Three former Garda officers who served in Dundalk have firmly rejected the findings of the Smithwick Tribunal that officers from the station there colluded in the IRA murder of two senior RUC officers.
RUC Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan were ambushed in south Armagh in 1989 as they returned to Newry after a meeting in Dundalk Garda station. Irish Judge Peter Smithwick, who chaired an eight-year inquiry into the matter, concluded in December that a leak from Dundalk station had tipped off the IRA about their travel plans.
But now three retired gardai who served in Dundalk have released a report which they say refutes the findings: Det Chief Supt John O’Brien, Chief Supt Michael Finnegan and Chief Supt Michael Staunton.
Mr O’Brien served in Dundalk from 1994 to 1995. Speaking to the News Letter yesterday he confirmed he never attended the tribunal, but added that his two colleagues had given evidence and said their combined policing experience of 100 years gave adequate insight into the final report.
He firmly rejected suggestions from the Breen family solicitor John McBurney that their report put undue faith in IRA statements, which Smithwick rejected on three key points. The judge himself had found the IRA accounts “persuasive” on some points, Mr O’Brien said, adding that he himself had helped make a major seizure of IRA weapons in 1984.
The IRA claimed they were able to ambush the RUC officers after surveilling their car visiting Dundalk station over several months, he said.
Judge Smithwick believed intense IRA radio traffic starting two hours before the RUC officers left Newry on the day of the ambush proved the IRA had advance knowledge of their victims’ travel plans.
But Mr O’Brien said that the Dundalk meeting had been first planned during an RUC gathering in Armagh four days before the murders.
Asked if he was suggesting there had been an RUC leak, he said IRA agent Kevin Fulton had alleged to the tribunal that another two RUC officers were working with the IRA. However the News Letter understands Fulton never linked his claim to the murders.
Mr O’Brien contended that “the single most important piece of information that came across the tribunal” was from an intelligence source provided by the PSNI in 2012 which said an unknown Garda officer in Dundalk had been the mole.
However, Mr O’Brien found it “incredible” that this was “not tested” and that the PSNI were not pressed to disclose their own grading of this information, or make it available for inspection.
He acknowledged that Gardai had also presented intelligence to the tribunal from one of their own sources, who also claimed a Garda mole had set up the two RUC officers.
However, Mr O’Brien said this information had been supplied to his force after major public speculation on the matter in 1989 and did not name either a specific officer or station.
When the Smithwick report was published in December, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan rejected Judge Smithwick’s conclusion that a culture prevails in the force where “loyalty is prized above honesty”.
Retired DCS John O’Brien yesterday declined to say whether Mr Callinan’s office had input into his report critiquing Smithwick’s findings, replying “no comment” when asked.
Mr OBrien also rejected any possible conflict of interest in the case, having served in Dundalk, and declined to say if he knew the officers investigated by the tribunal.
The PSNI and Smithwick Tribunal both declined to make any comment.