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Statement by Michael McDowell, then Irish Minister for Justice, on a Tribunal of Inquiry into the killing of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan, (23 March 2005)

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Text: Michael McDowell ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement by Michael McDowell, then Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, on a motion establishing a Tribunal of Enquiry into the fatal shootings on 20 March 1989 of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan, Dail, (23 March 2005)



"I am pleased to have the opportunity to table the motion before the House seeking the establishment of a tribunal of inquiry into suggestions of collusion in the brutal and callous murders of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Bob Buchanan by the Provisional IRA in 1989.

Background - Weston Park Agreement

I refer to the background to the motion. In August 200, following discussions with the Northern Ireland parties at Weston Park, the Irish and British Governments committed themselves to the appointment of a judge of international standing from outside both jurisdictions to undertake a thorough investigation of allegations of collusion between British and Irish security forces and paramilitaries in six cases.

The six cases are the murders of Mr. Pat Finucane; Mr. Robert Hamill; Ms Rosemary Nelson; Mr. Billy Wright; the two RUC officers; and Northern Ireland Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and Lady Cecily Gibson.

The first four of these cases relate to allegations of collusion by British security forces while the other two cases relate to allegations of collusion by the Garda.

Arising from the Weston Park Agreement, Mr. Peter Cory, an eminent retired Canadian Supreme Court judge, was asked by the two Governments to investigate and report on the allegations of collusion. Judge Cory was appointed by the Governments in May 2002.

Cory Collusion Inquiry Process

The aim of the inquiry process under Judge Cory was to determine whether there is sufficient evidence of collusion between State security forces and those responsible for the killings in each case to warrant a public inquiry.

The resultant reports into the six cases were submitted to the Governments by Judge Cory in October 2003. On behalf of the Government, I thank and commend Judge Cory once again for his diligent and painstaking work in producing these reports.

In December 2003, following Government approval, I published redacted versions of the two reports to the Government. All the redactions to the two reports were performed with the explicit consent and approval of Judge Cory and occurred solely on the basis of the Government's obligations to ensure justice.

Murder of Lord Justice and Lady Gibson

The two reports make grim reading for anyone with even an ounce of humanity. Both Lord Justice and Lady Gibson were cruelly killed in a carefully planned and executed bombing attack on the morning of 25 April 1987.

The south Armagh brigade of the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for the killings. The IRA also issued other public statements indicating that the murders had been planned in advance.

Suggestions of collusion related to claims that a member or members of the Garda advised those directly responsible for the killings or members of their organisation of the Gibsons' itinerary on that fateful day.

Judge Cory concluded in his report on this appalling crime that there is no evidence of collusion by the Garda or other Government agency that would warrant the holding of an inquiry.  I welcome this finding in that it removes doubt or suspicion that a member or members of the Garda committed a gross act of treachery in colluding in the murder of two innocents. I fully realise that is cold comfort to the victims' families.

Murder of two RUC Officers

The other case relevant to this jurisdiction examined by Judge Cory is different but it involved was an equally horrific act of callous murder.

While I appreciate that the detail I am about to relate concerning this appalling act of savagery is distressing, it is worth recalling, if only to demonstrate the sheer depravity of those who perpetrated it.

On the afternoon of 20 March 1989, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan were shot dead in an ambush just north of the Border as they returned from a prearranged meeting with a senior Garda officer in Dundalk Garda station. The Provisional IRA subsequently claimed responsibility for this double murder.

The location of the ambush, on the Edenappa road, was found by Judge Cory to have been well chosen in terms of topography and tree cover with respect to a nearby British army observation posts. The ambush involved PIRA members establishing a checkpoint on the road only minutes before the arrival of Superintendent Buchanan's private car carrying the two RUC officers. The two officers were unarmed as was required at the time and the perpetrators of this act knew that.

From the available information, it appears that two armed men, dressed in army style fatigues and with camouflage on their faces, stopped southbound cars and strategically placed then so as to funnel northbound traffic into a single lane.

Shortly after the last southbound vehicle was stopped and in place, Superintendent Buchanan's car appeared, driving northwards. It was also flagged down by the armed men in the middle of the road. As the car slowed, a van, which had been following, overtook Superintendent Buchanan's car and pulled into a nearby laneway. Four armed men, wearing camouflage and balaclavas, emerged from the van and started firing immediately. Superintendent Buchanan attempted to reverse his car to escape but the car apparently stalled and he was unsuccessful.

