Smithwick: “the evidence keeps pointing back to the desire of the IRA to acquire information as to how the British Security Services had gotten advance warning of the IRA ambush on Loughgall Police Station…”

As the findings of the Smithwick Tribunal report [RTÉ-hosted 22mb pdf] continue to be digested, it’s worth recalling the reported concerns of “members of the PIRA” in May last year.

The Smithwick Tribunal is becoming a “significant issue” among republicans who are concerned it is uncovering information on past murders, the tribunal has been told.

According to a précis of intelligence information gleaned by the PSNI within the last year, and aired at the tribunal this morning, “members of the PIRA are anxious the tribunal complete its work as soon as possible”.

The Provisional IRA interaction with the Smithwick Tribunal was, we were told by the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, TD, “facilitated” by Sinn Féin.

As Gerry Moriarty suggested in yesterday’s Irish Times, here’s one of the key findings from the Tribunal report [p426]

The preponderance of evidence before me points to Chief Superintendent Harry Breen having been the specific target of this operation. In this regard, I rely on the intelligence received in the immediate wake of the murders, the evidence given by retired Detective Sergeant Seán Gethins and on the fact that the vast majority of the evidence suggests that the intention was to abduct and interrogate these officers. In the latter respect, the evidence keeps pointing back to the desire of the IRA to acquire information as to how the British Security Services had gotten advance warning of the IRA ambush on Loughgall Police Station in May 1987. [added emphasis]

In his initial response to the publication, the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, claimed

Justice Smithwick accepts much of the evidence given by the former IRA volunteers but on the basis of evidence provided by others, including the PSNI and former informers, concludes that while the Tribunal ‘has not uncovered direct evidence of collusion’ that ‘on balance of probability’ some form of collusion occurred. [added emphasis]

Well, up to a point Lord Copper…  Chapter 22 of the report deals with the “Account Provided by Former Personnel of the Provisional IRA”.  As Smithwick points out in the opening line of that chapter

In this chapter, I summarise and address material which is not, strictly speaking, evidence.

Not included in the chapter, but noted earlier (pp86-7) is the transcript of a radio report of the PIRA’s contemporary claim of responsibility.

The IRA say that the two top officers were shot dead after their car came to one of a number of checkpoints which the IRA claims they were operating on Monday. They also say that the policemen acted suspiciously and attempted to drive off. Then, according to the IRA statement, the IRA volunteers feared their own lives could be in danger and took what they call preventative action to prevent the RUC men’s escape.”

Chapter 22 details the interaction between the former Provisional IRA members and the Tribunal.

In the first instance, former personnel who were involved in the operation provided a written document, entitled ‘Final Approved Note’, setting out their version of how the operation was mounted.

[Approved by whom? – Ed] Indeed.

The Tribunal subsequently sought clarification, by way of written questions, of certain aspects of this account. Written responses were provided and, at that point, the Tribunal sought a meeting between members of its legal team and some of the former members of the Provisional IRA. After some negotiation as to the modalities, a meeting ultimately occurred in April 2011. This was a face to face meeting between three members of the Tribunal’s legal team and three former members of the Provisional IRA, in the presence of intermediaries. [added emphasis]

Despite the Tribunal’s “best endeavours to secure the attendance of [a live] witness [to be] tested by cross – examination”, “in January 2013 [Smithwick] was definitively informed that no such evidence would be provided.”  As Smithwick notes (pp398-9)

I think it important that the version of events provided by the former members of the Provisional IRA be assessed against the other evidence heard by the Tribunal. However, it ought to be borne in mind that this written record of the exchange between the Tribunal and the former members is not best evidence in circumstances where it has not been given orally and tested under cross – examination.

The chapter details the contents of the “Final Approved Note”, and the subsequent questions and answers at the meeting.  This new account details the surveillance operation, and the interception [p402]

The car was tracked en route to the Edenappa Road. The Active Service Unit in the Jonesboro area had already been alerted and had moved into place, setting up a checkpoint at a pre – picked spot along the Edenappa Road.

The ASU intercepted the red Cavalier. The two male occupants were challenged to step out of the car with their hands up.

The car was put into reverse and attempted to escape. At that point both RUC Detectives were executed. The instructions to the ASU were to intercept the car, and arrest the occupants, but if that was not possible then they were to ensure that neither occupant escaped.

Then Smithwick deals with “Matters Corroborative of the Version of Events Provided by Former Members of the Provisional IRA” (pp413-418).

Those are the points he accepts.  He questions other aspects of the PIRA account, before noting the “Areas of Concern in Respect of Account Provided by Former IRA Personnel” (pp420-423).

Back, though, to that key conclusion (p426-427)

23.1.8 The evidence of surveillance, together with the frequency of Bob Buchanan’s visits south of the border, make it plausible that the IRA could have mounted an operation to ambush Bob Buchanan on the basis of an established pattern of travel.

23.1.9 However, this brings me to my first major stumbling block in accepting that this is what in fact occurred. The former personnel of the IRA say that not even Bob Buchanan was the specific target of this operation, but rather that his car, which was known to have been occupied by RUC Officers and, on one occasion, to have been occupied by Harry Breen, was the target. I cannot accept this. The preponderance of evidence before me points to Chief Superintendent Harry Breen having been the specific target of this operation. In this regard, I rely on the intelligence received in the immediate wake of the murders, the evidence given by retired Detective Sergeant Seán Gethins and on the fact that the vast majority of the evidence suggests that the intention was to abduct and interrogate these officers. In the latter respect, the evidence keeps pointing back to the desire of the IRA to acquire information as to how the British Security Services had gotten advance warning of the IRA ambush on Loughgall Police Station in May 1987.

