The DUP has hailed talks between former Provisional IRA members and the Dublin inquiry into the murders of RUC officers as a “significant step forward”.
The Smithwick Tribunal was told its legal team held a face-to-face meeting with the former IRA commander involved in the ambush and killings and two other former provisionals over the last few weeks.
The inquiry is investigating allegations of Garda collusion in the murder of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, who were shot dead in an IRA ambush in March 1989.
They were the highest-ranking RUC members killed during the Troubles.
The evidence of the three IRA members is to be presented to the inquiry in the near future.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: “It is a significant step forward that representatives of the PIRA are co-operating with the Smithwick Tribunal.
“The Tribunal team has already indicated that initial conversations have been constructive. This is encouraging.
“However, many will remember others hiding behind a ‘PIRA code’. This seems not to be the case on this occasion and that is positive.”
As the first public session of the Tribunal got underway, however, the former Stormont junior minister criticised the Irish Government for insisting the Tribunal must report before the end of this year.
“It is deeply disappointing that the Irish Government has chosen to place restrictions on this Tribunal,” he said.
“If such action had taken place in Northern Ireland regarding an inquiry I have no doubt that the Irish Government would have been very critical.
“It is therefore incumbent on the Irish Government to remove the time restriction and ensure that the Tribunal has the tools to complete a thorough investigation,” Mr Donaldson argued.
His comment came after Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams revealed the tribunal asked to meet his party’s leadership in 2006 and asked if an engagement with the IRA could be set up.
“Subsequently, the Sinn Fein leadership established that there could be no engagement with the IRA because, as a consequence of the outworking of the IRA leadership statement of July 2005, the IRA had left the stage,” the former MP turned Louth TD added.
“But we were advised that there was the possibility of former volunteers engaging on a voluntary basis with the Tribunal.
“(We) facilitated this process because of our commitment to assisting bereaved families if and when we can.
“This may not be possible in all cases (but we believe) there needs to be an effective process for dealing with all legacy issues.”
Established in 2005, the Tribunal, headed by Judge Peter Smithwick, has cost €8m so far. The Smithwick Tribunal is examining allegations that gardai or a civilian working in the force colluded with the IRA in the killing of the two RUC officers in the border ambush. It has conducted its investigations to date in private, interviewing 214 potential witnesses.
The senior Smithwick Tribunal counsel revealed the two murdered RUC officers at the centre of the inquiry had travelled to Co Louth to discuss a possible joint RUC/Garda operation on lands owned by prominent republican Thomas 'Slab' Murphy.