A lawyer for the family of a murdered RUC officer has rejected an accusation that he was trying to “frame” a retired garda detective at the Smithwick tribunal of inquiry into allegations of collusion with the IRA.
Banbridge solicitor John McBuney represents the family of chief superintendent Harry Breen, who was killed in an IRA ambush on 20 March 1989 with his colleague superintendent Bob Buchanan as they returned from a meeting in Dundalk garda station.
The tribunal heard from a British Customs & Excise officer identified as Witness M, who said he was warned by a colleague months before the ambush that a garda detective sergeant was “passing information”, and to be careful what he said in the detective’s presence.
“I was warned by a colleague now deceased that detective sergeant [Owen] Corrigan, who was allegedly feeding information, was in the room,” Witness M said. Mr Corrigan has consistently denied any allegations of collusion.
Referring to his diary, Witness M said he was given the warning at a Christmas “get-together” in Armagh involving RUC and Garda officers on 21 December 1988.
Witness M also said that at a meeting one week after the ambush, Mr Breen’s assistant Sergeant Alan Mains said the chief superintendent did not want to go to the meeting in Dundalk on the day he died.
Questioned by Mr Jim O’Callaghan SC on behalf of Mr Corrigan, the Witness said he had spoken to Breen family solicitor Mr John McBurney before giving evidence.
The barrister put it to the witness that Mr McBurney had “filled your mind with information that you don’t recall”, and that this information ended up in a statement by Witness M.
“Mr McBurney may have asked me but I remember it,” Witness M said. “It was a very difficult time and I remember it.”
Mr O’Callaghan later complained that the solicitor was “travelling the highways and byways of Northern Ireland to recruit and coach witnesses negative to my client.”
“It is deeply regret that Mr McBirney is trying to get and promote evidence to frame my client,” he told the chairman.
In response, Mc McBurney said he “deeply resented” such an allegation.
Tribunal chairman Peter Smithwick told Mr O’Callaghan he was “rather harsh in your observation that Mr McBurney was trying to frame your client.”
“He is very keen that all the truth should come out and encouraging people to give evidence in pursuit of that,” the chairman said.
Mr McBurney said he had contacted Witness M as he was mentioned in a statement made by Mr Alan Mains 48 hours after the ambush, and during the course of a discussion about the tribunal he had mentioned not only Mr Corrigan’s name but also those of several other officers who had given evidence before the tribunal.
“It is as simple as that,” Mr McBurney said. “I make no apology to Mr O’Callaghan or anyone else for so doing.”
Tribunal barrister Dara Hayes said Mr McBurney had acted an an intermediary on several occasions, as a result of which witnesses had come forward to give evidence on several issues.
At the time of his death, chief superintendent Breen was heading a major investigation called “Operation Amaizing” into cross-border grain smuggling focusing on well-known republican Thomas “Slab” Murphy.
The tribunal also heard that the deaths were discussed at a high-level Anglo-Irish Agreement meeting involving NI secretary Peter King and Irish foreign affairs minister Gerry Collins on 5 April 1989. Also present were RUC chief constable Sir Jack Hermon and Garda commissioner Eugene Crowley, and officials from both governments.
At the meeting, Mr King noted a “sectarian element” in newspaper reports which raised questions of garda collusion in the deadly attack. RUC chief constable Sir Jack Hermon told the meeting that the IRA had obtained diaries belonging to the two men after the ambush, which contained lists of telephone numbers and contacts.
The tribunal resumes on Tuesday.