The Smithwick Tribunal last week confirmed allegations of collusion between members of the Irish police and the IRA that were contained in my book Bandit Country, published in 1999.
I've done quite a few TV and radio interviews on the subject but here, pasted below, are two things worth reading: an interview with my by Simon Carswell published in the Irish Times and a piece I wrote for The Sunday Times at the weekend.
Journalist ‘absolutely vindicated’ by Smithwick findings
Toby Harnden alleges ‘10-year conspiracy of silence’ on quashed rumours of Garda collusion
Irish Times, 7th December 2013
The British journalist whose 1999 book led to the establishment of the Smithwick Tribunal said that he feels “absolutely” vindicated by the tribunal’s findings that someone in Dundalk Garda station colluded with the IRA in the killing of two RUC officers in 1989.
Toby Harnden, now Washington bureau chief for The Sunday Times, said there was “a 10-year conspiracy of silence” as rumours of Garda collusion had been quashed “so emphatically” in the immediate aftermath of the killings of RUC Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan.
Harnden claimed in the book, Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh, that a leak from the Garda station in Dundalk led to the killings of the two RUC officers in an IRA ambush near Jonesborough, south Armagh as they returned from a meeting at the station.
He wrote the book while working as Ireland Correspondent forThe Daily Telegraph between 1996 and 1999, at which stage he was posted to the United States.
Speaking in Washington, Harnden said suspicions of collusion had been “completely dormant” until he “laid it all out there” using Garda and RUC sources and British army and RUC documents.
An eight-year inquiry, which cost €15 million and heard evidence from almost 200 witnesses, confirmed “some pretty compelling allegations of collusion” set out from his own journalistic resources, he said.
“There are many books that might not stand up to that kind of scrutiny, and Bandit Country did,” he said.
“The Smithwick Tribunal and its conclusions wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Bandit Country. It is the only time in my career that my work has had that national and international impact.”
Smithwick said in the report that he was “extremely disappointed” that Harnden chose not to testify publicly. The journalist defended his decision. He said he met Smithwick privately in London and Washington.
“I was confident that me appearing would not have added anything substantive to the tribunal,” he said.
“There was some quite serious issues of protecting confidential sources and I just ultimately felt that the book should speak for itself.”
Harnden said he was “surprised by the level of surprise and outrage” that members of the Garda Síochána might have colluded with the IRA, given how the paramilitary group drew its support.
“I find it completely unsurprising that individuals in an Irish police force during the Troubles would have had republican sympathies towards the IRA and would have helped them out. I would have been surprised if that wasn’t the case,” he said.
Harnden admitted to being “obsessed” with the killings of Breen and Buchanan while he carried out research for the book, in which he looked back at 25 years of murders in the south Armagh and north Louth areas.
The timing of the RUC men’s meetings in Dundalk and the killings, and his understanding of how the IRA operated, led him to suspect that an IRA mole in the Garda, rather than an elaborate surveillance operation, was behind the killings. Interviews with other sources confirmed his suspicions, he said.
Harnden has visited Northern Ireland since he stopped working there in 1999 but he has not returned to south Armagh. He has said to himself that he would never go back, partly for security reasons. “It probably wouldn’t be a good place for me to hang out.”
Betrayed: My 14-year battle to reveal the truth
Toby Harnden was vilified when in 1999 he said Irish police had colluded with the IRA to kill two top RUC officers. Now a tribunal says he was right
The Sunday Times, 8th December 2013
The former Irish police inspector stared into his empty coffee cup as he pondered the question I had just asked him. There had been claims a decade earlier, I had put to him, that a fellow officer had tipped off the IRA about the movements of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers shot dead on a lonely border road. Could they be true?
I had expected a flat denial or even a refusal to contemplate such a notion. But his response was startling.
“I’m afraid the leak came from a guard,” he said haltingly, using the colloquial term for a member of the Garda Siochana, the Irish police.
“Bob Buchanan was a lovely, lovely man and those murders were an absolute tragedy. The fact that one of my colleagues was involved made the whole thing 10 times worse.”
We were sitting in the Carrickdale Hotel outside Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland, barely 300 yards from the border separating the country from Northern Ireland. The murders he referred to were those of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan just two miles away in 1989.
Breen and Buchanan were the two most senior RUC officers to be killed by the IRA during three decades of the Troubles. The Irish inspector, who had been based at Dundalk garda station, had known Buchanan well.
Allegations of collusion between the RUC and loyalists were commonplace. But this officer was telling me about something altogether more shocking — the betrayal by an Irish policeman of two RUC counterparts with whom he had ostensibly been working to tackle cross-border terrorism.
The story of how one or more garda officers had conspired with the IRA to kill Breen and Buchanan was to be laid out in painstaking detail in my book Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh, published in November 1999.
There was a storm of outrage and rejection from the RUC, the garda and Irish politicians. I was accused of being a unionist stooge, a British spy, a fabricator determined to sully the republic of Ireland. Many fellow journalists in Belfast and Dublin dismissed the possibility that an outsider working for a London newspaper as Ireland correspondent could have come up with such a scoop.
Fast forward 14 years and my phone rang last week in Washington, where I now work for The Sunday Times. It was an Irish television reporter asking for a comment about the result of the Smithwick tribunal into alleged garda collusion.
After an eight-year inquiry costing €15m (£12.5m) and testimony from 198 witnesses, Judge Peter Smithwick had confirmed the allegations in Bandit Country.
Smithwick’s conclusion has shaken the foundation of the Irish state. Enda Kenny, the taoiseach, described the collusion as “absolutely shocking” while Martin Callinan, the garda commissioner, issued an unreserved apology for a treachery that was “beyond comprehension”.
