This issue is whether or not a member colluded with the IRA in the murder of two senior RUC officers.
Realistically, the tribunal can decide if such collusion did occur, but in the event of it so doing, it will be within the province of the Director of Public Prosecutions only as to whether or not a prosecution will follow.
The tribunal’s sole member is former president of the District Court, Judge Peter Smithwick, and it will investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and his colleague Superintendent Bob Buchanan.
Since they were ambushed near the Border, between Louth and South Armagh while returning to Northern Ireland, it has been alleged that a member of the gardaí was implicated by divulging the route the men planned to take from Dundalk in their unmarked car.
While Judge Smithwick, as he outlined yesterday, has full powers to compel the attendance of witnesses, this power applies only to this jurisdiction.
He would have to depend on the goodwill of the British Government to encourage witnesses from outside the State, especially former members of the British security forces who might be deemed to be of help to the tribunal.
It would be confounding, indeed, disconcerting, should such an instance arise and co-operation was not forthcoming, especially as the current tribunal stems from the inter-governmental talks in Weston Park in 2003.
Then, retired Canadian Judge Peter Cory, who investigated the killing of the RUC men as one of six collusion cases, reported to the two governments.
He was originally not so sanguine about the IRA needing help from within the gardaí, maintaining that intelligence reports received soon after the ambush suggested a similar conclusion.
It was on foot of a former British intelligence officer’s evidence that garda collusion may have been a factor that the Canadian recommended the tribunal.
Judge Cory was previously appointed by the two governments to investigate allegations of collusion by security forces in the loyalist killing of solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989, the same year as the murder of the RUC officers.
In that case, the British Government invoked “national security” to claim that a large proportion of evidence would have to be considered in private, despite criticism and objections by the family, Amnesty International and the SDLP.
Presumably, the same grounds will not be used to make the work of the Smithwick Tribunal more difficult to arrive at a conclusion.
Even before that work commences, the waters have already been muddied by the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson. While in the Ulster Unionist Party he used parliamentary privilege in the House of Commons to name a former garda as being the person who divulged the information to the IRA.
Any further such intervention would be unhelpful and unwarranted if the tribunal is to proceed to establish the truth ultimately.
Apart from the cloud left hanging over the gardaí by virtue of the rumours and innuendos of almost two decades, it is important for the families of the two men that closure be reached.