Judge Smithwick: “I think this was singularly ill-advised.”

I had mentioned the apparent disagreement between the chair of the Smithwick Tribunal, Judge Smithwick, and the Irish Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, over the latter’s proposed ‘deadline’, of 30 November, for the Tribunal’s final report.

And in correspondence from the time, just released to the Oireachtas along with the Tribunal’s interim report [pdf file], Judge Smithwick made clear the extent of his disagreement.

Judge Smithwick wrote to the Minister accusing him of a “wholly inappropriate” attempt to “interfere with the independence” of the inquiry. He also attacked the “spin” which followed the press statement.

“This was done without any prior notice to me or communication whatever,” he said.

“I think this was singularly ill-advised.”

In the letters, just released to the Oireachtas, Judge Smithwick said he was deeply concerned the tribunal, set up by both the Irish and British governments as part of the peace process, would be compromised by the imposition of the deadline.

The tribunal chairman said it would play into the hands of people who wanted to frustrate its work, as they would know they only had to withhold cooperation for another few months.

Judge Smithwick also warned the deadline would help discourage sensitive and important witnesses from outside Ireland coming forward because they would see the inquiry as being wound down.

While he was anxious to complete the inquiry as quickly and cheaply as possible, he also had a duty to the two dead police officers to get to the truth of the matter, he wrote.

There was also a need to protect people’s lives and allow those whose reputations are being risked by the evidence being heard the opportunity to defend their good name, he added.

In one of the letters marked private and confidential, Judge Smithwick demanded the timeframe be revoked and warned he would continue hearings until he had heard everything before then taking the time necessary to produce a fair and balanced report into the murders.

At the time Taoiseach Enda Kenny denied that there was an “intention of any interference in any way with the Smithwick Inquiry”, and tonight the Justice Minister has commented

Mr Shatter said the Government was “anxious” to ensure public transparency with regard to a target date for completion of the tribunal.

“There was no question in any way of interfering with the work of the tribunal. What was very important was that we had a clear view as to what the target date was of completing the work.

“We cannot have in this State open-ended tribunals sitting in secret spending taxpayers with no accountability of any description to the houses of the Oireachtas.”

And he added that the matter has been “put to bed”.

According to the RTÉ report

The Interim Report of the Smithwick Tribunal has been published this eveing.

In his report Judge Smithwick has said he cannot give a definite timeframe for concluding his work as he still plans to hear from 115 further witnesses and has been informed by the British Ministry of Defence that it has documents relevant to the inquiry.

The report says the tribunal intends to sit in July, September and October.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin has issued a statement claiming that the Irish Government had misled the Dáil.

Statement by Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin

Today’s revelations concerning the Smithwick Tribunal provide clear evidence that the Dáil was misled when the government pushed through a motion to limit its work.

On June 1st the Government against strong opposition from Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary TD, pushed a motion through the Oireachtas placing a deadline on the Tribunal’s inquiry into possible collusion in the murder of two RUC members.  We repeatedly demanded to be shown background material.  Both the Taoiseach and Minister Shatter refused to supply this material and said that the Dáil had all the information it needed.

The Taoiseach told me “I make it clear the Smithwick tribunal of inquiry will be allowed to do its work without any interference from the Government”.

Today it has been revealed that the Government was in possession of strong warnings from Judge Smithwick.  They were that the motion could endanger the Tribunal’s work and that vital witnesses might withdraw their cooperation.  The government was directly warned that its behaviour was a “wholly inappropriate attempt by the Executive to interfere with the independence of the tribunal”.  He also criticised the “spin” which the government was putting on the Tribunal’s work.

This Tribunal was established as a key confidence-building element of the peace process.  The government’s behaviour in the last two months has been a disgrace and is now becoming a scandal.  They refused to consult about the motion and then forced it through the Oireachtas while withholding crucial information.

I am calling for both the Taoiseach and Minister Shatter to give full statements on this issue in the Dáil next week.