Smithwick tribunal: Commissioned by the Sunday Times, 26 June 2011

Alan Mains cuts a striking figure in the witness box. Relaxed and comfortable, his words flow easily. Answers come in full sentences, volunteering supplementary information, not just clipped answers to the precise questions asked most policemen are trained to give in court.Photo of Smithwick tribunal

Mains retired from the PSNI in 2007 as a detective superintendent. But it was events 22 years ago that brought him to Dublin to give evidence before former District Court president Peter Smithwick, charged with looking into Garda collusion claims.

In 1989, Mains was a sergeant in South Armagh, working for Chief Superintendent Harry Breen.

The Chief made a big impression on the young sergeant, who recalled how the first time they met, Breen got up from behind his desk to shake his hand warmly. In the regimented atmosphere of the times, such a gesture from a senior officer was rare.

They enjoyed a good working relationship. As Breen’s assistant, Mains was privy to information above his paygrade; the Chief trusted him implicitly.

On Monday morning, 21 March 1989, Breen told Mains about a planned meeting with Garda officers in Dundalk. The topic: reports of suspected smuggling activity on property belonging to well-known republican Thomas “Slab” Murphy.

Mains begged off the trip, as he had a rugby match that evening. Breen promised he could get him home in time, but eventually plans were rearranged, and following some phone calls, superintendent Bob Buchanan went instead.

They never made it home. A few hundred yards north of the border, as they drove back from Dundalk, a group of men in combat fatigues stopped the car, and both officers were shot dead.

Mains’ voice faltered for the only time in his evidence as he recalled the moment he was told the bad news.

The following day, Mains met RUC chief constable Jack Hermon and an assistant chief constable identified at the tribunal only as “Witness 18”.

Hermon asked what had gone wrong, and Mains said he pointed to Witness 18, saying the assistant chief constable had told the men to go to Dundalk. Mains then told Hermon his boss was worried about the trip. There were Guards on Slab Muphy’s payroll, Breen had alleged. What’s more, he’d named one: Owen Corrigan.

Hermon dismissed the idea, saying Corrigan had been investigated and cleared. But Mains persisted, raising his voice in protest. A few days later, he made a statement putting Breen’s concerns on records, without naming Corrigan. The CID officer who took the statement told him not to, he said. The document could become public at an inquest, endangering Corrigan. But he’d given the name to Hermon and the CID oficer, and was confident it would be investigated. Mains finally named Corrigan in September 2000.

Corrigan, who vigorously protests his innocence, had by then been named in Westminster by unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson using parliamentary privilege. The tribunal heard he was also “Garda X”, identified by journalist Toby Harndon in his 1999 book “Bandit Country” as a possible “mole” who gave the IRA information about Breen and Buchanan’s movements.

Corrigan’s barrister Jim O’Callaghan pointed to problems with Mains’ account. Hermon died in 2008, and the CID officer who was told Corrigan’s name in 1989 was also dead.

That left “Witness 18” as the only remaining corroborator. But Witness 18 said there was no such conversation with Jack Hermon. And Witness 18 insisted he’d forbidden the officers from crossing the border, and they would be alive if they hadn’t disobeyed.

O’Callaghan pressed the point. Why havd Mains waited eleven and a half years to name Corrigan? By then Harnden’s book and parliamentary questions had created a “momentum” against his client. What was the tribunal chairman to make of inconsistencies between Mains and other witnesses over the sequence of phone calls in the hours leading up to the Dundalk meeting. Mains responded that he’d passed the information on orally trusting it would be checked, and named Corrigan in a statement once a Garda investigation began. And he told the barrister he had no evidence against Corrigan. His evidence to the tribunal was simply what Breen told him, the chairman could decide what to make of it.

Corrigan gets his own chance to address the rumour that has haunted him for the last decade later this year, and other questions including his abduction and beating by paramilitaries in the mid-1990s, but meantime he can take comfort from the evidence of other witnesses. After Mains completed his evidence, several Dundalk detectives gave their accounts of the fatal day. Corrigan had been “in the front line” in the fight against the Provos, they agreed, working “in a difficult and dangerous area”.

“I never actually believed there was any substance at all to those reports,” retired detective Jim Lane said Friday, summing up the sentiment of many of the detectives who knew Corrigan.