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

“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.

There is substantial corroboration of the IRA claim. An unoccupied house facing Dundalk Garda station provided them with a perfect hide from which to monitor comings and goings. The car habitually used by the officers, a red Cavalier with Northern Ireland plates, could hardly have been more conspicuous. Nor could their pattern of visits to garda stations fail to be picked up by IRA intelligence.

When they visited Dundalk the red Vauxhall Cavalier was invariably parked in plain sight at the front of the Garda station. This may have occurred more then 20 times in the months leading up to murders.

Judge Smithwick discounts the IRA claim, in part, on the basis that they would not want to compromise a garda from whom they had received assistance in the past. But if they were concerned about this, why would they subject themselves to the potential hazard of engaging with the tribunal’s representatives at all? The idea that the IRA would carry some debt of gratitude over 20 years seems improbable.

The judge is also, in some degree, persuaded by the speed with which the IRA set up the ambush and by the fact that they knew which road the RUC men would travel on.

Any reporter who has covered the Troubles could testify to the extraordinary ability of the IRA to appear when a target presented itself, to strike and to disappear in a matter of moments. And this was no random opportunity. The target was unmistakeable: the pattern over months was predictable. A walkie-talkie message from a spotter in Dundalk would have given more than sufficient time for an already well-rehearsed operation to get under way.

Some issues for the future arise from Judge Smithwick's report. It is unlikely that they will be addressed in any meaningful way.

The report tells us that gardaí cover up for each other and resist any scrutiny of their performance (a disposition that they share with priests, doctors, lawyers, civil servants and others.) This culture is not going to change as long as the force can shelter behind the screen of “security” when asked to account for itself.

It would miss the point to blame the gardaí themselves for this. The political establishment – of whatever party – has no desire to see the national police force fully open to independent scrutiny or oversight.

Orwell’s “rough men” in the future may well be more smooth and their leaders will use more emollient language. The State will pay lip service to accountability and reform. But Judge Smithwick’s report will go the way of its predecessors. Little will change.

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times and author of a history of An Garda Síochána