23.1.10 Of the video footage that I have viewed in this Tribunal, two images stick in my mind. The first is the scene on the Edenappa Road; the second is the image of Chief Superintendent Breen, standing erect in his uniform before the media, pointing out the weapons that had been retrieved in the Loughgall ambush. The evidence continually draws me back to the conclusion that Harry Breen was the target of this operation. Despite their denials in this regard, much of what the Tribunal was told by the former personnel of the Provisional IRA also tends to support this fact. Great significance was attached by them to the alleged sighting of Harry Breen in Bob Buchanan’s car after the summer of 1988, and there was, in the wake of the murder, triumphalism in relation to the fact that the Provisional IRA had killed the officer who had appeared in that photograph “etched in every Republican’s mind.” [added emphasis throughout]

That final quote comes from one of the former Provisional IRA members at the meeting with counsel for the Tribunal, and two intermediaries.  As Smithwick notes (pp420-421)

It is stated in the Final Approved Note that the spotting of Harry Breen in the red Cavalier during the initial surveillance phase in respect of the car was “for us, a significant breakthrough.” The Final Approved Note continued that “Harry Breen had a high media exposure following the ambush in Loughgall in 1987. We had video footage from news bulletins and photos from the press.

He was, for obvious reasons, a target we had particular interest in.” Moreover, I note that during the course of the face to face interview between three former personnel of the IRA and the Tribunal’s legal team, in the course of the introduction provided by one of the former personnel, a copy of the An Phoblacht newspaper published in the aftermath of the shooting was produced. One of the former volunteers described the photograph of Harry Breen on the front page of that newspaper as an “image […] etched on every republican’s mind.”  Ultimately, the Tribunal was told, however, that notwithstanding all this, Harry Breen was not the target of the operation. Rather, any occupants of the red Cavalier were the targets of the operation.

There is one particular point which is worth considering.  the PIRA’s “Final Approved Note” states (p402)

The instructions to the ASU were to intercept the car, and arrest the occupants, but if that was not possible then they were to ensure that neither occupant escaped.

That was confirmed during the face-to-face meeting with former PIRA members and the Tribunal’s legal team, along with two intermediaries (p411).

22.4.15 The former personnel confirmed that the intention of the operation was to “take away and question the occupants” of the car.

And here is where it may get interesting (p411 cont).

When asked why that changed, the former personnel requested a short break in the meeting; when the meeting resumed, they explained that the car had reversed and the two RUC officers had tried to escape. [added emphasis]

22.4.16 It was stated that Harry Breen was shot in the car and had not got out of the car with a handkerchief as had been suggested elsewhere: “Buchanan reversed the car and both men died instantly in gunfire.” If Harry Breen’s body was out of the car, this was because he had removed by the Active Service Unit in order to search his body.

As Smithwick later adds (p422)

22.7.5 Thirdly, there was a clear contradiction between the answers given by the former personnel in the course of the face to face interview on the one hand, and the evidence before me of the autopsy performed on Harry Breen on the other, in relation to how Harry Breen was shot. The autopsy conclusion, which notes that the fatal shot was fired in the back of Harry Breen’s head, is simply inconsistent with the former members’ account that he was shot while still sitting in the car. Their version also does not account for the presence of a white handkerchief on the road near his body. I have to say that I think I must accept and prefer the un–contradicted autopsy evidence in this respect.

And the independent eye-witness account (p73).

“when they [the people in the red car] came in and they obviously realised they were in a trap, they went to reverse, they tried to reverse the car, and there is a wall of moss on it just there, and they must have realised they couldn’t, they wouldn’t make it, and the passenger, he got out and he came around the front of the car and he put his hands up and they shot him and he fell to the ground.

[…]

And then the other man, I think – the driver – I’m not sure whether he opened the door to get out, or whether they went down and opened the door, but they shot him behind the wheel, to my knowledge.  He was – I think he was just maybe getting out of the car.”

Back to Smithwick (p422)

22.7.6 This undermines to some extent the credibility of the version of events provided by the former personnel of the Provisional IRA. As noted by Detective Chief Superintendent Kirwan, “it requires explanation.” However, I am cognisant of the fact that there may be some political sensitivity in their admitting to this Tribunal that Harry Breen was shot when he had, as one eyewitness described it, gotten out of the car with his arms raised, or that he was subsequently shot at close range in the back of the head. [added emphasis]

Perhaps… Evidently no information was acquired by the Provisional IRA “as to how the British Security Services had gotten advance warning of the IRA ambush on Loughgall Police Station…”

But, given the allegations around that particular incident in Loughgall in May 1987, and the full findings of the Smithwick Tribunal, it may be that another part of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams’ recent controversial comments on Newsweek Newstalk is the more significant.  From the BBC report

“When you have that type of laissez-faire disregard for their own security, by both An Garda Síochána in relation to these two officers, and more importantly these officers themselves – here they were in the heart of south Armagh in the middle of a very, very severe conflict at that time, and seemed to think that they were immune from attack by the IRA, and, tragically, as it turned out for them that was not the case.

“When you have that type of failure to protect the RUC operatives in the middle of a war then what happened happens.

I’m sure the same thing has happened with IRA volunteers who were killed, that it was not necessarily intelligence or inside information but simply that they made a mistake. This has happened tragically in all conflicts.” [added emphasis]

[Move along, now, nothing to see here… – Ed]