Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

PSNI witness opens can of worms for collusion probe

A senior PSNI officer's shocking evidence to the Smithwick Tribunal sets up an intriguing return appearance, says Alan Murray

Would the IRA betray a former Garda officer who provided critical information that directly led to the deaths of two senior RUC officers and a Co Louth farmer?

That is one of the intriguing scenarios it is possible to construct from the devastating evidence presented to the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin this week by Chief Superintendent Roy McComb.

The senior PSNI officer was the messenger who brought the startling information that a fourth Garda officer, based at Dundalk station, was the real 'dirty cop' who set up Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, Superintendent Bob Buchanan and farmer Tom Oliver for murder by the IRA.

His contribution has both rocked the tribunal and placed the current Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, in the most awkward situation imaginable.

If we learn in years to come that on Wednesday evening, Callinan phoned his PSNI counterpart, Matt Baggott, and bluntly demanded the disclosure of the identity of the retired garda referred to in the material presented by McComb, we will not be greatly surprised. The 'payment for information' allegation that the chief superintendent conveyed to Judge Smithwick is a rivetting allegation which has placed the Irish justice minister and the Garda Commissioner in an embarrassing situation.

With the tribunal preparing to hear final submissions from lawyers next week, a massive artillery shell has exploded in its midst.

Chief Superintendent McComb has been prevailed upon to produce more compelling detail about the startling information he brought to the tribunal.

He has undertaken to make inquiries with those who compiled and provided the information he presented to the hearing.

On his first appearance, in May, McComb told Judge Peter Smithwick that the IRA wanted the tribunal closed down because it was concerned that inquiries were being made into aspects of its activities that it did not want probed.

Some observers and participants at the tribunal pose the suggestion that the 'intelligence' McComb brought to Smithwick this week was calculated disinformation provided by the IRA.

McComb's evidence to the tribunal does not lend irrefutable support to that suspicion, but, equally, it does not allow the suggestion to be totally discounted.

Analysis of his statement and response to questions suggests that it is probable that the startling information came from more than one source, came at different times and may have come via different means.

British national security considerations were mentioned as a possible reason for the secrecy surrounding some of the material -which could mean electronic eavesdropping was undertaken.

Whatever the many imponderable issues thrown up by McComb's evidence to Smithwick, the key question for many of the lawyers involved is why the information disgorged on Wednesday was not provided months earlier.

It was compiled during the course of Smithwick's investigations (ie over seven years), but, at the moment, we can only speculate as to whether it was unearthed from the intelligence vaults during that period and withheld (as McComb confirmed), or acquired during the last seven years (or seven months) and initially suppressed.

Are these revelations Sinn Fein's demonstration of what their real commitment to a 'truth and reconciliation' process could be?

Has the Sinn Fein leadership persuaded the IRA to open up its archives to reveal the truth about the collusion surrounding the Breen, Buchanan and Oliver deaths and betray a retired garda?

Others, equally puzzled, suggest that what was given to McComb to deliver to Smithwick was a spin of sensational disinformation.

Whatever, when he returns to Smithwick with clarification, as he must, every syllable he utters will be scrutinised to the point of infinity.

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