Both Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, while still in the car were hit several times by a hail of bullets. Examination of the vehicle the following day indicated no less than 25 strike marks from bullets along both sides of the car, with the majority aimed at the driver's side. The autopsy performed on Superintendent Buchanan revealed that he had suffered many fragment wounds in the head and upper body, and it is probable that he was dead by the time his car came to a halt. He had also been shot in the head at close range, almost certainly after he had died.

Chief Superintendent Breen had been wounded in the abdomen, the upper right shoulder and arm and had sustained wounds to his head. It appears that he had left the car after it came to a stop, waving a white handkerchief. It was obvious that he had suffered several gunshot wounds before he left the car which, although severe, did not appear to have been fatal. Eyewitness accounts indicated that a member of the Provisional IRA murder squad walked up to him and shot him in the back of the head.

It is worth restating that these were two unarmed RUC officers returning from a meeting with their colleagues in an Garda Siochana. They were, in short, two policemen doing their duty and attempting to achieve peace on both sides of the Border.

That, then, is the appalling scene which Judge Cory paints of the last moments of these two men's lives.  As he says himself in his report, those shootings were brutal, cowardly and demonstrated a callous insensitivity to both the suffering of individuals and to life itself.

Nobody who could describe himself or herself as interested in peace in Ireland, a united Ireland, justice, human rights or any value asserted in the proclamation of 1916 could have done that to two unarmed policemen in such a cruel and cowardly way. It is a great shame that the Provisional IRA should do such a thing to two men in those circumstances.

Suggestions of Collusions

I now turn to suggestions of collusion. Those relate to claims that a member of the Garda Siochana, or a civilian employed within the Garda organisation, advised either those directly responsible for the killings or members of their organisation of the visit of the two RUC officers and, in particular, of the time that they left Dundalk Garda Station.

In his report, Judge Cory examined the known circumstances, the intelligence reports and other matters in drawing conclusions about the case.

From a review of the relevant factors, Judge Cory stated that it might be said that the Provisional IRA did not need any assistance from within the gardai to carry out the ambush. Moreover, Judge Cory suggests that the intelligence reports received shortly after the murders, considered by themselves, might be thought to point to a similar conclusion.

However, Judge Cory considered that a statement made by one Kevin Fulton could be found to constitute evidence of collusion on the part of a Garda officer, referred to as Garda B in the report. Kevin Fulton is the pseudonym of a former agent with a British intelligence agency who, in that capacity, is supposed to have become a member of the Provisional IRA. In a statement delivered to Judge Cory, Kevin Fulton claims that, on the day of the ambush of the two RUC officers, his senior IRA commander was told by another member of the IRA that Garda B had informed the Provisional IRA that the two officers were at Dundalk Garda Station.

Judge Cory goes on to state that this statement would add credence to two intelligence reports which spoke of a Garda leak.

In all this, it should be noted that Judge Cory does not make findings of fact. Rather, he states that if that evidence were accepted by those eventually making the findings of fact, it could be found to constitute collusion.

Accordingly, on that basis, Judge Cory concluded that there must be a public inquiry in this case.

Onus on the Governments

As part of the Weston Park agreement, the two Governments committed themselves that, in the event that a public inquiry is recommended in any case, the relevant Government will implement that recommendation.  Accordingly, the Government is committed to holding a public inquiry in respect of allegations of Garda collusion in the killings of the two RUC officers.

Tribunal of Inquiry

In the light of Judge Cory's recommendations, I secured Government approval to hold a public inquiry into the murders, to take the form of a tribunal of inquiry pursuant to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2002. I sought that type of public inquiry because it meets all the essential criteria set down by Judge Cory for a public inquiry.

I subsequently secured the authorisation of Government to lay the necessary resolutions before both Houses of the Oireachtas to enable the establishment of the tribunal of inquiry, according to the formulation contained in the motion before the House, which constitutes the tribunal's terms of reference.

Terms of Reference

I would briefly like to draw the House's attention to some of the more important aspects of the terms of reference.

After a straightforward recitation, the main operative section is, of course, that a tribunal shall be established to inquire into suggestions that members of the Garda Siochana or other employees of the State colluded in the fatal shootings of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan on 20 March 1989.

By any stretch of the imagination, this is the broadest possible interpretation of the findings of the relevant Cory report, and it delimits in no way whatsoever the tribunal's latitude to inquire into whatever organisations and individuals that it sees fit.

The other notable feature of the terms of reference is paragraph (II), which states that if the tribunal finds that there is insufficient co-operation from any person not compellable to give evidence, that fact should be reported to the Clerk of the Dail for consideration by the Houses of the Oireachtas, in conjunction with myself, having regard to the public interest.

