Smithwick Tribunal of Inquiry – Amendment of terms of reference Dáil Éireann

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            Smithwick Tribunal of Inquiry – Amendment of terms of reference

                                                         Dáil Éireann

               Statement by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence

                                                  Mr. Alan Shatter T.D

1 June 2011

I move the Motion a Cheann Comhairle.

This Motion seeks to amend the terms of reference of the Tribunal of Inquiry into suggestions of collusion by Members of the Garda Síochána or other employees of the State in the brutal murders by the Provisional IRA of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Bob Buchanan in March 1989.  Whilst the original Dail Motion was passed on 23rd March 2005 and on the 24th March 2005 in Seanad Éireann the Tribunal was ultimately established on the 31st May 2005 and it is chaired by Judge Peter Smithwick, former President of the District Court.

Let me state emphatically at the outset that the purpose of this proposal is not to impede, confine or in any way interfere with the independence of the Tribunal in fulfilling the terms of reference of the inquiry.  It is not about the ‘winding down’ of a Tribunal.  Instead, it is about fulfilling this House’s responsibilities, while fully supporting the work of the Tribunal.

The purpose of the Motion is to afford the Dáil the opportunity to consider the current state of play with the Tribunal’s work and it seeks to establish a timeframe which is reasonable for the Tribunal to complete that work.

I do not believe it would have been appropriate given the respective roles of the Oireachtas and the Tribunal for me to have consulted with Judge Smithwick about the terms of the Motion itself before the House today.  But I can tell the House that some time ago Judge Smithwick indicated to me that the Tribunal would be able to conclude its work within the timescale now contemplated by the Motion.  I believe it to be both in the public interest and in the interest of those bereaved by the callous murders of the two police officers to underpin that in the motion.

Notwithstanding that, I put it firmly on the record of the House that if, for any reason, this does not prove possible the Chairman can report back to the Clerk of the Dáil to the effect that circumstances have arisen which require that timescale to be extended.  I offer this House the solemn assurance that the Government’s response to that will be fully cognisant of and consistent with the need for the Tribunal to fulfil its obligations fully and as expeditiously as possible.

I believe that that assurance can meet fully concerns which have been expressed about the public imposition of a deadline. While, as I have already indicated, I have not consulted with Mr. Justice Smithwick about the specific terms of motions I will convey that assurance to him in light of concerns he has expressed to me about any possible effects of an indication by this House of a deadline.

Six years after its establishment and the expenditure of over €8 million of taxpayers’ money by my Department, I believe that this approach best protects the public interest.

The Motion also requires the Chairman to prepare and submit an interim report by the end of June.  Again, this is consistent with the Tribunal’s own timescale which envisages public hearings commencing on 7 June with an opening statement by Counsel on that date.  There has been some misinformed public comment about this, apparently based on the mistaken view that this is a new requirement.  In fact, under the current terms of reference the Chairman must submit an interim report on certain matters as soon as may be after the tenth day of any oral hearings of the Tribunal.  The Motion, therefore, does not impose any substantive additional requirement or undesirable burden on the Tribunal.

Background - Weston Park Agreement
This Tribunal arose from the Weston Park talks in 2001, when the Irish and British Governments appointed an eminent retired Canadian Supreme Court judge, Peter Cory, to undertake a thorough investigation of six particular allegations of collusion to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant a public inquiry.

In the case of the two RUC officers, Judge Cory considered allegations that a member of the Garda Síochána, or a civilian employed in the Garda organisation, advised either those directly responsible for the killings or members of their organisation of the visit of the two RUC officers to Dundalk Garda Station and, in particular, advised them of their departure from there.

On the afternoon of 20 March 1989, Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan were ambushed just north of the Border as they returned from a meeting with a senior Garda officer in Dundalk Garda Station.  An IRA gang stopped the car carrying the two RUC officers at a roadblock road and four armed men emerged from a van which pulled up close by and opened fire immediately. 

From a review of the relevant factors, Judge Cory considered that it might be said that the Provisional IRA did not need any assistance from within the Gardaí to carry out the ambush.  However, he also considered that a statement made by a former British intelligence agent who, in that capacity, is supposed to have become a member of the Provisional IRA, could be found to constitute evidence of collusion on the part of a Garda officer.  Accordingly, he concluded that there must be a public inquiry in this case and, in line with the Weston Park commitments, the Smithwick Tribunal was established.

