On July 19 last, RTÉ’s Six One News carried an item on the murder of Tom Oliver, a farmer from Co. Louth who was abducted, tortured and murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1991.
The murder of the popular father of seven sparked outrage in the Cooley peninsula, leading to a major demonstration against the Provos and the ostracisation locally of known IRA people.
Nobody has ever been prosecuted for the crime. The news broadcast on the anniversary of Mr Oliver’s abduction centred on an interview with Jon Boutcher, a retired British police officer who is investigating the killing. He was interviewed in a field near where Tom Oliver had been abducted. Standing beside Mr Boutcher was Eugene Oliver, who, as a 13-year-old, had found his father’s abandoned car on the night in question.
“Working with the garda, we have taken a significant number of new statements and recovered new DNA evidence that I am hoping will assist us,” Mr Boutcher said.
Then he referenced some former or retired gardaí whom his investigation wished to speak to, noting that some were not co-operating.
“Some have indicated that they don’t want to (talk to the British investigators) but we don’t necessarily take no for an answer,” Mr Boutcher said. “We are still working to speak to some of them.”
Mr Boutcher divulged other nuggets about the investigation and made an appeal for people to come forward, but the line about the unco-operative former gardaí took hold.
Following the broadcast, Fine Gael TDs Charlie Flanagan and Fergus O’Dowd, and former party leader John Bruton, referenced this, saying that anybody asked should come forward and co-operate.
Nobody commented on the bizarre scenario. A British police officer investigating a murder that probably took place in the Republic, was being interviewed in this jurisdiction about his investigation, and criticising ex-gardaí who had investigated the matter previously.
Strangely, there was no garda accompanying the police officer from a different jurisdiction who was acting in a professional capacity in this one. There were other strange features to Mr Boutcher’s investigation that went unremarked on.
The Smithwick Tribunal, which investigated possible collusion between members of the gardaí and the Provisional IRA, heard various strands of evidence in 2012 connected to the murder of Tom Oliver. What emerged is that two British agents may have had a role in the matter.
One of these, who goes by the name of Kevin Fulton, was a self-declared agent who put forward the theory that Mr Oliver had actually been abducted twice, and that he, Fulton, was involved in the first, but not the second one after which the farmer was tortured and murdered.
Another figure who featured was Freddie Scappaticci, who is alleged to have been the highest ranking British agent in the Provos, code-named Stakeknife, a claim which he denies. Boutcher’s original brief was to investigate the activities of Stakeknife, including any murders that he may have committed while working for the British.
Scappaticci was widely known to have been the head of the Provos nutting squad, which detained, tortured and ultimately murdered anybody suspected of informing on the IRA.
It was the Stakeknife connection with the Tom Oliver murder which brought Boutcher to investigate it. Scappaticci was represented at the tribunal but did not give evidence.
A third figure to feature at Smithwick was the current Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris. He appeared in his role as assistant chief constable of the PSNI in charge of intelligence. He told the tribunal that he had intelligence on the individual who was ordered by the army council of the IRA to carry out the murder.
The name was written on a piece of paper and passed to Judge Smithwick. It is unclear whether any or all of these three figures have co-operated with the Boutcher inquiry, but it is indisputable that they are key witnesses.
Yet Mr Boutcher appeared instead to place great store on whether former gardaí who were involved in an investigation 30 years ago were willing to give him fresh statements about the murder of a citizen of the Republic. Meanwhile, the pending amnesty proposed by the British government will shut down all investigations including this one in which the Oliver family simply want to know who killed their loved one.
There is no evidence that Tom Oliver was an informer for the gardaí despite the justification given by the Provos for his murder.
In 1989, a barrel containing IRA guns was found on his land. All sources indicate that these arms were hidden there without Tom Oliver’s knowledge. Two local IRA men were arrested but released without charge. These two men subsequently joined a dissident IRA group and were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in 2001.
Two years after the discovery, just after midnight on July 18, 1991, Tom Oliver went to attend to a cow who was calving in a field. His abandoned blue Mark IV Cortina was found the next day. The keys were in the ignition. It is unclear if the driver’s door was hanging open. This would provide an indication of whether he had been abducted or went willingly with those who ultimately murdered him.
His body was found the following day near Belleek, Co. Armagh, 15 miles away. He had been tortured and shot six times in the head. A priest who viewed the body after a post mortem said it looked like the killers had “dropped a concrete block on every bone in his body”.
The killing sparked off a wave of outrage on the Cooley peninsula. A rally against the IRA took place the following week. Major wounds opened in the tight-knit community as anger was directed at the Provos.
A week after the murder, An Phoblacht published a piece under the headline: ‘IRA Executes Informer’. It read: “The IRA has a duty to protect its organisation, its volunteers and the back-up by its supporters. Tom Oliver’s death was due to his willingness to act as an agent for the Dublin Government’s special branch.”
Nearly 20 years later, the Smithwick Tribunal heard some details about Mr Oliver’s murder. Kevin Fulton, whose real name was Peter Keeley, told the inquiry that Tom Oliver had been abducted twice, the first time to present him with a warning about allegedly acting as an informer for the gardaí.
Outlining Fulton’s evidence, the Smithwick Report states that Fulton said he was told to get a van and a unit of IRA volunteers together to arrest Tom Oliver. Fulton was regularly asked to source vehicles for the subversives.
“He stated that subsequently he was told to get a van and the unit got together to arrest Tom Oliver. He said that there were 8 of them. He drove the van, there was another car with them, and they drove to a hotel.
