Belfast Telegraph

You want the truth? Get a reality check instead

The Smithwick Tribunal shows that holding a 'truth commission' is one thing; compelling witnesses to attend is another, says Alan Murray

Those people clamouring for some kind of 'truth commission' should carefully ponder the words uttered by a barrister representing the PSNI at the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin last week.

In response to a question from Judge Peter Smithwick as to why the force had not provided details to him of an investigation into Garda collusion in the IRA murder of an alleged UVF member, Mark Robinson confirmed that a lot of "corporate knowledge" had been lost to his clients through retirements.

And so, until the Garda provided their detail of an investigation into possible collusion by gardai in the murder of Ian Sproule in April 1991 and the attempted murder of Glen Monteith on the same day, the PSNI did not know what to look for.

Only the earlier testimony of Witness 68, a retired RUC detective chief superintendent, and his recall of an investigation he conducted 20 years ago prompted the respective Garda and PSNI searches for corroborating documents.

Indeed, had it not been for the diligence of solicitor John McBurney, in particular, on behalf of the family of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, many matters relevant to the tribunal would not have been aired and many former RUC officers would not have been called to give important evidence.

So anyone anticipating that, in a wide-ranging 'from 1969 to eternity' probe, relevant documents and individuals would effortlessly tumble onto the stage needs to waken up to reality.

Some retired RUC officers have vehemently declined to give evidence to Smithwick about the slaying of their own colleagues - pieces of evidence crucial in the Breen/Buchanan collusion jigsaw - in spite of polite, but determined overtures.

Figures in the Northern Ireland Office at the time of the 1989 ambush do not wish to be unearthed.

Then there is the matter of MI5 and its spying activities in the Republic and what it unearthed about gardai corrupted by the IRA - understandably highly sensitive information that almost certainly came from public servants living in the Republic.

Nevertheless, it is relevant to events of the time, including possibly the murders of Judge Maurice Gibson and his wife and the Hanna family - all murdered on the border by the Provisional IRA.

Judge Smithwick remains hopeful of seeing, digesting and then placing in an agreed form the summation of that intelligence, so that no one who provided it could possibly be identified.

The testimony of Ian Hurst, a former member of the Army's Force Research Unit (FRU), now looks likely to be yielded to the tribunal in a form that addresses both the Ministry of Defence's understandable concerns and Judge Smithwick's need for critical evidence.

When he produces his report, it will provide a fascinating insight into the extent of collusion between gardai and the IRA and, perhaps, sketch the poisonous, distrustful background atmosphere between the two police forces that predated the murders of Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.

Lately, the tribunal secured evidence about an RUC Special Branch SB50 document dating from four years before Breen and Buchanan were ambushed.

It warned that a named garda, based in Dundalk, was advising the IRA of the movements of British security personnel on the northern side of the border.

The question will be asked, what, given the warning contained in the SB50, did the RUC do to ensure that the named garda could not harm its officers - especially one who travelled on several occasions beyond the date the document was produced to visit his Garda counterparts in Dundalk?


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