So, have the Buchanan and Breen families got any closer to the truth about how their loved ones died on 20th March 1989?
After lengthy hearings in front of Judge Peter Smithwick, the substantial report yesterday included a full account of the IRA operation in which they died, supplied by the IRA itself (see pages 398-411). This included that they knew from surveillance that the car driven by the two RUC men was used by senior officers liaising with Dundalk, and, the IRA knew the routes it travelled and had tried to intercept it before. The IRA also had Dundalk Garda Station under direct observation from an empty house. This latter point, which was never contradicted by the tribunal, is key since it openly challenges the theory that the IRA needed confirmation from within Dundalk Garda Station (and thus “collusion”). Smithwick also believed that the IRA were targeting Breen in particular, whilst the IRA claimed that they didn’t know Breen was in the car until they intercepted it.
The tribunal itself arose from claims made by Kevin Fulton, aka Peter Keeley, that a member of Gardaí from Dundalk had assisted the IRA during the operation. The claim was made to Jeffrey Donaldson in 2000 and Judge Cory in 2003, but omitted from his ghost-written book Unsung Hero published in 2006. This claim was the foundation of the tribunal and Judge Smithwick’s interpretations of the evidence effectively interpolates the existence of a mole in Dundalk Garda Station (the premise on which the whole tribunal was based). However, this is how he describes Fulton/Keeley himself:
The reality is that sometimes Mr Fulton has given truthful information and sometimes he has given untruthful information. (p276 – unless stated page numbers are in the report proper, rather than the longer pdf)
The second issue of substance is that there is a degree of inconsistency between the statement provided by Kevin Fulton to Judge Cory in 2003 and his evidence to the Tribunal. (p276)
So, despite Judge Smithwick’s own misgivings, Fulton/Keeley’s evidence was his claim that he had been told “our friend” had helped on the operation, and that he understood that “our friend” either meant a Garda in Dundalk or specifically, Owen Corrigan. This appears to be the sole basis on which it is was believed that the IRA operation relied on a report of visual contact prior to confirmation that it was to proceed. The lengthy questioning around “our friend” is given on pages 1024 onwards in the pdf of the report (Fulton/Keeley’s statement is on page 732 of the pdf).
The Fulton/Keeley claim of a mole was supported by the allegations made by Ian Hurst (aka Martin Ingram) who claimed to have worked for the FRU and had access to various types of intelligence. Previous reports that considered evidence by Hurst/Ingram described him in this way:
We are of the view that Martin Ingram to a substantial degree exaggerated the importance of his role at HQNI and his level of knowledge and access to intelligence. (Saville, 140.271)
Given his general lack of credibility, I do not attach any weight to his [Hurst/Ingram’s] allegations with respect to the FRU and the murder of Mr Finucane. (de Silva, 21.204)
Smithwick, too, is scathing about Hurst/Ingram:
Given the striking inconsistency between his Statement of Intended Evidence and his Oral Evidence, and given the changing nature of his oral evidence in relation to when, how often, and in what specific context he had seen Owen Corrigan’s name in intelligence documents, I simply did not find Mr Hurst to be a credible witness. (p.287)
Chapter 11 of the report deals with Garda intelligence about the killings and a possible IRA contact in Dundalk Garda Station, although Smithwick dismisses the claims against named individuals. Much of this evidence was given over the period from June 2011 to May 2012, at which stage a new piece of evidence was introduced, at the very end of the hearings, by the PSNI (see p385-392). With both Fulton/Keeley and Hurst/Ingram being regarded as unreliable, this “live and of the moment” intelligence becomes the substantive basis on which Judge Smithwick had to assess a claim of participation from someone within Dundalk Garda Station in the IRA operation. In that regard, Smithwick himself states:
As regards the issue of how the Tribunal is to assess the current intelligence, this unquestionably places me in a difficult position. I do not have access to the underlying raw intelligence to verify for myself the circumstances in which this intelligence was provided. [my emphasis] Undoubtedly, this would have been preferable, and it is something which I sought to achieve in discussions with the Northern Ireland Office, the Security Service and the PSNI. (p396)
Clearly, with no sight of the ‘raw intelligence’ Smithwick is not in a position to assess whether the sources are as unreliable as Fulton/Keeley and Hurst/Ingram. In his own conclusions then, Smithwick makes two points:
In the instant case, leaving to one side the question of intelligence, the Tribunal has not uncovered direct evidence of collusion. (p424)
Yet, based on the same Garda intelligence which he dismisses relative to the individuals named, and the PSNI “live and of the moment” intelligence that he was not shown, Smithwick reaches the conclusion that the IRA operation was launched following visual confirmation of the RUC target from within Dundalk Garda Station. This then requires a circular argument that the IRA provided an inaccurate or incomplete account of their operation, since the IRA’s own direct observation of the station makes the requirement for verification from within the station redundant. Ironically, the two sets of intelligence data that Smithwick then decided to give preference to, he had either selectively ignored on other matters (from Garda sources) or which he had admitted he didn’t even get to see (from the PSNI). The latter had also been introduced late to the hearings, after Fulton/Keeley and Hurst/Ingram had already been shown to be unreliable. So Smithwick’s central conclusion appears to pretty much rest on the reliability of undisclosed intelligence introduced by the PSNI at the end of the tribunal’s hearings. It also gives preference to the theory that the IRA was specifically targeting Harry Breen,when the IRA said themselves they didn’t realise Breen was in the car.
Remarkably, on foot of the report from Smithwick, Unionists have rapidly downgraded the level of proof they normally require for anything approaching a finding of “collusion” (indeed, on the BBC Spotlight programme last night, Arlene Foster was even happy to upgrade this to a “culture of collusion”). Others have been less enthusiastic about the interpretations of the tribunal evidence. Professor Dermot Walsh, an expert of human rights and policing at Kent University, has described them as ‘sensationalist’ (h/t to @repstones):
The Smithwick Tribunal also adopted a very broad interpretation of what amounts to collusion, and proceeded on the assumption that silence was indicative of having something to hide. Despite all these factors, the Tribunal was not able to conclude that any identifiable member of the Irish police actually colluded with the IRA in the murders. When placed in that context, the sensationalist headlines lose their punch.
Whatever use they might find in it, the staging of the tribunal has meant that the Buchanan and Breen families got an account of the death of their loved ones from the IRA itself. Paradoxically, though, that fact is completely lost amongst so much evidence described as ‘intelligence’ from unattributable sources, of unknown value and which is often completely contradictory. In the case of the Smithwick Tribunal, whilst systematically eliminating all the previous claims of “collusion”, the introduction of new claims by the PSNI at the end, and their acceptance by Smithwick has now merely brought the whole process full circle to an untested allegation of collusion based on claims from “security sources”.
The dubious role intelligence agencies played throughout the conflict in the north is clearly perpetuating itself into the ‘peace’ as well. It is clear that it is impossible to hold inquiries and investigations into the past when there is such a high level of tolerance in official circles (on both sides of the border) for the agendas and intrigues of the intelligence services.
In that respect, the final words of Peter Smithwick are cruelly ironic:
The culture of failing adequately to address suggestions of wrongdoing, either for reasons of political expediency or by virtue of misguided loyalty, has been a feature of life in this State. Too often that culture has resulted, some years later, after doubts, grievances and injustices have festered, in the setting up of investigations, commissions or Tribunals of Inquiry.