Interim Report 
The Smithwick Tribunal has, since early 2006, been conducting its inquiries in private.  Given the importance that is attached to the subject matter of those inquiries, the Government considers that it is appropriate that the Oireachtas and the public should have an indication of where the Tribunal is currently placed in carrying out the mandate which the Oireachtas has given to it.  It is my view and that of the Government that it serves the public interest to have at this stage information from the Tribunal as to the current status of the inquiry.

With hindsight, it may have been a mistake in the original terms of reference to link the timing of an interim report to a number of public hearings having taken place.  I doubt very much that the House would have envisaged at the time that this would mean that it would hear nothing from the Tribunal for six years.

I do not consider it unreasonable that the Tribunal should be asked to report progress at this stage.  Insofar as the proposed interim report is concerned, the Motion does not seek to have the Tribunal deal with the substance of the matters into which it is inquiring.  Rather, the purpose is for the Tribunal to give the Oireachtas an indication of the numbers of persons granted representation, progress to date with its hearings and work, and other matters which the Tribunal considers should be drawn to the attention of the Oireachtas.

And, as I have indicated, given that the tribunal intends to commence public hearings shortly, it would have been required to produce such a report in any event.

Final Report
I am anxious that the Smithwick Tribunal should be facilitated to conduct and conclude its inquiries in as comprehensive a manner as is possible.  I consider, however, that it is helpful, especially to those most directly affected by these dreadful killings, for this House to indicate a timescale for that.

It is not in the public interest or in the interest of the families bereaved by this IRA atrocity that an inquiry should continue indefinitely.  The seriousness of the matters being investigated requires greater urgency than that.

As I indicated, I have been informed by the Chairman that he believes that the Tribunal will be in a position to complete its work in advance of the date now proposed.  I repeat: if a difficulty were to emerge subsequently with the target date for conclusion, I have no doubt that the Chairman would report that difficulty and the Oireachtas would have the opportunity to consider the matter further.

It is against that background that the Motion proposes that the Tribunal should conclude its work and report to the Clerk of the Dáil by 30 November 2011.

Let me reiterate in no uncertain terms, a Cheann Comhairle, that there is no question of any political interference of any kind by me or by the Government with the Tribunal.  I respect and defend fully the independence of the Chairman of the Tribunal to carry out his inquiries without fear or favour. It is central to the remit of the Tribunal that having completed its hearings it reaches its conclusions and finalises its report for submission to the Clerk of Dáil Éireann without any interference of any nature or its independence being in any way compromised. It is, however, in the public interest that its deliberations do not continue indefinitely with no public target date of any nature for the completion of its work and without accountability to this Parliament or explanation of any nature for the duration of its sitting.  After all, its original remit was to report on a "definite matter of urgent public importance" on which it is  "to make such findings and recommendations as it sees fit".  Moreover, its original terms of reference require that when it reports on "an interim basis" the Tribunal must detail "the likely duration" insofar as it can estimate "of the proceedings of the Tribunal".  There must be some accountability to the Houses of the Oireachtas for the progress of its work and the public expenditure connected with it and this was clearly envisaged in the Motion passed by this House to establish the Tribunal on 23rd March 2005, over six years ago.

Concluding Remarks
The chilling murders of these two honourable policemen serves as a reminder to us all of the critical importance to this island of the peace process.  It is the will of the people of this island, North and South, that such acts of criminal thuggery, and those who would carry them out or excuse them, should be consigned forever to the past.  There have been too many victims on this island and we need no more.

The Oireachtas established the public inquiry into the brutal murders of these two RUC officers, not just out of an obligation imposed by Judge Cory’s report, but more importantly, out of a genuine desire to see the truth emerge, insofar as that can be done.  We owe this to the families left behind, to the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, to the people of this jurisdiction.

The families of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan have waited long enough for this aspect of these horrific events to be addressed and they deserve to see the full truth emerge as soon as may be.  If I thought for one moment that the Motion before this House today would interfere adversely with that process I would not have moved it nor would the House support it.

I am confident that the Tribunal will fully discharge its responsibilities and that this Motion will assist in that endeavour.  

I commend the Motion to the House.