"They then drove down to Mr Oliver’s house and arrested him. He stated that Freddie Scappaticci was in the group and that they lifted Mr Oliver out of the van and put him in the boot of the car.
"He said that Mr Oliver was tied up. He stated that he was told that Mr Oliver was not coming back. He said that Mr Oliver’s wellington was left in the van and he had to throw it away. He said that they released Mr Oliver. He said that he wasn’t involved in the release.”
Many observers have dismissed the theory that Tom Oliver was kidnapped twice. An obvious question arising from Fulton’s evidence is why did he throw away the man’s wellington boot if he thought that he would be coming back for it.
Yet according to Fulton, this was the first kidnapping of Mr Oliver. Nobody has corroborated his evidence. At the tribunal, barrister Jim O’Callaghan — the Fianna Fáil TD — put it to Fulton “you have described there probably the last moments of Tom Oliver’s life.”
Fulton denied this. He maintained this was the first kidnapping. He also confirmed that he told his handlers about every action in which he was involved.
So if there was a first kidnapping, the security forces in the North would have a record and questions arise as to why Mr Oliver and the gardaí were not warned about an obvious and imminent threat to Tom Oliver’s life. If there was only one kidnapping, and Fulton was present as the recounting of detail suggests, then the security forces in the North must know who was involved in Tom Oliver’s murder if Fulton passed on the information afterwards as was his custom.
A major question arises as to why Tom Oliver was murdered. All the reports are that the local volunteers were totally against his execution. If Tom Oliver were an informer, it is these volunteers' whole lives and liberty that would be most impacted. Yet they didn’t want him dead.
The Smithwick Tribunal heard evidence from Drew Harris, based on intelligence he had received about the role of senior figures in the Provisional IRA (PIRA) in the murder. Judge Smithwick referenced this in his report “Intelligence indicates that a senior PIRA Army Council member was directly involved in ordering the murder of Tom Oliver. The senior PIRA Army Council [“PAC”] member had been approached by several PIRA members and others requesting that Tom Oliver not be killed. Despite these requests, the senior PAC member directed that Oliver be executed.
“Further intelligence suggest that a senior PIRA figure sought direction and instruction from a senior PAC member in relation to the discovery of allegations of Tom Oliver being an AGS informant. The senior PAC member subsequently ordered Oliver to be executed. The name of the senior PIRA figure referred to in this intelligence was provided to me by Assistant Chief Constable Harris in writing during the course of his evidence to the Tribunal.”
One theory as to why Tom Oliver was murdered against the wishes of many within the Provos is that it was designed to deflect from the activities of some actual informers. One figure who could provide answers in this respect is the agent Stakeknife, who was a very senior figure in the PIRA.
Jon Boutcher is primarily investigating the activities of Stakeknife and has access to the agent so why not just ask him?
Stakeknife, who has widely been identified as Freddie Scappaticci — despite his denials — was present when Tom Oliver was kidnapped, according to Fulton. Was Tom Oliver, an innocent man, sacrificed in order to preserve Stakeknife’s cover?
Mr Boutcher has a major advantage over the gardaí in that he has access to three key individuals who could assist in identifying the murderers. Two of these individuals were British agents who must still be relying on the British state for a stipend or at the very least proper security.
Both have also cost the exchequer in this jurisdiction some money as their legal fees for the Smithwick Tribunal were covered. Fulton’s lawyers received €456,645 while Scappaticci’s were paid €382,270, even though he didn’t give evidence.
The third individual who could be of great assistance to Boutcher is Commissioner Harris who has a wealth of intelligence information since his days in the PSNI. A question to the garda press office as to whether Commissioner Harris has given a statement to the Boutcher investigation received the reply: “In general, any information available to Commissioner Harris when he was a PSNI officer is a PSNI record and is rightly a matter for the chief constable of the PSNI.”
The reply, while not explicit, suggests that the commissioner has not been interviewed by the Boutcher team. That of itself would appear to be an astounding omission.
Theunderstands that several former gardaí have been approached by the Boutcher investigation, some of them in their homes. In these instances, British investigators turned up at the door unaccompanied by any gardaí, which is contrary to the Mutual Assistance Convention between the Republic and the UK, covering joint police operations.
It is unclear how exactly these gardaí were thought to be of assistance, but the public declaration by Mr Boutcher of their failure to co-operate inferred that they may have some vital information. This, in light of all that Mr Boutcher has access to, is baffling.
The Garda Press Office was asked whether serving officers accompanied the British team in attempting to interview former gardaí under the Mutual Assistance Convention.
“An Garda Siochana has a high level agreement in place with Operation Kenova which supports the co-operation, assistance and exchange of information between An Garda Siochana and the Operation Kenova investigation team.”
If the mutual assistance convention has not applied, there may well be a major problem with any evidence presented in a criminal trial.
Meanwhile, the Oliver family are still looking for answers as to why their world was shattered in 1991. While Mr Boutcher is undoubtedly acting in good faith, it is difficult to understand how other elements in the British security services are of a like mind, as the answers are all available within the apparatus.
On another front, Gerry Adams told the local radio station in Co. Louth in 2017 that he did not favour a prosecution of those responsible for Tom Oliver’s murder. He described it as a “politically motivated killing”.
“The IRA killed the man. The IRA gave their reasons for killing the man. That’s the historical record,” he said.
“I have no information whatsoever (about it),” he told LM/FM’s Michael Reade.
Mr Adams’ party, Sinn Féin, is opposed to the proposed amnesty for murders committed during the years of violence but it remains unclear whether the party believes that the killers of Tom Oliver should also be held accountable.