I guess very few of those who have covered the Troubles in Ireland would ever have thought the day would dawn when senior members of the Irish police force, an Garda Siochana, would commend the evidence of some of the IRA’s most ruthless killers and prefer it to the judgement of a Tribunal of Inquiry established by the Irish state.
Yet this is what happened yesterday with the release of a 33-page rebuttal of the findings of the Smithwick Tribunal, written by former Garda Chief Superintendents John O’Brien, Michael Finnegan and Michael Staunton. The three retired officers took issue with the Tribunal’s conclusion that when the IRA gunned two senior RUC officers, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, to death in South Armagh in 1989 it had been assisted by a Garda mole inside Dundalk police station. Instead, the policemen assert, the IRA did it all by themselves.
During the eight-year long Smithwick Tribunal, a group of alleged “former” IRA members gave evidence – an arrangement organised by “an intermediary” (Fr Reid, by any chance?) – but not in the way everyone else provided testimony. The IRA members, who allegedly included the military commander on the day of the shootings, first agreed to provide a written statement describing the background to the killings and then to answer written questions in writing. Later in a private face-to-face meeting with three members of the Tribunal they gave oral evidence. But other lawyers representing interested parties were not present, did not know of these proceedings until afterwards and obviously had no opportunity to question the IRA team.
This is what the former Gardai officers write about this evidence from what they called FPIRA (Former Provisional IRA members):
Why should one believe the FPIRA account of the attack?
They are the only ones who know definitively what happened. They have cooperated with decommissioning and the location of the disappeared albeit on their terms. They are proud of the killings as this was a badge of honour to them………Prudently one has to discount their account for self serving recall but on the balance of probabilities their account has significant credibility and also they probably ceased cooperating when their contact with Smithwick was blown by the media.
Leaving aside the fact that we only have the word of others that decommissioning was actually carried out, how it was carried out and to what extent it was carried out and that there are a number of families in Ireland who might take issue with the policemen’s verdict on the IRA’s handling of the disappeared, the message from the three retired Chief Superintendents seems to be, as the Irish Times report put it, that the IRA had “no reason to lie” about having a Garda agent in Dundalk police station.
Well, I can think of one very strong motive for the IRA lying about this, just as I can see a motive for the three retired Gardai’s writing their 33-page critique of Smithwick, namely their understandable anxiety to clear their force of the stain of collusion with the terrorists they were sworn to put away in jail.
In a small number of years it is very possible that some of the people who sat on the ruling council of the organisation that killed the two RUC men, and who, given the political sensitivity of the operation, may well have reserved to themselves the giving of the final green light for the violence that day, will be sitting around a cabinet table in Dublin sharing responsibility for running the same police force they are accused of subverting.
If so, it will likely be a coalition government they join and it does not take a genius to work out that very few of that party’s potential partners in a coalition government would really want to sit at the same table as people whose military subordinates had boasted to a Tribunal of Enquiry that they and members of the force for which they now share responsibility had colluded in murder. As motives go for the IRA denying claims they had help from a Garda in the killing of Buchanan and Breen that seems pretty strong to me.
I do not know what happened on the day that the two RUC men met their end but there are two things that I do know: one is that it was not necessary for the Gardai informant to tip off the IRA on the day of the killings for him to have colluded in the deaths. Surely the crucial piece of information was that the RUC men were regular visitors to Dundalk Garda Station at all, information which the IRA claimed had come their way when the policemen were spotted by chance by one of their volunteers, but which could also have been provided from inside the station by a sympathetic policeman. One explanation is as plausible as the other. Once that basic fact was known the IRA could at its leisure have organised the ambush at a time and place of its suiting, a scenario, incidentally, that fits just as neatly with that offered by the three retired Gardai officers.
The other thing I know is that the IRA did have an agent inside the Dundalk Garda station. The Smithwick Tribunal was established largely because of allegations from Toby Harnden in his book Bandit Country – The IRA and South Armagh that a Dundalk-based Garda helped the IRA kill the two RUC men. Harnden got his information from security force sources on both sides of the Border and although he refused to give evidence to Smithwick – presumably on the laudable grounds that he would not compromise his sources – I believed him.
I believed him not just because I know him to be a reputable and ethical journalist but also because I was told the same, that a well known Dundalk Garda was in the back pocket of the IRA in South Armagh. My source was a well-placed member of the IRA whose position in the organisation was such that he was in a position to know all about the Garda agent. The details about the agent that I was given dovetail exactly with Harnden’s information.
So between Toby Harnden’s security force sources and my IRA sources I think we can be pretty sure that the Garda IRA mole in Dundalk police station did exist. The protestations to the contrary from the retired Garda officers are understandable but they do not add up.