Present were Chief Superintendent Denis Fitzpatrick, Superintendent Kevin Lennon, Detective Inspector John McGinley and Garda John O’Dowd.
McGinley remembered that Lennon had information about a major IRA attack. He told the others an Ifor William trailer had been stolen in Sion Mills in Northern Ireland, and brought across the border. It was hidden on a St Johnstown farm belonging to Alfie Gallagher, where a major bomb would be loaded, creating a ‘Mark 15 bomb’ or ‘barrack buster’, a bomb designed to take out a heavily fortified RUC station. The bomb was in assembly, and would go back across the border between 10.30pm and 11.30pm that night. The information apparently came from Garda John O’Dowd thorough his informer, William Doherty.
“The actual information that I got was that there was an Ifor Williams [and a] silver and red Mitsubishi jeep in the yard,” O’Dowd told the Morris tribunal. “The information was that it was in the yard. Definitely.” O’Dowd said his information came from William Doherty, who had also told him in February there was a hidden IRA arms bunker in the area.
In its second interim report, the Morris tribunal concluded that the search was completely fraudulent. “The Tribunal has examined secret documents in Garda Headquarters and is convinced, in conjunction with the evidence heard in public, that while it is possible that William Doherty was mischievous enough to attempt to lead Superintendent Lennon and Garda O’Dowd astray by pointing the finger at the Gallagher family, that this is not a sufficient explanation,” Mr Justice Frederick Morris concluded. “The Tribunal has listened carefully to the evidence of Detective Superintendent McGinley on this subject and to that of other officers.”
That Saturday morning in March 1997, Detective Inspector McGinley checked with an RUC contact, who confirmed that an Ifor Williams trailer had been stolen near Sion Mills. However, McGinley was doubtful. He knew the Gallagher family. “They were known to be a decent, honourable, hard working, law abiding family,” he remembered. Alfie Gallagher’s father had been one of the first recruits to the Garda Síochána when the force was set up after the war of independence. Everything he knew said there was something wrong. The Gallagher’s just didn’t fit the profile of IRA sympathisers.
The detective inspector went to Chief Superintendent Fitzpatrick. “This information isn’t right,” he told the Chief. He asked if Lennon had a track record of producing good intelligence on the IRA. McGinley remembered that Fitzpatrick said he was present when Lennon ” stopped an operation in Bridgend.”
“I don’t actually remember saying that to him but I probably did,” Fitzpatrick told the tribunal.
Fitzpatrick did not know the Bridgend operation, where Gardaí intercepted a shipment of home made explosive on its way to Derry, was a hoax masterminded by Lennon, then an inspector, to impress his superiors and advance his career.
“John McGinley was the one saying take it easy,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “I regarded him as streetwise. I would value his view.”
“If you talk about argument, he was the one arguing against the search. He didn’t think the Provos were up to doing that at the time even though the ceasefire was over, and he didn’t think that Kevin Lennon had produced any information.”
Nevertheless, it was decided to act on the information. Cordons were set up. A surveillance team was put in place to keep an eye on the farm. They waited at a hide near the Idle Hour pub, about a quarter hour from Gallagher’s farm. “Logically anything leaving his house would have to come that way,” O’Dowd recalled. “It would be an excellent place to give you cover for a surveillance operation.” The covert surveillance team saw nothing. At the start of the working week, Lennon told them they’d “blown it”. The IRA had spotted them. The guards decided to search Gallagher’s farm.
Alfie Gallagher’s son Jim “Lofty” Gallagher worked on the family farm in 1997. He now lives in Drogheda and works as a carpenter in Dublin. Mr Gallagher arrived home around 6pm on the evening of Monday 3 March 1997. The farmyard was dark and unlit. As he pulled in, four armed men surrounded the van, and one shouted: “get out of the vehicle”.
“I was just in a complete state of shock, I couldn’t say anything,” Mr Gallagher said. “I didn’t know what was going on. One guy put me up against the van, searched me, spread my legs.” Others tore into the van. Another asked him if he knew of any subversive activity in the area.
“Who are you?” Mr Gallagher asked.
One said “Never mind that for the moment” and used obscene language.
“No warrant was ever shown to me,” Mr Gallagher said. A “piece of paper” was shown to his father, but this was in a workshop where there was little, and his father didn’t have his glasses.
