THE SMITHWICK TRIBUNAL has sought an extra five months to hear witnesses and produce its final report.
After being granted a previous extension, Judge Peter Smithwick was due to publish the final report of his inquiry into possible Garda collusion in the killing of two senior RUC officers at the end of this month but has now asked this deadline to be pushed back to October 2012.
In his request for the extension, he told Justice Minister Alan Shatter that a number of witnesses not expected to come forward have done so in recent weeks.
A delay to the appearance of one former Garda – a particularly important witness – has also been accepted, pushing the public hearings past their expected completion date.
The Department of Justice confirmed for TheJournal.ie today that the chairman of the tribunal has written to the clerk of the Dáil requesting leave to work until the end of October.
Alan Shatter is to bring the matter to the Government shortly for its consideration.
“It is a matter for the Dáil and Seanad to decide on the terms of reference of the Tribunal and any amendment that might be made,” according to a spokesperson for the Minister.
The Tribunal was established in March 2005 to examine suggestions that members of An Garda Síochána colluded in the fatal shootings of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan on the 20 March 1989.
The men were killed by the IRA just minutes after leaving a meeting in Dundalk Garda Station outside the village of Jonesborough. It has been claimed that the shooters were tipped off about the route the men had planned to take.
100 sittings, 190 witnesses, €8 million
Judge Smithwick has already received an extension to push back the publication of his final report from last November to the end of this month.
Public sittings only began last June in Dublin but since then 190 witnesses have been called.
In his letter, Justice Smithwick said the tribunal was on track to complete public hearings by the end of this month but a number of unexpected scenarios had taken place.
Over 100 sitting days, substantive evidence has been heard from 18 witnesses. Included in that witness list is ‘Witness 82′, a former member of the British army intelligence division, who was not expected to volunteer information. Following the appearance of another intelligence officer Ian Hurst, he decided to give evidence in relation to a number of matters raised during that private session.
In recent days, two former RUC Special Branch officers, described as “very significant” by Judge Smithwick, have also changed their minds and decided to give evidence.
‘Witness Z’ gave important information to the tribunal through a video link from Northern Ireland on 11 May, while another is expected to be heard sometime this week. The tribunal also expects to be in contact with a third ex-RUC officer in the coming days. All three have requested anonymity.
Another reason for the extension request is a possible delay being incurred because of the medical status of key witness Detective Sergeant Owen Corrigan. Other witnesses have named Corrigan as the mole leaking information from the Gardaí to the IRA.
He is the last substantive witness scheduled to give evidence and was due to begin on 15 May but his counsel made an application to delay the sitting for two weeks on medical grounds.
Judge Smithwick said he acceded to the request as he was “mindful of Mr Corrigan’s right to fair procedures”.
As matters stand, I hope that Mr Corrigan can attend to give evidence in two or three weeks’ time, but this will obviously depend on his medical condition. If necessary, in the light of his condition, I am prepared to take his evidence in short periods rather than full day sessions.
Last week, the Tribunal heard that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King were told to “play down” allegations of collusion following the ambush in 1989. BBC News reported on the briefing notes presented to the politicians. They were also advised not to give the impression about “only really” caring about security forces. In the three months prior to the murders, 25 people had been killed as a result of the Troubles.
Smithwick expects his report to take three months to write and a further month to edit, index and proof-read. He also asked the Dáil and Seanad to be mindful of the “significant reduction in the running costs” of the tribunal once public hearings are concluded as stenographer, counsel and office space costs will be reduced.
The seven-year inquiry has cost more than €8 million so far.