The past, presently.

The Smithwick Tribunal has been rumbling along with occasional interest from the media. It will rumble on a while longer.

Interest has been particularly excited when those active in politics, police or security services have made broad statements relating to the context of the period. Unsurprisingly.

The Tribunal is looking specifically at the murder of two RUC Officers, Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan, on their return journey to Northern Ireland from a meeting with Garda in Dundalk in 1989; to establish whether or not their deaths were in some part the consequence of information supplied to the IRA by member or members of An Garda Síochána.

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The term ‘collusion’ has been politically and emotionally charged by republicans to create a sense of casual collaboration between the State and paramilitaries in criminal acts. Often this is based on conspiracist speculation, projecting paranoia and a political mindset willing to see a securocrat and dark forces at work: where more often than not, happenstance and confusion is the more likely explanation.

There was no more systemic co-operation between the Garda and the IRA than there was with loyalist paramilitiaries and the RUC or the Crown Forces. Were there instances where such collaboration/co-operation/collusion happened, where individuals decided to support ‘the cause’? Probably. The acts of a small number of individuals should never be allowed to undermine the unwavering efforts, and bravery, of Garda and RUC in the face of terrorism.

The Smithwick Tribunal will provide an insight on whether or not the ‘collusion’ happened in this one particular instance. It may also throw up other incidents that allude to similar times when those meant to be upholding the law became witting or unwitting partners to violent criminals seeking to undermine the authority of State. The period of history was one of upheaval, and no doubt some indivuduals carried divided and confused loyalties.

No surprise then that the Smithwick Tribunal is taking place, or that it is throwing up information that is emotionally charged. In time the Smithwick Tribunal will report, and the purpose of this note is not to prejudge or predict what the Tribunal might ultimately say. What is striking of some of the evidence that is being presented is the projection of present circumstances to shape contextual consideration of past times.

1989 was a very different time. The onslaught of violence of the 1970s had ground itself into a long and vacuous conflict, lacking purpose or exit: an exasperated and exhausted British state facing off violent sectarian criminals wrapped in flags of convenience and self-determined national self-righteousness.

The emotional charge of ‘collusion’ is of course exacerbated where there is a sense that co-operation on investigation or intelligence is not being properly shared by one side or the other.  The suggestion raised during the Smithwick Tribunal that senior members of the Irish State might have emphasised with the IRA would hardly be a new one. It would also be expected that the denials would been equally emphatic.

Whether anything was actually said, or some believed what they wanted to hear may only be a matter of comment in respect of the specific Smithwick brief. The question as to whether Dublin’s attitude to border security around this period might have cost lives may or may not be answered in time.

Certainly, the belief persists that the Irish Republic was less than co-operative in the most recent IRA campaign. This has been occasionally articulated beyond rhetoric, and in this small booklet most ably by Edgar Graham. While specifically on extradition, once again recently a news point, it points to an institutional state that allowed terrorists to believe they might have tacit approval of their actions – while also noting the frustration of Garda members on this state of affairs.

It was for publications such as this, his forensic legal mind, and leadership potential among Unionists of all hues, that Edgar Graham was murdered by the IRA.

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