Belfast Telegraph

Could Special Branch have saved lives of policemen?

The Smithwick Tribunal is dogged by missing documentation and witnesses who won't give evidence, says Alan Murray

Asked why he didn't advise RUC commanders along the border of the existence of a 1985 intelligence report linking a Dundalk garda with the IRA, a former Special Branch officer told the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin that he was not allowed to.

Intelligence had to be forwarded to Special Branch HQ at Castlereagh in Belfast and then disseminated from there - as deemed operationally necessary.

Even if one of the intended recipients occupied an office next to his own in Newry, he was not permitted to pass on the information, the witness said.

The SB50 Special Branch document that 'Witness X' referred to is the only copy of perhaps five originally created mentioning the retired garda and his alleged improper association with the IRA.

It is the only relevant RUC document turned up in a trawl of the PSNI's archive which relates directly to the allegations against gardai based in Dundalk.

'Witness 82' - a retired Army Major - was able to tell the Smithwick Tribunal that he did obtain intelligence material following the murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan in March 1989, but none of the military intelligence source reports (MISRs) has been provided to the inquiry.

The witness did confirm the agent he directly handled, 'Stakeknife', described by a former General Officer Commanding as the "best" Army agent ever recruited here, did provide information after the attack - presumably about those involved - but he could not recall the details.

Given the gravity of the incident and the IRA manpower involved in the ambushing of Breen and Buchanan, it is little short of astonishing that no SB50s, or MISRs, compiled in the aftermath of the incident have ever been presented to Judge Peter Smithwick.

Their absence, deliberately intended or otherwise, illustrates the difficult task the judge faces when he prepares to write his report.

The two Special Branch officers who did compile the one SB50 that came to Smithwick - about the retired Dundalk garda - have so far refused to give evidence to the tribunal, falling into the category of a number of former RUC officers who could have helped, but didn't.

By the time of the Breen and Buchanan murders, the SB50 that Witness X forwarded to Special Branch HQ at Castlereagh four years earlier had, presumably, been filed under 'no action to be taken'.

It was certainly not something either the London or Dublin governments, or their respective police forces, wanted to see surface in the days following the ambush, when all talk of possible collusion was dismissed out-of-hand by officials.

Witness X himself said that he was not greatly concerned about the SB50 that landed on his desk and he continued to work with the suspect Garda officer.

Any probings of the heavily redacted document were resisted by counsel for the PSNI and all that was divulged about the assessment of the intelligence provided was that it was 'medium-grade'.

Witness X said he felt the document was something he did not have "to give much attention to", partly because he was dealing with many terrorist incidents around the south Armagh border area on a daily basis.

Given the number of incidents, you might have thought the SB50's contents would have been of major importance to RUC commanders working along the border.

The retired officer said that he became wary of travelling to Dundalk Garda station. Like murdered Superintendent Bob Buchanan, Witness X said that it had been his practice to travel to Dundalk in his own car, mostly alone, but sometimes with a second RUC officer.

This was a senior RUC officer's standard operating procedure. And yet, incredibly, in the four years from the creation of the SB50 to the time of his murder, it wasn't felt necessary to advise Superintendent Buchanan of its existence, or its contents.

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