Irish police colluded in the 1989 murder of two senior Northern Ireland police officers by the Irish Republican Army, a judge-led inquiry found Tuesday.
The inquiry looked into the circumstances around the death of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan, who were ambushed and shot by militants in March 1989 in south Armagh. The two officers, who weren't armed, were attacked when they were crossing the border into Northern Ireland shortly after a meeting in an Irish police station in the town of Dundalk.
In a report, Judge Peter Smithwick, who has spent the past eight years gathering evidence on whether the militants received help in ambushing the two officers, said he was satisfied there was collusion in the murders.
Smithwick concluded that the timing of the murders suggested that the information to trigger the IRA operation was likely leaked from the Dundalk police station, although he didn't put the blame on any individual.
Tuesday's report was the first time that Ireland has confirmed the longtime suspicion among Northern Ireland's Protestant majority that Irish police colluded with the IRA.
Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore issued an apology to the officers' families, saying he was "appalled and saddened" by the collusion finding.
"For years we have sought to get to the truth about their deaths," Gilmore said in a statement. "On behalf of the government and the people of Ireland, I apologize without reservation to the Breen and Buchanan families for any failings identified in the report on the part of the state or any of its agencies."
Irish Justice Minister Alan Shatter also apologized and described the murders as "two stark examples of the brutality which pervaded this island for many dark years."
Breen and Buchanan were the two highest-ranking Northern Ireland police officers to be murdered by the IRA's dominant faction, the Provisionals, which killed nearly 300 police as part of the underground army's failed 1970-1997 campaign to force Northern Ireland out of the U.K.
The two officers, who were in civilian clothes, were on their way home after the meeting in Dundalk when a gang of IRA militants ambushed their car. Breen tried to surrender, but both were shot dead at close range.
Officers of the Garda Siochana, Ireland's national police force, have repeatedly been accused of sympathizing with Provisional IRA attackers and aiding their efforts to kill Northern Ireland police and British soldiers in the 1970s and 1980s. But Smithwick was the first judge to be empowered by the government to get to the truth of any specific allegations.