Did truth ambitions pass the Smithwick inquiry test?

Ch Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan were murdered by the IRA in 1989

So does the outcome of the Smithwick tribunal strengthen arguments for what Sinn Féin terms an independent international truth recovery process?

Or does it, as the Ulster Unionists argue, deliver the death knell to the credibility of any Truth Commission?

Such a Truth Commission did not specifically feature in the questions recently posed by Richard Haass to the negotiators in his inter-party talks process.

However, Dr Haass did ask the politicians if the existing bodies or processes dealing with the past, such as the Historical Enquiries Team, historic investigations by the Police Ombudsman, inquests and inquiries, might "be reformed, combined or otherwise improved?".

'Some credibility'

Should a combined body dealing with the past be agreed, it might not be called a Truth Commission but its goal would surely include uncovering further evidence about the darkest episodes of the Troubles.

The meeting that took place between three former IRA members and the Smithwick tribunal's legal team in April 2011 could be seen as a test run for any future Truth Commission.

The former IRA members refused to give evidence under cross examination to the tribunal but they did provide a written note detailing their version of the killings. They subsequently met the tribunal team to clarify various discrepancies in their account.

Essentially the IRA's version of the ambush was that, in the words of one of the former members who talked to the Smithwick team, "this was classic surveillance, hard dogged work, there was no help from anyone at all". The IRA members said they had kept an eye on the RUC officers' red Vauxhall Cavalier for months leading up to the murders.

As Gerry Adams has noted, justice Smithwick didn't dismiss the IRA's account out of hand. Instead he noted that "there is much to lend credibility to and corroborate elements" of the IRA's version of events. He also found it "plausible" that the IRA could have mounted an operation to ambush Bob Buchanan "on the basis of an established pattern of travel".

However the judge believed there were contradictions in the IRA's version of events. Although Peter Smithwick admits to having uncovered no "direct evidence" of collusion, his detailed analysis of the timing of the operation and his belief that Chief Supt Harry Breen was the IRA's specific target led him to decide that, on the balance of probabilities, someone in the Garda Síochána tipped off the IRA and betrayed the two RUC officers.


The copious report is much more than "tittle tattle" - to quote Gerry Adams - but still falls far short of pointing a finger at any individual identified mole.

Even if all the legal and practical hurdles to setting up a Truth Commission and granting some more limited form of immunity can be overcome, the overarching question raised again by the Smithwick tribunal is: will witnesses tell such a body the truth, and if they do, will others believe what they are hearing?

In their submission to Dr Haass, Northern Ireland's Retired Police Officers Association said they did not support the concept of a Truth Commission, and continued "nor do we have any confidence that anyone other than our members would actually tell the truth".

Nationalists who lost loved ones at the hands of the 'Glennane gang' or the British army's Military Reaction Force may feel a similar sense of distrust about any evidence some former security force members might give.

In one paragraph in his report Peter Smithwick notes that the former IRA members (who came forward through an intermediary provided by Gerry Adams) made it clear that "we are not going to compromise former comrades and locations".

This code of omerta kicked in when the tribunal asked about the van stolen for use in the ambush. The judge then muses "this does raise the very valid question in my mind, if the Provisional IRA had received assistance from a member of An Garda Síochána, would they be prepared potentially to compromise that person by revealing that fact to this tribunal?"

The polarised responses to the Smithwick tribunal from unionists and republicans don't inspire much expectation that the Haass talks will lead to the creation of some kind of truth recovery process.

But in the unlikely event that Northern Ireland politicians are ever able to agree such a commission, the kind of doubts expressed by Peter Smithwick about where the truth really lies are likely to run through the minds of victims' families and witnesses in many other harrowing cases.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It strengthens the case for a "Truth for Amnesty" process but for that to work all sides have to admit what they did but many people dont want their full stories to come out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    3.Chris London

    It is a tough question. Perhaps it should exist for those who need it, but remain entirely media free? People want to 'name and shame' but you would be just as well to publish a list of names of the population of N.I. and have a box beside marked 'Involved in or a supporter of sectarian activity during Troubles- tick where applicable.'

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I think Smithwick was right about political expediency masking the truth. It still does. But with a political process which promised much and delivers little, and which panders to and protects the extreme elements in our society, I sense more people are prepared to set political expediency (hypocracy) aside and start 'naming names'. Smithwick may just be the catalyst for those minded to do so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Tit for tat, tat for tit. All communities, governments and paramilitaries involved behaved appallingly during the Troubles. Grieving families deserve and should receive justice, but what satisfying justice will ever be delivered?

    The raking up of the past is stoking the flames of dormant tensions. The new generation is suffering and leaving or getting angry in turn. It's time to move on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Apologies badly phrased...By 'naming names' I mean challenging the current political narrative. Our political class need to be challenged over their stance, policies and lack of any discernible ambition to deliver on the promises of peace. There is a huge disconnect between politicians and most people here and its time the silent or silenced majority young and old made their voices heard


Comments 5 of 13



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