Smithwick Tribunal: Gerry Adams row diverts attention from difficult questions

This article first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, 5 December 2013

There’s a familiar pattern of political reaction when a tribunal reports on an investigation into Garda behaviour, fine-honed over the last decade as the Morris tribunal published eight reports into allegations of corruption in the force in Co Donegal.

Politicians and senior officers will line up to express their dismay, speeches will refer to the betrayal of the many decent officers in the force by the few, the words “bad apples” will get thrown about. Reforms are promised, and some are even delivered. And throughout it all, while some will point to the retired judge’s comments on the police culture of closing ranks, most coverage will concentrate on the minutiae of the report.

Peter Smithwick’s report, and his observations about the “misguided sense of loyalty” in the police force will sound familiar to anyone who has read the Morris reports. But Dublin’s politicians would rather talk about anything else than institutional reform. How fortunate then, that Gerry Adams thought it a good idea to go on independent national radio station Newstalk and declare that chief superintendent Harry Breen and superintendent Bob Buchanan died because of their “laissez-faire disregard for their own security”.

His comments quickly diverted attention away from the larger question of how Garda HQ dealt with reports of inappropriate behaviour by officers stationed at the border to a political squabble, as if Dail politicians suddenly realised for the first time that the IRA had been in the business of killing people.

Garda commissioner Martin Callinan, who as assistant commissioner had overseen an earlier investigation into collusion allegations described by the tribunal as “inadequate”, will have been particularly relieved. He told reporters he was “horrified” at the idea that any member of the force would collude with the IRA, but had less to say about the judge’s criticisms of the force as a whole.

The judge’s recommendations on cross-border policing, personnel exchanges, joint investigations and cross-border inquiries with the power to compel witnesses in both jurisdictions (perhaps chaired by one judge from each jurisdiction?) will provide food for thought (and headaches) in Leinster House and Stormont.

And while the judge notes the improved co-operation between the two police forces in the years since the Good Friday Agreement, an awkward note is struck in the submission on behalf of the garda commissioner to the tribunal, made at the conclusion of direct evidence last year, arguing that the PSNI had “failed” the Breen and Buchanan families, An Garda Siochana and the tribunal in failing to share intelligence, which “cast the gravest shadow over the bona fides, willingness and ability of the PSNI to co-operate with the tribunal.”

Relations between the two forces may be cordial on the ground along the border, but there is a cold front between Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park and Brooklyn House.