Collateral damage of Smithwick Tribunal on the road to justice

The Smithwick Tribunal’s inability to name the mole in Dundalk Garda Station in March 1989 casts a shadow over every member of the force who served there, says Michael Clifford.

Collateral damage of Smithwick Tribunal on the road to justice

LET’S for a second imagine that serious corruption had been unearthed inside the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

This body of 94 upstanding politicians would immediately be thrust under a cloud. In this hypothetical scenario, it will emerge that three parliamentarians are under strong suspicion of being involved in this corruption.

A public inquiry would follow, in which the three suspects in particular would be put through the ringer. At the end of the process, the chair of the inquiry would declare she was of the strong belief that serious corruption actually occurred, but she did not find proof the three were involved.

This result would leave a cloud hanging over the 94-strong body of men and women. At least one among them is corrupt but, in the absence of sufficient proof, all would be tarred with the same dirty brush.

Would the hierarchy of Fine Gael allow such a scenario to develop and ultimately contaminate the public’s attitude towards each and every one of them? Not on your life.

Yet such a fate now exists for another body of men and women, the vast majority of whom have served this State faithfully.

The Smithwick Tribunal, which investigated the murder of two RUC officers in 1989, concluded last December that, “on the balance of probabilities”, there was collusion between somebody in Dundalk Garda Station and the Provisional IRA in setting up the murders of senior RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan.

The findings were welcomed by relatives of the murdered men. The Government accepted the findings totally, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, and Justice Minister Alan Shatter all making statements on the matter. Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan also accepted the finding of collusion.

Judge Peter Smithwick’s inquiry was conducted over eight years. By any standards, it was a comprehensive investigation. Three former gardaí were granted legal representation. One of them had been named under privilege in Britain’s House of Commons as being an IRA mole in the force.

Smithwick found there was not sufficient evidence to point the finger at any of the three, but, on the balance of probabilities, he concluded, there was a mole in the station. This, effectively, put everybody who worked out of the station under a cloud.

Any of the gardaí — and civilians who worked at the Dundalk station — are now, by finding of fact, in the frame for collusion in murder in a way that no other citizen is.

One retired cop who is among that number is former detective superintendent, Tom Connolly. He was transferred to Dundalk some six months before the murders. He knew Bob Buchanan, and met the RUC man as he was leaving the Dundalk station on the fateful day.

“We had a chat. he told me he was going on a transfer. I told him I would meet him before he left,” he said. Half an hour later, Mr Connolly got word that Buchanan and his colleague had been murdered just over the border. Mr Connolly feels acutely that the Smithwick Report casts him and all his colleagues in the station at the time in an unfavourable light.

“They [the tribunal] eliminated or exonerated three members who were mentioned for years in relation to the tribunal,” Mr Connolly told RTÉ Radio. “They wound up saying they didn’t do it but somebody did from within the garda station. The vast majority of the general public will believe the tribunal report. The gardaí who were stationed in Dundalk, including myself, are under a cloud.”

Three other senior, now retired, gardaí, have compiled a critique of the Smithwick report, in which they vehemently dispute the findings. Former chief superintendents Michael Staunton and Michael Finnegan, and former detective superintendent John O’Brien, all served in Dundalk during the Troubles.

They dispute the integrity of the investigation by Smithwick, pointing out that the inquiry didn’t even hire its own investigators. They also claim that too much weight was given to evidence obtained from RUC files, while too little was given to claims by the Provisional IRA, while accepting that the PIRA would be inclined towards self-serving claims.

As has been seen with other tribunal reports in recent years, those against whom findings have been made will often dispute the outcome. In any investigative process to determine facts — as opposed to guilt or innocence — there will always be disputes as to whether the evidence was properly evaluated. The three retired cops set out a cogent case, but challenging eight years of work, including access to a forest of documentation, in a 30-page critique, is a tall order.

What the compilation of the critique does illustrate is the enormity of the facts found in Smithwick. The three authors, merely on the basis of time served in Dundalk, are all effectively under a cloud of suspicion, even though there is not a scintilla of evidence that they were anything other than upstanding members of the force. That fact alone should ensure that their critique attracts serious consideration. Yet it has been largely ignored.

The Government has accepted the Smithwick report in its entirety. When the critique of the three retired members was published in January, it was reported the Government was studying it. A spokesman for the Department of Justice told the Irish Examiner that while the critique was received in the department, the question of rejecting the findings of Smithwick does not arise.

THE Garda Commissioner has also accepted the finding on collusion, irrespective of the implications for the dozens of former and serving innocent members contaminated. Politically, Mr Callinan could not have done otherwise.

In contrast, the commissioner did not accept an ancillary finding by Smithwick that a culture exists in the force where its reputation takes priority over everything else. “Loyalty is prized above honesty,” Judge Smithwick reported. Mr Callinan said he would never accept such a conclusion.

Smithwick’s finding in this regard stemmed, not from an investigative process or circumstantial evidence, but from what the judge saw before him in the tribunal process itself. The tribunal had heard evidence from another retired cop, former chief superintendent Tom Curran, who had, over 20 years ago, told an assistant commissioner of his suspicions that a member of the force was colluding with the Provos. The news had been pointedly ignored by the AC, thus portraying the management of the force as being entirely indifferent to problems that existed along the border. That evidence cast the culture of the force in a poor light. Judge Smithwick found that counsel for the gardaí had attempted to undermine Mr Curran’s evidence because he had apparently put honesty above loyalty to the force.

Mr Callinan, who was happy to accept a finding that was effectively a slur on dozens of retired members, would not accept Smithwick’s finding in relation to the culture within the force. Ironically, Mr Callinan’s position showed that he had precious little loyalty to those who were cast under a cloud of suspicion in the report.

There is no doubt that Judge Smithwick made his rulings in good faith. He obviously assessed the evidence and came to his conclusions on that basis. However, the finding of collusion does a disservice to the vast majority of men and women who served in Dundalk. The bereaved families — and colleagues of the murdered men — had long believed that collusion existed, and now they can take comfort in Judge Smithwick’s findings. But at what cost?

Surely the vast majority who served the State out of Dundalk at a perilous time deserved more than to have clouds cast over their reputations.

No date has yet been fixed for the Dáil to debate the final report of the Smithwick Tribunal.

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