The world which both subversives and police inhabit is full of moral hazard

Opinion: Evidence suggests IRA were well capable of gathering intelligence that led to killings without any help from anyone

Mr Justice Peter Smithwick’s report is unlikely to change anything fundamental. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Mr Justice Peter Smithwick’s report is unlikely to change anything fundamental. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 00:01

“We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on those who would harm us.”

George Orwell’s observation, as paraphrased by Richard Grenier, affords a contemporary frame of reference for Judge Peter Smithwick’s depiction of policing in and around Dundalk at the height of the Northern Troubles.

These were years when the State feared for its stability, perhaps even its existence. The security machine deployed to counter paramilitary violence included not a few “rough men”. They were sent in to confront ruthless and clever adversaries in conditions of physical danger and political ambiguity.

Unsurprisingly, the 1989 picture of cover-up and corruption described by Smithwick mirrors almost exactly the conditions revealed by the Morris tribunal in Donegal. Equally unsurprising is the unwillingness, described by Judge Smithwick, of the senior Garda hierarchy to rein in the “rough men”. They were getting the results required.

The Smithwick report does not tell us of the scores of IRA terrorists despatched to Portlaoise Prison through operations conducted at least in part by some of these “rough men”. We do not learn of their willingness, at times, to put themselves in harm’s way. His terms of reference did not allow any assessment of the numbers of lives that were undoubtedly saved by their actions.

The report paints a picture of laxity, indiscipline and illegality among a cohort of these gardaí. When their higher authorities found themselves obliged to investigate, the interventions were generally inadequate. Expediency won the day. Loyalty, in Judge Smithwick’s words, was prized above honesty.

Morally hazardous
The world inhabited by police and subversives is a murky one, characterised by short-term opportunism and long-term self-interest. It is morally hazardous. Deals are done. Information is traded. There will be money on offer. A sprat may be sacrificed to catch a mackerel. The history of the Garda Síochána recounts not a few instances in which officers fell to the wrong side of the line.

But it is a far step from this to participation in the murders of fellow police officers, albeit in a different jurisdiction. The report concludes that “the passing of information by a member of an Garda Síochána was the trigger” (23.2.5) for the ambush operation in which Chief Supt Breen and Supt Buchanan were murdered. This conclusion would appear to be built upon a structure of deduction rather than any hard evidence.

Judge Smithwick acknowledges the lack of any direct evidence. “There is no record of a phone call, no traceable payment, no smoking gun.” (23.1.2). And when he considers the possible involvement of the gardaí who were examined by the tribunal, he rules each of them out.

Of former Det Sgt Owen Corrigan, he says: “While there is some evidence that Mr Corrigan passed information to the Provisional IRA, I am not satisfied that the evidence is of sufficient substance and weight to establish that Mr Corrigan did in fact collude in the fatal shootings of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan.” (23.2.11).

We are left with the possibility that some unknown garda notified the IRA of the RUC officers’ visit. This requires one to conclude (as the judge does) that the IRA’s claim to have mounted the ambush on the basis of its own surveillance and intelligence is false. But notwithstanding Gerry Adams’s maladroit comments about the murdered officers’ approach to their security, it should be borne in mind that in recent years IRA statements about past operational matters have been generally accurate.

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