The findings of collusion by the Smithwick Tribunal have been contested by three former garda officers who worked at various times in Dundalk Garda Station: John O’Brien, Michael Finnegan and Michael Staunton. Their 33-page document is a personal view and was not written on behalf of an Garda Siochana.
One of these officers, former chief superintendent John O’Brien, spoke about this critique on the RTE 1 Radio programme This Week, on Sunday last.
“We have taken eight weeks to look at this situation,” Mr O’Brien said. “We have read the report from cover-to-cover and we can find no probable facts that support the finding of collusion against unnamed members in the Dundalk station on 20 March 1989.”
He claims the tribunal’s terms of reference were uneven: “If you lived in the Republic you could be subpoenaed by the tribunal. If you existed outside the Republic you attended on a voluntary basis”.
While he sympathised with the restrictions Judge Smithwick was working under, Mr O’Brien said Judge Smithwick had no police or security investigators on board, and he did not reconstruct the environs of Dundalk Garda Station on 20 March and he did not conduct any reconstruction of the murder scene.
“Well, why would you want do that?” Mr O’Brien asked. “You want to do that so that all the pieces fit and the stories you were being told 16, 17, 20 years later, match those findings.
“The physical environs of Dundalk station, and I speak with experience as a Chief Supt. there in ‘94 for two years, has not changed a lot. It is this great big strong building that sits looking into The Crescent in Dundalk. It would be very probable that you could do a realistic reconstruction.
“And you are looking for something really simple, for example, where were the telephones; who told whom; how was it possible that if you were making this collusive phone call to PIRA (Provisional IRA) that you did it in such a way, within the time schedule, all of that kind of stuff.”
Mr O’Brien said the ambush had been a major operation by the Provisional IRA. It involved between 20 to 70 people.
“A reconstruction could reveal how long it would have taken and whether or not it could have been realistically carried out within half-an-hour of a British Army watchtower location. That’s the benefit of the reconstruction.
“But the thing that is realistically puzzling us is the late information from the PSNI.
“July 2012, the tribunal is now seven years old. A Det Chief Supt. arrives at the tribunal, says he has some information which the PSNI say they have held for a long number of years and they are now making it available to the tribunal.
“The effect of that information was to remove what we have called the Dundalk three. The three guards who were under solid investigation by Smithwick for the full seven years to remove them from the equation, because this information was about the new fourth guard. It was not somebody who had been publicly named before the tribunal.
“So by definition, those three and anybody else that were named were not in the frame.
“The remarkable thing about that is that the PSNI refused to name this fourth guard. They refused to give the security grading on the information or the chronology in which it was received.”
Mr O’Brien said the most crucial contemporaneous information on the murders of these two unfortunate officers was the RUCs own murder investigation file.
“And all the matters that are being debated 25 years later would have been covered in that investigation file. Because we don’t have that it is very hard to form a definitive view.”
Speaking about the IRA account of what happened that day he said:
“We consider the information which was supplied to Smithwick and under his aegis to be a confession of murder by the people who committed it. So I want to say here and now to the nation, we do not hold any kind of nuance, sympathy, for the Provisional IRA, and our own professional records underscore that.
“But if we were looking at this as a normal murder situation. The fact that somebody committed a murder wouldn’t automatically disavow the account of the murder. After all they are the only people who give primary evidence. Of course they are self-serving, and of course they are going to say that they didn’t shoot Harry Breen in the back of the head which is the most abominable thing to do. They are going to say they tried to escape. But the ambush reconstruction and any view totally blows that away.
“So yes, their account should be given credence because they killed something like 300 security force personnel in county Armagh between 1969 and 2001 and they lost very few themselves.
“So regrettable and abominable though it is, these people knew how to kill and they needed very little help.”
When asked if there were instances in which Dundalk Garda Station may have been compromised, Mr O’Brien said:
“If we want to talk about collusion being a factor then the clock starts at a much earlier date, 1972, and involves both sides of the border. We need to have a very open mind.”
He said organisations involved in conflict will try to infiltrate the other side.
“Nobody can ever say definitively that hasn’t happened in this case. But we are discussing a particular set of circumstances and what we are saying unambiguously is that these are the probable factors that allows him to find a collusion conclusion from the guards in Dundalk on that day.”
Mr O’Brien refused to accept that the finding of the tribunal should not be questioned and said they, the authors of the critique, were inviting Judge Smithwick to put somebody forward to debate with them, or with the Government and justify the findings so that any ordinary person, and “certainly the men and women in Dundalk Garda Station, who had no opportunity to know that this finding was being made against them, have an opportunity to be heard”.
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