RTÉ's Richard Dowling reflects on the findings of the Smithwick Tribunal.
There has been, unsurprisingly, a lot of reaction and comment as a result of the outcome of the Smithwick Tribunal. As one of the very few who have sat through pretty much every day of it I was not surprised by the findings.
The central issue the judge had to decide was whether there was collusion by a garda or other employee of the State with the IRA in the murder of the two RUC officers, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.
In the end Judge Peter Smithwick decided, on the balance of probabilities, there was but he was unable to identify the IRA mole in Dundalk Station. It would, at this remove, have been practically impossible to single out an individual and say they were the source of the leak. It should also be remembered that it was not the Tribunal’s specific job to identify a mole, merely to establish if there had been collusion.
In the final report there were subtle differences in the findings relating to the three former gardaí at the centre of the Tribunal. Finbarr Hickey was cleared totally – he had no links and no IRA sympathies. In relation to former Sergeants Owen Corrigan and Leo Colton the judge ruled they both had inappropriate dealings with the IRA, but the weight of evidence did not show they colluded in the murder of the RUC officers. Both former gardaí have rejected the findings.
While much attention has understandably focused on the murder of the two RUC officers, the Tribunal did heard evidence of even more possible examples of collusion involving gardaí and the IRA. They have received little or no attention but should be highlighted in the context of a Tribunal investigating claims of collusion.
The Tip Off
On Friday 26 January 1990, Detective Superintendent Pat Byrne (later to become Garda Commissioner) sent a fax to Dundalk Garda Station ordering a raid on the home of leading republican, Michael McKevitt because he may have been in possession of forged passports. That raid took place early the following morning. Nothing was found.
Now retired Detective Inspector Dan Prenty told the Tribunal that shortly afterwards he was called to Garda Headquarters from Dundalk to listen to a recording of a wire tap. He recalled the message as: “You will be having visitors in the morning. Make sure that they don’t get that little booklet or that they don’t get what they want”.
Although having served many years in Dundalk Garda Station, the Detective Inspector could not identify the voice.
His evidence was flatly contradicted by former Commissioner Byrne who said it just didn’t happen. If it had there would have been a ‘lockdown’ on Garda HQ as the leak could have come from there. He was also sceptical that, knowing there was a tap, a garda would call Mr McKevitt on his phone.
However, Judge Smithwick ruled that on “a narrow balance of probabilities” that Mr Prenty’s view of events is the more accurate.
Given the narrow timeframe, the Judge effectively ruled out the possibility that the information leaked out as a result of “idle chatter”. Therefore it could only have been deliberately leaked by a garda either in Dundalk or Garda HQ.
Reading the Judge’s report he seems to be more inclined to believe it came from Dundalk.
In this incident the IRA obtained a confidential garda record, known as a Fogra Tora, which identified two UVF suspects back in 1991. One of the men, Ian Spoule, was later murdered while the second man, Glen Monteith, survived an IRA attack on the same day. To back up their claim that both men were involved in a UVF bombing campaign in Donegal, the IRA produced the garda file, known as a Fogra Tora. Later they claimed they received the garda file from a loyalist store.
The leak of the document to the IRA was investigated by the gardaí and the RUC. Former Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy, carried out the investigation in the south. Over 240 people were questioned including a number of gardaí. However, he told the Tribunal that the members of the force were not questioned as suspects for the leak.
What is equally significant about this leak is that the gardaí never revealed it had happened at all to Smithwick. It was only when a retired RUC officer spoke about it that it emerged. Known as Witness 68, he was adamant that the IRA were obtaining information from a number of garda stations in Donegal.
Mr Conroy was recalled to the Tribunal to ask why he never revealed the fact of this incident. His answer, in essence, was that he was not asked although he insisted he was not trying to hide anything either.
It is clear that this leak did not involve anyone from Dundalk which means possible collusion was not limited just to the Louth station. It is possible, the Tribunal was told, that the garda record was shared with the RUC and it leaked from there to the UVF.
But where to now for the gardaí and the Government?
After Morris, a second Tribunal has found issues with our police. However, the adverse findings relating to garda culture have effectively already been dismissed by the Commissioner, Martin Callinan.
The Smithwick Tribunal is over. The findings and recommendations have been made by Judge Peter Smithwick. They could either be the end of a process or could spark the start of a new one.
It is up to the Government and senior gardaí to decide what happens next. Anyone optimistic?