Belfast Telegraph

Smithwick slams Justice Minister

A judge heading an inquiry into the murders of two senior RUC officers has launched an astonishing attack on the Justice Minister for allegedly interfering with the tribunal.

In a series of letters over the past few weeks, Judge Peter Smithwick told Alan Shatter his controversial and unexpected declaration of a deadline on the hearings threatened the entire investigation.

The judge said witnesses are already reconsidering their co-operation with the inquiry since hearing about the Government-imposed time-frame, including one important witness from outside the State whose co-operation took some time to secure.

The Smithwick Tribunal is examining allegations of Garda collusion in the IRA killings of Superintendent Bob Buchanan and his colleague Chief Superintendent Harry Breen near the Irish border after a meeting at Dundalk Garda Station in March 1989.

Mr Shatter announced last month the tribunal - which was set up in May 2005 but only began hearing public testimony this month - would have to finish its work by the end of November.

Judge Smithwick wrote to the Justice Minister accusing him of a "wholly inappropriate" attempt to "interfere with the independence" of the inquiry. He also attacked the "spin" which followed the press statement. "This was done without any prior notice to me or communication whatever," he said. "I think this was singularly ill-advised."

In the letters, just released to the Oireachtas, Judge Smithwick said he was deeply concerned the tribunal, set up by both the Irish and British governments as part of the peace process, would be compromised by the imposition of the deadline.

In one of the letters marked private and confidential, Judge Smithwick demanded the timeframe be revoked and warned he would continue hearings until he had heard everything before then taking the time necessary to produce a fair and balanced report into the murders.

Mr Shatter denied any attempts at political interference and responded that he was seeking Oireachtas backing to have the tribunal wound up by November 30. That motion was passed on June 1, which also ordered an interim report which was lodged with the Oireachtas.

He said the background to the deadline was a meeting he had with Judge Smithwick at the start of May, in which he claimed the judge indicated the tribunal could complete its work well within that timescale. Mr Shatter said there were clearly matters both men disagreed on - including the role of State institutions and the importance of a Government spokesman's "utterance" - but he fully supported Judge Smithwick. He also pointed out the tribunal could seek an extension to its timeframe if needed, which would have to be passed by the Oireachtas.

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