Regrettable lacuna – a missing voice at the Smithwick tribunal

The Smithwick tribunal will probably be the last of its kind – a PR campaign against excessive fees, discontent with the slow pace of investigations, and a lack of political will mean future scandals will be investigated by inquiries and commissions, but never again though a public tribunal of inquiry.

Smithwick is the Cinderella of Irish tribunals. It didn’t help that it spent its first five years working in private, negotiating the tricky business of encouraging non-compellable witnesses from Northern Ireland and Britain to attend, and the even trickier business of persuading foreign intelligence agencies to allow access to top secret intelligence files.

The question of access to intelligence files in particular led to convoluted behind-closed-doors negotiations, as protocols were put in place to allow agreed summaries of intelligence documents on the official record, allowing the chairman to refer to it in reaching his conclusions. In an intermin statement in March, Smithwick described efforts to obtain some intelligence documents, which he needed in order to gain a full picture for his deliberations. Failure to put these documents on the record in some form would be ” a regrettable lacuna”, he said. Since then, the reports in question – concerning allegations of collusion in the leaking of Fogra Tora, a garda intelligence circular, to the IRA – have been placed on the record.

In brief, Smithwick was set up to look at the allegation that a garda mole leaked information to the IRA which led to the deaths of two RUC officers – Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan. Related issues have meant its scope has widened from the single afternoon of 20 March 1989 to cover events from 1979 to 2002.

The tribunal has heard evidence from serving and former Gardaí, RUC and PSNI officers, civilian witnesses, an (alleged) British spy who infiltrated the IRA, journalists, telecom engineers, British and Irish army personnel, and two republican dissidents.

Missing from that list are witnesses who were half-announced with some fanfare when the tribunal delivered an opening statement before public hearing began just under a year ago.

In a statement on 7 June 2011, the tribunal outlined “a face to face meeting with three former personnel of the Provisional IRA. Those former members included former leadership at both national and local (South Armagh) level. One of the three former personnel had first hand knowledge of the Provisional IRA operation of 20 March 1989, and had a command role in that operation. The former personnel gave a detailed account of the events leading to the deaths of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan and replied to questions posed by the three members of the tribunal’s legal team.

Gerry Adams was quick to claim some credit for the meeting. In a nuanced statement the same day, he confirmed that the tribunal had contacted the party in 2006, and while the IRA “had left the stage… there was the possibility of former Volunteers engaging on a voluntary basis with the tribunal.”

“Having established the process between the Tribunal and these former volunteers Sinn Féin played no further role in the process, though our understanding is that the people involved were in a position to answer all questions about the IRA action in which the two RUC officers were killed.”

Two republicans have given evidence to the tribunal. Michael McKevitt didn’t really have much choice, he is currently residing in Portlaoise prison. Patrick Joseph “Mooch” Blair came voluntarily. Unsurprisingly, neither man admitted any knowledge of the events surrounding the deaths of Breen and Buchanan. The sum of evidence from both men was to dismiss Peter Keeley (aka ‘Kevin Fulton’) as a fantasist. In this, intriguingly., they are at one with several Garda and PSNI witnesses, who are also eager to discredit Keeley for their own reasons.

Blair and McKevitt are both regarded as dissidents. To date, no volunteer identifying with the Provisional IRA has given evidence to the tribunal about the ambush in which Breen and Buchanan died, despite the hopeful tone in the statements from Smithwick and Adams last June. Without their evidence, anything Smithwick was told at the secret meeting cannot be considered in preparing his report.

Gerard Cunningham occupies his time working as a journalist, writer, sub-editor, blogger and tweeter, yet still finds himself underemployed. Go figure!