Garda/RUC at odds over hotline

Smithwick tribunal

Garda and RUC records contradict each other on whether a secure telephone line was in place between Newry RUC station and Dundalk garda station in 1989, when two senior RUC officers were killed by the IRA as they returned from a meeting in Dundalk.

The Smithwick tribunal is looking at claims the movements of the RUC officers, chief superintendent Harry Breen and superintendent Bob Buchanan in 1989, were leaked from Dundalk garda station on 20 March 1989. the meeting was arranged earlier that day by telephone.

Retired garda inspector Mr Chris Kelly was later ordered to investigate the alleged interception of cross-border telephone calls between the RUC and Gardai by the IRA, following a report in Phoenix magazine.

The article alleged an IRA bug in the Ramparts telephone exchange in Dundalk allowed the organisation to intercept phone calls over secure lines.

Mr Kelly said that an intercept like the one the magazine described was possible, but it would have left evidence afterwards, and no evidence had been found.

“You would have to have someone who had an inside knowledge and a technical expertise to carry out the observation as described,” he said.

And he said that cutting through airtight telecom wires, a necessary part of the operations, would set off an alarm in the exchange.

Mr Kelly said there were “easier ways” to intercept a telephone line, away from the telephone exchange. “It would eventually be detected, but it would be more easily detected at the exchange,” he said.

During his inquiry, Mr Kelly interviewed journalists who had written stories for the Cork Examiner and Dundalk Argus, but was unable to meet with the editor of the Phoenix.

The Cork Examiner article appeared two days after the deaths of Mr Breen and Mr Buchanan in 1989, and suggested that because the IRA has access to telephone calls between RUC and Garda officers, there was no need for a garda mole in Dundalk.

Journalist Jim McDowell, who wrote the Examiner article, was interviewed by Mr Kelly, and described his source as “a very good source and a very reliable source.

The Examiner article described a device attached to a telephone pole, not in a telephone exchange as described in the Phoenix.

Garda records showed there were “private wire” lines between Dundalk and the RUC stations in Bessbrook and Newry, but not between Dundalk and Armagh.

However, RUC records showed there was a private line to Armagh.

The magazine article said the monitoring device was discovered by a now-deceased telephone engineer, Mr Gerry Finnegan, but there was no record of such a report, Mr Kelly found.

Mr Kelly also spoke to Mr William Prendergast, an An Post investigator who had “a recollection of an investigation which took place similar to that detailed in the Phoenix.” But no evidence to support this could be found.

He said the consensus among engineers was that while the operation described by Phoenix was “technically feasible”, the experts said it was “cumbersome, inexpert and certainly more prone to discovery than other methods available at the time”

The intercept could also take place in a manhole near a the garda station, or at the “main distribution frame” inside the station.

But Mr Kelly said an interception inside the station would not go undetected “for a long period of time”.

The equipment in the garda station had been replaced by the time Mr Kelly carried out his investigation, so he was unable to examine it for evidence.

The “voice activated long play recorder” described in the article was similar to equipment seized during Garda searches, Mr Kelly said in the report on his investigation.

Later, two retired Telecom Eireann/Eircom engineers said that they were unaware of any evidence of phone tapping in the Ramparts exchange in Dundalk.

Mr John McGuoine said the exchange was kept locked at all times, and Mr Frank McEvoy said that because the exchange carried all calls in the North-east, and routed all calls between Dublin in Belfast, security was high at the site, and all staff were vetted.