The 26-County Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has been strongly criticised by all those involved in the Smithwick Tribunal after he imposed a deadline on the tribunal’s efforts to investigate allegations about a deadly IRA attack in March 1989.
Two senior RUC policemen based in Newry died after travelling to a security meeting with Garda police colleagues in Dundalk, across the border. While the Provisional IRA claimed responsiblity for the attack, the incident has been mired in controversy over the role of informers and/or a possible Garda tip-off in the planning of the attack.
Alan Shatter’s attempt to shut down the inquiry by November of this year stands in marked contrast with other state inquiries such as the Moriarty tribunal into political corruption, which endured for 13 years and finally reported this year.
Shatter’s intervention drew a stinging rebuke from the tribunal’s chair, Justice Smithwick, who accused him of a “wholly inappropriate attempt to interfere” with the independence of the inquiry.
In a series of strongly worded letters, Judge Smithwick accused Shatter of attempting to “spin” the move.
Smithwick also warned that sensitive and important witnesses who had been “painstakingly secured” by the tribunal were reconsidering giving evidence because of Shatter’s intervention.
These are believed to include Freddie Scappaticci, accused of being the infamous IRA double-agent known as ‘Stakeknife’, as well as Ian Hurst, also known as Martin Ingram, co-author of the book ‘Stakeknife’ and a former member of the British Army’s murderous undercover ‘Force Research Unit’.
Shatter’s attempt to defend the deadline by voicing concern for the family of one of the victims was also strongly condemned. His profession of concern for the family of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen -- the most senior RUC man to die in the conflict thus far -- was “insulting and rejected in such circumstances”, according to the Breens’ solicitor, John McBurney.
Mr McBurney released a number of e-mails he sent to Shatter on behalf of the Breen family seeking an urgent meeting before the introduction of a parliamentary motion which imposed the new tribunal deadline. Mr McBurney said the Breen family had been concerned the new deadline would “hamper and damage” the tribunal’s attempts to persuade witnesses from outside the jurisdiction to give evidence.
He described the new deadline as “an arbitrary, unnecessary and damaging time limit”, and an intrusion into the working of the tribunal “which the family found insulting”.
Amnesty International Ireland called on Shatter to withdraw the November 30 deadline. Colm O’Gorman, its director, said: “It is clear that Justice Smithwick believes the deadline, and the publicity surrounding it, have compromised the independence of the tribunal.
“It is also disturbing to learn that witnesses who had intended co-operating with the tribunal are now reconsidering this because of the Government’s decision to impose this deadline.”