A former Taoiseach ordered Garda chiefs not to co-operate with an investigation into an IRA attack which killed 18 British soldiers in 1979, it has been alleged at a tribunal.
A retired high-ranking Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer has claimed he was told by counterparts in the Republic of Ireland that the Narrow Water ambush, near Warrenpoint in County Down, was to be treated as a political crime.
The atrocity, on August 27 1979, resulted in the highest death toll suffered by the British Army in a single incident in the North, and came just hours after the Queen of England’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten was killed in a bomb on his boat off County Sligo.
The former RUC officer, who cannot be identified, was giving evidence at the Smithwick Tribunal, which is investigating allegations of Garda/IRA collusion during the Troubles.
Appearing by video-link from Belfast, he told the Dublin hearings he attended a meeting with two senior Garda CID officers and an Assistant Commissioner McLaughlin in Dublin Castle in April 1980.
“The meeting became quite acrimonious,” said the retired officer, referred to as Witness 68.
“Mr McLaughlin declared the Taoiseach, from the outset of the inquiry, decreed that the killings were a political crime and no assistance would be given to the RUC.”
Jack Lynch was Taoiseach at the time of the booby-trap bombing, and was succeeded by Charles Haughey the following December.
The Smithwick Tribunal is investigating allegations of Garda collusion over the IRA murders of senior RUC officers Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan on the border, minutes after a Garda meeting.
Witness 68, chief investigating officer in the Narrow Water bombing, said Garda co-operation during the inquiry was beyond non-existent.
A suspected detonation site, in the Republic of Ireland, had been destroyed before RUC forensic officers examined it, he said.
The retired detective, who went on to become Deputy Assistant Chief Constable of the RUC, claimed senior Garda officers told RUC investigators during a fourth and final meeting at Dublin Castle that nothing further would be released about the massacre and not to come back.
The witness said his superior, Bill Mooney, the head of RUC CID at the time, was very cross.
“Mr Mooney replied ’I can inform you, while this crime remains unsolved we will be coming back to see you all again’,” he added.
Witness 68 claimed he was later told by Mr Mooney that the RUC’s Chief Constable warned that they were embarrassing the Garda and not to go back for any further meetings as they had agreed with the Garda Commissioner to deal with it by other means.
There was a tense argument between legal teams before the witness could outline the controversial details of the meetings in Dublin.
Barrister Nuala Butler, who was instructed by the Attorney General and appeared as counsel for public interest, had asked chairman Judge Peter Smithwick to withhold the piece of evidence as it was based on hearsay, raised political issues and affected people who were dead and could not defend themselves.
“Given the sensitivity of the matter, it is not appropriate for the tribunal to hear the evidence, and it is not related to the matters within the tribunal’s terms of reference, it is of no public interest,” she added.
Michael Durack, counsel for the Garda Commissioner, said the evidence was of no relevance to the tribunal but was a headline grabber.
Witness 68 responded: “Is this an attempt to stop the whole truth being told at this inquiry, because it appears that way?”
Mary Laverty, senior counsel for the tribunal, argued she was more concerned about the reputation of those still alive, if those accused of collusion were “subject to political diktat” or a decision “above his pay grade”.
Judge Smithwick said the evidence should not be “smothered” on the grounds of its sensitivity.
“I think the evidence for better or worse should be given,” he ruled.
Earlier Witness 68 alleged Dundalk-based Detective Garda Sergeant Owen Corrigan made no effort to co-operate with his investigation and that he let two prime suspects walk free.
“Mr Corrigan was involved in criminal activity along the border. That was common knowledge,” he said.
But Mr Corrigan’s barrister, Darren Lehane, said his client totally rejected the allegations as outrageous, adding they had not previously been made in any statements or reports.
“Your client had an opportunity to do a great thing for An Garda Siochana that day,” continued the witnesses, who was a detective inspector at the time.
“The fact of the matter is he did not.
“The two men who walked out of the garda station in Dundalk that day killed at least a dozen (more) people along the border.
“If Mr Corrigan had done what I expected from an An Garda Siochana officer then perhaps those deaths wouldn’t have occurred,” he added.
The tribunal heard the suspects, Brendan Burns and Joe Brennan, were arrested by the Garda on the day but later released.
Mr Burns was killed in 1988 when a bomb he was transporting exploded prematurely while Mr Brennan was later convicted of firearms charges in the North.
Meanwhile Mr Durack disputed the allegations of non-co-operation.
He told Witness 68, who retired in 2001, that a Garda file detailing any forensic evidence against the two suspects had been sent to RUC headquarters.
The RUC officer said he was shocked and absolutely staggered when he read the report for the first time today, adding it could have resulted in an extradition and prosecution.
The tribunal also heard the witness had prepared an unrelated report into collusion allegations, which is being examined by the Northern Ireland Office.