Smithwick Tribunal: ‘colourful’ evidence amid tedium

Judge Peter Smithwick is chairing the tribunal into claims of Garda/IRA collusion
Judge Peter Smithwick is chairing the tribunal into claims of Garda/IRA collusion

In almost eight years of painstaking investigations into alleged Garda-IRA collusion in the murder of the two most senior police officers, few days stand out.

British undercover agents, Provo bombers, politicians and the island’s most senior officers took the stand at the Smithwick tribunal, over 133 days of public hearings at a cost of more than 10 million euro, with legal fees pending.

While sometimes tedious, evidence was often colourful with explosive claims against high-profile politicians on the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was forced to issue a denial when a former British intelligence officer claimed he had been involved in the IRA sanctioning an operation to abduct, torture and murder Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan in March 1989.

And a former taoisech was accused of warning gardai not to co-operate with an investigation into the IRA’s Narrow Water atrocity where18 British soldiers were blown up because of paratroopers’ involvement in Bloody Sunday.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris stood over “explosive” new intelligence which claimed several gardai were tipping off Provos.

The tribunal was established in 2005, with lawyers spending six years trawling intelligence and witness statements from police forces and officials on both sides of the border.

Chairman Judge Peter Smithwick is expected to seek a fourth extension before publishing his final report at the end of October - two years later than expected.

“It’s a momentous occasion,” said one insider as the final day of hearings loomed.

The inquiry has been probing any links between gardai or civilians in the force and the IRA’s ambush of Chief Supt Breen and Supt Buchanan on March 20 1989, after a meeting with a senior garda in Dundalk.

High profile witnesses from the Garda, RUC and PSNI included former commissioner Noel Conroy, current Commissioner Martin Callinan and ACC Harris.

On one occasion hearings moved to the Special Criminal Court where Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt - jailed for directing terrorism - gave evidence.

Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who named retired detective Owen Corrigan as a rogue officer passing information to the IRA in the House of Commons in April 2000 under parliamentary privilege and sparked the probe, gave evidence.

But when British intelligence officer Ian Hurst - also known as Martin Ingram - claimed to have inside knowledge linking Mr McGuinness to an order for the 1989 ambush, the Sinn Fein chief declared it a “cock and bull story”.

An unnamed senior RUC officer also claimed a senior garda told police there could be no co-operation with the atrocity at Narrow Water near Warrenpoint, Co Down, in August 1979, because of what happened eight years earlier at Bloody Sunday.

It is not known if it was Jack Lynch, taoiseach at the time of the roadside bomb attack, or Charlie Haughey, who was leader of the country when Garda and RUC officers met at Dublin Castle in April 1980. Both have since died.

Elsewhere, a British agent who infiltrated the IRA claimed a convicted bomb-maker was also a secret informer.

Hidden behind a screen to protect his identity, Peter Keeley - also known as Kevin Fulton - said one-time Omagh bomb suspect Patrick ‘’Mooch’’ Blair was an agent north or south of the border and alleged Freddie Scappaticci was in the IRA’s notorious internal security unit - the “nutting squad’’ - and was the British agent known as Stakeknife.

Three former garda officers - Owen Corrigan, Leo Colton and Finbarr Hickey - took the stand and denied allegations of collusion. Some claimed they were stitched up by British authorities.

Canadian judge Peter Cory recommended a public inquiry be held into allegations of collusion by garda officers, or a civilian in the force after being asked to examine a number of killings alleged to have involved collusion.

Judge Smithwick is expected to take about four months to complete and publish his report.