The thinking here is simple: it is a fact that likely key witnesses reside outside the jurisdiction. As with domestic legislation in general, the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2002 apply only within this jurisdiction. Hence, the statutory provisions relating to compellability to give evidence would not apply to likely key witnesses. Accordingly, it is anticipated that the tribunal of inquiry would be obliged to rely on the goodwill and co-operation of non-compellable persons to make progress with aspects of its work.

Paragraph (II) of the terms of reference provides a mechanism by which the tribunal can report back to the Houses of the Oireachtas, should non-compellable persons decline to co-operate with the tribunal.

That is an important element of the terms of reference of the tribunal. In the normal course of events, if co-operation from outside the jurisdiction necessary for the tribunal to complete its work were not forthcoming, we would be left with the prospect of the tribunal reporting in an incomplete way. By virtue of this provision, however, the tribunal can report that fact to the Oireachtas. By that means, the problem of securing co-operation from non-compellable persons can be elevated to the political sphere, where I, the Government and the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas can determine the best way forward. In particular, it provides an opportunity for formal approaches to be made to the British Government, should the need arise, to seek to secure the co-operation of persons residing in either Britain or Northern Ireland, whether they be British citizens or otherwise. It provides a form of political leverage, grounded in the restated will of the Oireachtas, that can be used, should the need arise, to ensure that the tribunal is given every opportunity to secure the cooperation of all those who might be able to shed light on this appalling act of barbarism.

The House will be aware that the sole member of the tribunal will be appointed by the Government, and I hope to be able to announce that person's identity later today.

I know this House will join with me in advising everyone involved to co-operate fully with the tribunal. I have full confidence that the Garda Siochana, as well as any other institution of the State, will be forthcoming in its engagement with the tribunal.  Nothing less than full co-operation is demanded, and nothing less should be expected from the guardians of the State.

There is, however, one organisation that could provide full answers to the tribunal, and that, of course, is the IRA. I challenge that organisation, and Sinn Fein in the House, to state clearly that there will be co-operation with the tribunal. Sinn Fein and the IRA cannot have it both ways: they cannot clamour for justice and truth regarding other barbaric acts that Judge Cory has reported on and in respect of which he has recommended tribunals and not co-operate on this one. Judge Cory's recommendations are not an a la carte menu from which one may choose at will. If those who describe themselves as the republican movement have any intention of demanding full co-operation and delivery on Judge Cory's recommendations by the British Government in so far as it lies within its remit in respect of institutions and persons in Northern Ireland in respect of those other inquiries, they must be willing to deliver to this inquiry a full and complete answer regarding whether this act involved collusion on the part of a member of the Garda Siochana. I say that conscious of the fact that testimony given to a tribunal by definition cannot be used in criminal proceedings against a person who so testifies.

Persons who testify to the tribunal I am proposing should be established will be in the unique position that they will be able to give the tribunal evidence on a very serious crime knowing that their testimony cannot be used to incriminate them.

This tribunal is being established by the will of the people assembled here in the Houses of the Oireachtas and on foot of an all-party understanding at Weston Park. I ask those in particular who describe themselves as the republican movement to remember that fact because it is the will of the people that savage acts such as the brutal murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan by the Provisional IRA in 1989 should have no place in this Republic.

Concluding Remarks

Pursuant to the Weston Park agreement the State is under an obligation to establish a public inquiry into the brutal murders of these two RUC officers.  We do so not just out of an obligation imposed morally upon us by Judge Cory's report but out of a genuine desire to see justice done.  If there was collusion by officers or an officer of the Garda Siochana in this crime, the least the relatives of those two members of the RUC are entitled to is to have that fact established, just as much as the victims of other alleged acts of collusion are entitled to have justice and the truth established in their cases.

I must tell the House that I considered going down the road of a commission of inquiry but I found it did not match up to the criteria laid down by Judge Cory, The form of public inquiry proposed and its proposed terms of reference constitute the most open, potentially expansive and powerful form of public inquiry available under our law here or anywhere else to ensure that the full truth emerges.

We owe it to the families of the late Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan, the people of Northern Ireland and the people of this State, given the concerns raised about organs of this State.

I commend the motion to the House.

Concluding Statement:

I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate and supported the Government's motion. Deputy Jim O'Keeffe asked why the Commissions of Investigation Bill was not used on this occasion. Section 8 of that Bill provides that the proceedings under those inquiries should be held in private as much as possible whereas Judge Cory recommended the opposite, that this inquiry should be held in public as much as possible.

