The IRA in South Armagh had the capacity to mount the operation which led to the murders of two senior RUC officers within “an hour”, a former head of the Garda Special Detective Unit told the Smithwick tribunal.
Peter Maguire, the former chief superintendent in charge of the Special Detective Unit, said the IRA had “about six operational officers” in place in south Armagh at any time, each in charge of an active service unit. In total, there were 30 to 50 operational IRA members in the area at any time, he said.
“They were particularly careful and they were very very conscious of risk,” he said.
He said that the IRA in the area would have had the capacity to mount an operation in at the border in “an hour”.
Mr Maguire also rejected allegations that a former detective sergeant, Owen Corrigan, could have leaked information about the movements of two senior RUC officers to the IRA.
The tribunal is looking at claims a Garda “mole” leaked information to the IRA leading to the murders of two RUC officers, Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan, as they returned from a meeting in Dundalk Garda station.
Mr Corrigan is one of three retired sergeants granted legal representation at the tribunal. He has described allegations that he leaked information at a “monstrous lie”.
“I never had a concern about Mr Corrigan in relation to security matters, in relation to his fidelity to the State, in relation to his dedication to An Garda Siochana”, Mr Maguire said.
But he agreed that Mr Corrigan had a reputation as someone who “wasn’t forthcoming in paying his bills, that was the reputation he acquired.”
Retired sergeant Des McTiernan said that Mr Corrigan was “obsessed” with money.
Earlier, former garda commissioner Noel Conroy said detective sergeant Corrigan was chosen for a mission to recover the stolen Beit art collection because of his “ability and courage”,.
Mr Conroy told the tribunal he chose Owen Corrigan for the task after receiving intelligence that could lead to the recovery of the priceless artworks.
“We wanted somebody of the calibre of Owen Corrigan to come to Dublin and do a particular task,” Mr Conroy said.
The commissioner was a chief superintendent working in the Central Detective Unit in Harcourt Square at the time.
And he agreed with barrister Mr Jim O’Callaghan SC, who represents Mr Corrigan, that he would not have offered the task to a Garda who was a security risk.
Mr Conroy said he was shocked at evidence by an ex-chief superintendent, Tom Curran, who said that he was given a message to convey to Garda HQ by Mr Breen some months before his death. The message was that the RUC has concerns about Mr Corrigan.
Mr Conroy said that the way the message was described went against the chain of command, and would suggest that the RUC “had little trust in Garda HQ”.
“I cannot understand how a thing like that would happen,” he said.
Mr Curran also gave evidence that Mr Eugene Crowley, the assistant commissioner in Crime & Security branch, barely acknowledged the message when it was conveyed.
The witness said that did not sound like the Eugene Crowley he knew.
Mr Conroy also said he had never received any information alleging a security leak in Dundalk Garda station.
And he said another former sergeant, Leo Colton, was not in a position to receive any information he could pass on about the visit by the senior RUC officers to Dubdalk.
Mr Conroy said he was aware that after Mr Colton retired, he went to work for an individual “known to be associated with the IRA”, but he put great faith in the investigation carried out into alleged leaks by detective chief superintendent Sean Cannon, who was “a thorough investigator.”
Barristers for the tribunal and the Garda commissioner clashed again before Mr Conroy gave his evidence with complaints about the availability of senior Garda witnesses before they gave evidence.