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Unearthing 'buried secrets' vital to get the whole truth

The announcement that the Smithwick Tribunal will continue through to next May has averted a major credibility crisis - both for the Irish government and for the tribunal itself.

The prospect of the tribunal being unceremoniously truncated at the end of next month before key witnesses had given evidence and before new witnesses had been interviewed and new material assessed was looming over the Dublin inquiry like a dark cloud.

In spite of seven years of work to amass volumes of evidence about events surrounding the deaths of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, more highly relevant material is coming to light and some most-sensitive information is being sought.

The tribunal has already heard evidence of "electronic chatter" among IRA units in south Armagh picked up by the Army at noon on the day of the ambush. The significance of this is that it almost certainly means that a tip-off had been received by the IRA indicating that Breen and Buchanan were expected in Dundalk later in the day.

Another witness has indicated in the margins of the hearing, but not yet publicly, that the electronic IRA chatter began half-an-hour earlier.

The documentation relating to the Army's interception of the noises made by CB radios and walkie-talkies used by different IRA units in south Armagh in 1989 remains classified after all these years and Judge Smithwick's team of lawyers has yet to be allowed sight of it.

While most of us would venture to say that everyone knows that monitoring IRA communications in south Armagh was the primary purpose of the Army watchtowers along the border, soldiers and those police officers who know are bound by the Official Secrets Act not to say so - even in private meetings with the judge's lawyers.

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Those signals intercepts remain secret even though the technology used in the watchtowers has been carted away, replaced by sky-based interception equipment and possibly even binned.

If the secretly logged material confirms IRA chatter from before noon on the day of the fatal ambush of Breen and Buchanan, it would raise the question of why the entire south Armagh area was not put out-of-bounds to all security personnel from noon. Had it been, then the fateful journey of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan would not have taken place.

Whether Judge Peter Smithwick finds sufficient evidence of IRA intent to ambush them from the signals intelligence material logged that day - assuming he sees it - will be a key call he will have to make.

There remains, too, the testimony of Kevin Fulton, the former Army agent whose testimony to Canadian judge Peter Cory sparked the probe. The testimony of former Army intelligence officer Ian Hurst also remains unheard and legal arguments continue over what he can say.

Former RUC handlers of Fulton have now agreed to give evidence testifying to his reliability as a provider of information to them in their undercover detective work.

Their accounts will rebuff the evidence given by retired Garda officers and a few from the RUC who described him as a 'fantasist'.

In spite of the disparaging of Fulton, witnesses have come forward and material has been unearthed and more sought which suggests that the Garda and the RUC had major suspicions that within the Garda in Co Louth there were very concerning disclosures to the IRA.

Some of this material is so secret that it has been heard in private by Judge Smithwick and is unlikely to be detailed in his report.

His tribunal will now - subject to the approval of the Irish cabinet - proceed to examine the more sensitive intelligence matters that both the British and Irish establishments wished might have remained buried forever in secret files in London and Dublin.

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