The scheme of the Act is that its proceedings should be held in private as much as possible and, effectively, one must get the permission of the High Court to issue the report. It is not the type of tribunal Judge Cory had in mind. Obviously, on grounds of expense it was quite attractive. On the other hand, in the context of the controversy about the inquiries Bill, in which I wholeheartedly support the Taoiseach's position notwithstanding Deputy Ferris's comments, if Ireland is seen to walk away from a public inquiry it would be regarded as a green light for a different approach to be taken by the United Kingdom and the Government does not accept that.

With regard to expense, remuneration of counsel will be carried out on the basis of the structure for the payment of legal fees agreed by the Government last July, that is, a maximum payment to counsel at the rate of a High Court judge's salary for a year and perhaps less than that. Judge Cory required that the inquiry should be allowed to select its counsel. I am not in a position, therefore, to guarantee that there will be a tendering process. However, there will be strict control and a different approach to finances in the case of this inquiry. That is a firm decision of the Government.

Judge Peter Smithwick has agreed to chair the inquiry and to relinquish his office as President of the District Court and ex officio judge of the Circuit Court for that purpose. I am grateful to him for agreeing to do that.

Deputy O Caolain, in an aside that was designed not to attract notice, used the phrase "fellow Unionists" about other Unionist persons immediately following mention of myself. I am an Irish republican and I know what Irish republicanism means. It does not involve, in this day and age, killing, shooting or bombing anybody, robbing banks, breaking people's legs or extorting money. None of those activities has anything to do with republicanism.

I look forward to the establishment of a united Ireland under a republican constitution as much as any other Member of the House. It is the vocation of Irish republicans to work towards a reconciliation of the green and orange in this country, as our national flag suggests. The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein have consistently betrayed the republican cause and continue to do so. They have constantly sought to polarise Northern politics, to drive the centre into extinction and to confront, in a face to face challenge, the more rejectionist Unionists. That suits their game plan.

Looking at "Magill" magazine the other day, I noticed a photograph of the widow of a German industrialist, Thomas Niedermeyer. She was pictured following her husband's coffin in 1990. His body had been recovered after he was kidnapped, held for ransom and executed by the IRA. He was no more than an industrialist trying to bring prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland. The picture of his wife attending his funeral was accompanied by a laconic note beneath to the effect that, subsequent to the funeral, she returned to Northern Ireland and committed suicide there.

I mention this because it reminded me of the Provisional IRA strategy at the time of trying to wreck the economy of the North and the South. People have forgotten but it might be time to remind them that Galen Weston was the subject of an attempted kidnap by people who have subsequently sought election in this State. Tiede Herrema was the subject of another kidnapping attempt to raise funds for the IRA. Don Tidey was also the subject of a kidnap. These efforts were for the purpose of raising money by kidnapping, demands and extortion for the cause. They were fundraising efforts of the type we have seen in recent times. The kidnappings were directed by a small Marxist group at the heart of the IRA, some of whose members are now in its leadership, towards destruction of our economic well being.

We are now told, as a matter of history, that the killing of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan was a killing of combatants. It was no such thing. The two men were unarmed and were known to be unarmed. The IRA, as Deputy Jim O'Keeffe said, lied immediately afterwards and claimed it had been ambushed and frightened by the two men and had resisted. The truth is that the two men were slaughtered in a premeditated act of butchery. Even when they attempted to surrender they were finished off on the road in a most grotesque manner.

Sometimes the truth about this matter appears to be lost. The Irish people should remember that the robbery of the Northern Bank was part of a piece, as robberies in this city were. The IRA has continuously asserted the right to break the criminal law of this State to raise money to further its political project. Those who think that these events are part of a glorious armed struggle to free this island should remember that the real republicans in this House, among whom I count myself, are the people who have built the economic well being of this State, have sought reconciliation with the orange tradition in Northern Ireland and are fighting to implement the Good Friday Agreement in a way that will bring Irish people so close together that political unity will result.

Those who doubt that should look at today's newspapers and see how polarised opinion is. Sometimes we are asked to believe that a sectarian head count in Northern Ireland will decide its political future. It is interesting to note that whereas the provisional movement has alienated and polarised the Protestants in Northern Ireland, one third of Catholics are not with the movement on the project for a united Ireland. That is a poor return for a 30 year war of liberation. However, it is an apt reflection of what happens after 30 years of terrorism, thuggery, cowardice and savagery, which we hope has now come to an end."


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