Last week Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, faced a wave of condemnation after appearing to blame Breen and Buchanan for their own murders, describing their attitude to security as “laissez faire”. He poured petrol on the flames by stating that the conclusion of Smithwick’s 1,652-page report was based on “tittle-tattle” and the RUC men and their IRA killers had both been “doing their duty as they saw it”.
At 3.20pm on March 20, 1989, after a meeting at Dundalk garda station, the two RUC officers had left in Buchanan’s red Vauxhall Cavalier and driven towards the border along Edenappa Road. Earlier, at 2.30pm — just 10 minutes after the officers had arrived at the station — five armed IRA men dressed in combat fatigues had arrived at a derelict house on the same street.
Receiving a CB radio message that their targets had left the station, the driver of a beige van picked up the five IRA men at the derelict house and drove to a spot 100 yards north of the border, where two of the men got out. Three cars were held up at gunpoint and their occupants were made to lie on the road. As the red Cavalier approached the scene, the beige van overtook it and blocked its way. Four gunmen jumped out of the van and opened fire. Buchanan slammed the car into reverse, but crashed into a hedge.
Buchanan was killed, his foot still resting on the accelerator. Breen, wounded, scrambled from the passenger seat and, getting out of the car, waved a white handkerchief. An IRA man walked towards him and used a Ruger Mini 14 rifle to blow the top of his head off at close range.
I was deep into my research into the “bandit country” — a term first used in 1974 by Merlyn Rees, secretary of state for Northern Ireland — of south Armagh when I began to doubt the official version of what had happened to Breen and Buchanan.
I had already been thrown off the scent by Sir John Hermon, RUC chief constable at the time of the killings. In a 1997 interview with me he emphatically ruled out collusion by garda officers — just as he had done in the immediate aftermath of the killings.
Some time later, however, I obtained a number of secret army and RUC documents. Among them were incident reports written about Breen’s and Buchanan’s demise. There was no mention of possible collusion but one thing leapt out — the IRA men had arrived at the derelict house only 10 minutes after Breen and Buchanan had arrived at Dundalk station.
I knew the IRA was meticulous and cautious about its operations — these were planned to the last detail and nothing was left to chance. Its leaders were paranoid about informers and SAS ambushes. It would have taken several hours for the ambush team to be put in place. That ruled out the possibility that it had been IRA surveillance of Dundalk station that had sealed the men’s fate. The “trigger” for the IRA operation appeared to have been the setting up of the meeting that morning. Buchanan’s visits in the same car — up to 21 in seven months — meant preliminary preparations had been made.
It appears that knowledge of the meeting had spread quickly once it was arranged at about 11am. In Bandit Country I used the ciphers garda X and garda Y for the two officers suspected of collusion. The Smithwick tribunal established that both men were on duty that day.
One RUC officer told me that before the meeting Breen had expressed concern that garda X was an IRA sympathiser. Even more crucially, an RUC Special Branch officer confided that there had been “technical information” — presumably from listening devices on army watchtowers, perhaps monitoring CB radio transmissions — that confirmed a garda leak.
The Special Branch officer was so cagey about having contact with me that he forbade me from ever phoning or emailing him even to arrange a meeting. Instead, I was to come to his house and wait for him. I spent many hours in his kitchen talking to his wife and children on the off chance that he would come home. None of my evidence was proof that could stand up in a court of law, but it was nevertheless a powerful circumstantial case that there had been collusion. Last week that was exactly the conclusion Smithwick reached.
In Bandit Country I used the pseudonym of the Surgeon for the man who had planned and led the ambush. In a 2001 benefit fraud case, Sean Gerard Hughes of Drumintee, south Armagh, identified himself as the Surgeon. (During the Smithwick tribunal, a former RUC detective inspector stated that Hughes, now aged 51, was the leader of the IRA unit that had killed Breen and Buchanan.)
Once the book was published, garda and RUC officers flew out to the United States to question me as part of fresh inquiries into the Breen and Buchanan incident. But it was clear that these were whitewashes — exercises in ticking a box and finding nothing.
Unionist politicians, however, wanted answers and in 2001 they won agreement at the Weston Park talks for an independent inquiry into alleged garda collusion. It was to be chaired by Judge Peter Cory, an elderly Canadian. I was not even contacted, there was no consideration of the timings of the IRA operation and Cory concluded that Bandit Country had contained only “speculation and hypothesis”.
However, Cory did find that the claims of one informant (later discredited by Smithwick) had suggested possible collusion and therefore a full public inquiry should be held. Thus the Smithwick tribunal was born almost by accident.
I met Judge Smithwick, a tough-minded and courageous man, in London and Washington, but opted not to appear at the tribunal. I had laid out all the information I had in Bandit Country, which I felt should stand on its own merits; and I had a duty to protect my confidential sources. I had long known that Bandit Country had been distributed by successive army units in south Armagh as required reading for British soldiers. During the tribunal Smithwick received an RUC document in which a detective chief inspector said Bandit Country contained “perhaps hundreds of matters which could be the subject of police investigations and further inquiry”.
What surprised me most, however, was an email I received the day after the Smithwick report from a garda officer who had served in Dundalk, telling me that 15 or so of his colleagues had “read my much cherished copy” of Bandit Country, which was being used as “a training tool” for all new officers in the area.
Bandit Country, and Smithwick, made clear that garda collusion was an individual rather than an institutional act and the indications are that it was rare. While a culture of cover-up and denial has persisted, that cannot take away from the bravery of so many Irish police officers.
Only by confronting the past and acknowledging uncomfortable truths can a society understand and move beyond them. I like to hope my small contribution will help that painful process continue.