“Never in the course of he search did any representative approach us to explain what was happening.” One of guards found a hat which was burned by holes from welding, and assumed it to be a balaclava. “Mum was in deep shock in the house, as was dad and my younger brother.”
“No one told us what was going on. Anyone we asked told us to go to Supt Lennon, without the courtesy of contacting him for us,” Mr Gallagher said. However, no trailer was found on the farm. No red Mitsubishi was found. There were weds outside the door to the shed where the barrack buster was supposedly stored, undisturbed for months.
On Tuesday, the information changed. Lennon told the conference the search was no longer for a barrack buster. The guards were to look for a hidden arms bunker.
Army airpower, in the form of a helicopter, was called in to assist in the search of the mountain, flying low over the land looking for any sign of a manmade structure. Emergency Response Unit and local detectives also took part in the searches. Despite the intensive effort, no bunker or bomb was found.
The guards told the Gallaghers “they had reason to believe a bomb had left one of our sheds, and there was another one due to go out in the near future.” The family was “absolutely devastated” by the news.
“This was a serious and quite vicious invasion of our land,” Jim Gallagher remembered at the Morris tribunal. “I would be aware if anything was happening on their lands, this was lambing season, busy. The shed in the yard made it impossible for us to miss anything.”
The focus of the search widened on Tuesday, away from the farm sheds and yard, as the guards searched for the bunker. “The helicopter was present during the search,” Lofty remembers. “This episode stands out as one of the most horrific parts of the search.” In broad daylight, an army helicopter hovered at low altitude, near heavily pregnant sheep. The animals stampeded, and piled up against a barred gate, “piled up three high”. Sheep were strangled and suffocated in the pileup against the gate.
Lofty Gallagher said attempts by solicitor to obtain copy of warrant afterwards were unsuccessful. “When we tried to get some answers on this, we came up against a brick wall on every occasion,” he said.
Asked why he believed Supt Lennon was present at the search, Mr Gallagher said his father had met him, and “so many different personnel said Supt Lennon was the man to see, we took that the time not knowing any other information.”
After the search for the bunker drew a blank, Kevin Lennon then told the conference a stick had been placed on Dooish mountain, behind the Gallagher farm, marking the spot where the supposed bunker lay concealed. After a further search, the guards found the stick, but no sign of a bunker.
Giving evidence at the Morris tribunal, William Doherty said he was brought to a shed near the farm in a white transit garda surveillance van and shown a clear plastic bag of white powder by Kevin Lennon and John O’Dowd. He was then driven to Dooish hill and walked about half a mile across some fields. Doherty said he was told to bury the bag on the hill “to fit up the Gallaghers” and mark the spot. He denied giving the guards any information about a stolen Ifor Williams trailer, or a barrack buster bomb, on the Gallagher farm.
“[Lennon] claims to have walked up the hill, together with his informer, and planted a stick in the ground at the spot where he claims the informer said the bunker was to be found. Nothing was found,” Justice Morris wrote. “At the conference the next morning, Superintendent Lennon was adamant that there was something to be found up the hill. Why was that?”
The judge found that William Doherty gave “credible evidence” that he “was supposed to put in this hole in the Gallaghers farm.”
“It is highly probable that Superintendent Lennon and Garda O’Dowd brought William Doherty to the vicinity of the hill behind Gallagher’s farm near which they had bomb-making equipment concealed,” the judge concluded. “The description of the substance to be planted fits with that of ground fertilizer and sugar – a substance with which the Tribunal has become depressingly familiar. On an extended search, this bag would have been found, had William Doherty obeyed his instructions. His ‘handlers’, Superintendent Lennon and Garda O’Dowd, were certain that he had, hence their conviction that there was something to be found on the hill.”
After the search, the Gallaghers found they had difficulty running the farm and Jim Gallagher’s plant hire business suffered. Many people were unwilling to deal with suspected Provo sympathisers. Because his business suffered as a result of the search, Jim Gallagher ” decided because of the collapse of the business to just make a cut, and make a fresh start.”
“At the end of the year I left Ireland,” he told the tribunal, working abroad for four years. “When I went to Australia first I had vowed never to come back… But this thing was always in my head over what happened. My family was still at home, Mam and Dad having to deal with the suspicions. Dad took things extremely bad.”
The Gallagher family is suing the state for damages.