A judge today vowed to do all in his power to ensure witnesses from Britain and Northern Ireland attend his investigation into the IRA murder of two RUC officers.
Judge Peter Smithwick told the opening day of a tribunal in Dublin into the deaths of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Robert Buchanan that he hoped all potential witnesses would co-operate voluntarily with his inquiry into allegations of police collusion in the murder.
“However, if a person or agency outside the state declines to co-operate, the terms of reference provide for a mechanism for seeking to ensure such co-operation,” he said.
Judge Smithwick has the power to report witnesses who refuse to attend to the Dáil, which will then raise the matter with the British government.
The potential witnesses include journalists, politicians and members of the British intelligence services who will be guaranteed that none of their statements can be used in criminal proceedings against them.
Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan were killed in an IRA ambush near the border between Louth and South Armagh on March 20, 1989 as they returned from an informal meeting with senior police in Dundalk.
It has been claimed that the IRA were tipped off about the route the men had planned to take by a member of the Gardaí.
The IRA, which issued a statement claiming responsibility for the murders of the two RUC men, is also expected to come under pressure to co-operate.
In the most dramatic moment of the tribunal’s opening day, barrister Jim O’Callaghan made an application for legal representation for Owen Corrigan, a retired detective sergeant who worked in the border region for more than 30 years before retiring in 1991.
He said the former policeman could be of no assistance to the tribunal but had been dragged into the matter by Democratic Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson.
The tribunal heard that the Lagan Valley MP, then a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, had used his parliamentary privilege in the British House of Commons in 2000 to suggest that Det Sgt Corrigan passed on information to the IRA about the meeting of the RUC officers with gardaí in Dundalk.
“That statement by Jeffrey Donaldson was a monstrous lie. It was false and my client wishes to establish the falsehood of it,” said Mr O’Callaghan.
He said his client had spent his career working with the Special Branch and chasing subversives at great personal cost.
Det Sgt Corrigan appeared before an Irish parliamentary committee last month to testify about his role in the investigation of the sectarian murder of Seamus Ludlow, a Dundalk forestry worker, in 1976.
He expressed his frustration at the failure of his superiors to give him permission to travel to Northern Ireland to follow up information about the suspected loyalist killers.
Judge Smithwick said he would investigate all the allegations of collusion.
“While it generally means the commission of an act, I am of the view that it should also be considered in terms of an omission or failure to act.
“I intend to examine whether anybody turned a blind eye to it, or pretended ignorance or unawareness of something one ought morally, legally or officially oppose.”
He said he wanted to express his deepest sympathy to members of the Breen and Buchanan families on their loss.
“I can well understand that the holding of this inquiry may bring back unhappy memories for them. I wish to assure the families that the tribunal will, while having a duty and obligation in the matter, be mindful of their sensitivities.”
June Breen, the widow of the murdered RUC Chief Superintendent, has applied for legal representation at the tribunal, as has the family of Superintendent Robert Buchanan.
Ernie Telford, the solicitor for the Buchanan family, said they welcomed the opening of Judge Smithwick’s inquiry.
“The intervening years since the deaths of Supt Buchanan and his colleague Chief Supt Breen have been extremely difficult for the families and friends and they are seeking closure to this tragic affair,” he said.
He said the Buchanan family had total and complete confidence that it would be a full and thorough investigation carried out expeditiously.
“So many questions about this tragedy remain unanswered. There are so many lingering suspicions. The family have met Judge Smithwick and they know everything possible will be done by him to establish the full circumstances surrounding that fateful day in the back roads of South Armagh 17 years ago,” he added.
The setting up of the Smithwick tribunal was prompted by the Canadian judge Peter Cory, who investigated the murder of the two RUC officers.
In his report, published in December 2003, Judge Cory stated it could be said that the IRA did not need information from the Gardaí to carry out the ambush and that intelligence reports received in the aftermath had also pointed to this conclusion.
But he referred to two other intelligence reports mentioning a Garda leak and a statement from a British intelligence agent known as Kevin Fulton who claimed an IRA man told him that the organisation was told about the presence of the RUC officers in Dundalk police station by a member of the Gardaí.
The Smithwick Tribunal held its opening in the King’s Inn, the training school for barristers built in 1817 by the renowned architect James Gandon.
Its regular sittings will be held in a block of the Law Society’s headquarters in Dublin, which is not yet ready.
No date has yet been set for these public hearings.