Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

6:25 pm

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move:

That Dáil Éireann resolves that the terms of reference contained in the Resolution passed by Dáil Éireann on 23 March, 2005 and by Seanad Éireann on 24 March, 2005, as amended by the Resolutions passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann on 1 June, 2011, the Resolution passed by Dáil Éireann on 16 November, 2011 and by Seanad Éireann on 17 November, 2011 and the Resolutions passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann on 23 May, 2012, pursuant to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2011, be further amended as follows:

1. in paragraph (I), by substituting ‘not later than 31 January, 2013 and 30 April, 2013 and, on each of those occasions, shall set out:’ for ‘not later than 9 March, 2012 setting out:’; and

2. in paragraph (IV), by substituting ‘not later than 31 July, 2013’ for ‘not later than 31 October, 2012’.
This motion proposes to amend the terms of reference of the tribunal of inquiry into suggestions of collusion by members of the Garda Síochána or other employees of the State in the murder by the Provisional IRA of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Bob Buchanan in March 1989. This tribunal was established by the Oireachtas in 2005 and it is chaired by Judge Peter Smithwick, former President of the District Court.

The Smithwick tribunal was established arising from the Weston Park talks in 2001 and in light of Judge Peter Cory's subsequent report on the murder of the RUC officers. Its purpose is to get at the truth of these suggestions of collusion both in the public interest and importantly, in the interest of the families who were bereaved by this dreadful atrocity.

Deputies will be aware that on 12 October, the Clerk of the Dáil received a letter from the tribunal chairman requesting an extension of the deadline for the conclusion of the tribunal's work. The letter has been laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

This motion will provide for an extension of nine months - to 31 July 2013 - to the current date established for the conclusion of the tribunal's inquiries and the submission of its final report. This is fully in line with Judge Smithwick's request and the Government hopes the tribunal can fulfil its mandate within the revised timeframe which he has now set out.

In his recent letter the tribunal chairman states that due to the serious illness of a key witness and based on the medical advice of the witness's doctor, the taking of evidence from that witness has had to be deferred for a period of five or six months. This witness is considered fundamental to the tribunal's remit and the chairman indicates that he must make provision for completing his evidence when the witness is medically fit to so do. The chairman notes that due to the ill-health of this witness the taking of his evidence has already been significantly delayed.

Judge Smithwick also states that additional intelligence-based material was only recently and unexpectedly presented to the tribunal. In July and again in September of this year, the British authorities and the Police Service of Northern Ireland provided this new material to the tribunal. The chairman considers this material to be highly relevant to the work of the tribunal and that he must, therefore, investigate it and provide for hearings related to it, if need be.

It is clearly a matter of concern that significant information should emerge at such a late stage in the tribunal's hearings. However, it is a matter for the tribunal at this stage to address the issues arising. The House will appreciate that I could not comment in detail on the matter without becoming involved in the substance of the work being carried on at the tribunal. I would note, however, that the chairman makes the point in his letter that some of this new material is currently highly sensitive and characterised as being "of the moment". I regard it as surprising that new material of relevance to the tribunal's work has only so recently been furnished to it, having regard to the duration of the tribunal's engagement.

It is essential that such information that exists and is of relevance to the tribunal's terms of reference be fully made available to the tribunal and the completion of its important work and deliberations be not unnecessarily delayed. In light of the late emergence of this material, I have been assured by the British authorities that every assistance is being afforded by them to the tribunal. In addition, I have assured Judge Smithwick that I remain available to assist him in this regard if at any stage he feels this is necessary or appropriate.

The Government, having considered the tribunal chairman's request, proposes that the Dáil resolve to extend the timeframe for the tribunal, as requested. As an additional measure and to ensure this House is kept fully abreast of the tribunal's progress towards conclusion in this additional period, the proposal provides for two further interim reports from the tribunal to be submitted by 31 January and 31 April 2013, respectively.

I emphasise, as I have done previously, that if for any reason it does not prove possible for the tribunal to meet the timeframe set out, the chairman can report this to the Clerk of the Dáil in order that the House may consider the matter further. I reassure the House that, as the Government has demonstrated to date, its response to such an approach from the chairman would be fully cognisant of and consistent with the need for the tribunal to fulfil its obligations fully and as expeditiously as possible.

6:30 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The murder of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Robert Buchanan in March 1989 was one of the many cowardly murders carried out by the Provisional IRA on the Border at that time. This was the same organisation which murdered a young couple, Robert and Maureen Hanna, and their seven year old son as they returned from a family holiday and Tom Oliver, a respected farmer from the Cooley Peninsula.

In 2001 at the Weston Park talks, the Irish and British Governments agreed that a number of controversial killings where there were suggestions of collusion by the security forces would be considered for investigation. The vast majority of these killings occurred in Northern Ireland, including the shameful murder in 1989 of the solicitor, Pat Finucane. The Governments agreed that the murders would be reviewed by retired Canadian Judge Peter Cory who subsequently recommended that inquiries be established into the murders of Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and others on the basis of suspected collusion by security forces in the North. He also recommended a public inquiry into the murders of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan.

Allegations of collusion are the most serious charge that could be made against the Garda Síochána. It is regrettable that to date the British Government has not initiated a proper and public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane.

The Smithwick tribunal has been carrying out work on behalf of the Oireachtas since 2005. It has done a significant amount of work to date and heard evidence from approximately 200 witnesses. All Members are anxious that it concludes its work as quickly as possible. It is not acceptable that a tribunal should take ten years to complete its work, as occurred in the past. The reason the Smithwick tribunal has been delayed in reaching a conclusion is twofold. First, an important witness has experienced an unfortunate medical condition and, second, it appears the PSNI recently furnished the tribunal with new intelligence that is relevant to its work. The Oireachtas has no option other than to grant the further extension sought by Judge Smithwick. I hope it will be the last such extension as it is imperative for the sake of the Garda Síochána and families of the murdered officers that the tribunal reports at the earliest possible opportunity.

The State would not need to spend millions of euro on the tribunal of inquiry and the families of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan would not need to wait another year to find out all the information about how their loved ones were murdered if those involved in the murders and their political representatives decided to tell the truth about what took place. Sinn Féin Members will no doubt criticise the cost of the tribunal to the taxpayer. A tribunal of inquiry would not be necessary if the Members in question got the people who killed officers Breen and Buchanan in cold blood to co-operate with Judge Smithwick. Sadly, Sinn Féin Members will not encourage those who were involved in the killings to tell the truth to the inquiry. They know that if the individuals in question answer questions about the murders of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan, they will also have to answer questions about other Irish people murdered throughout the years. For instance, they would then have to answer questions about why and who murdered the Hanna family, a mother and father and their seven year old son who were returning from a holiday in the United States. The seven year old boy was blown to pieces by the brave warriors whose political supporters sit in this House today. Sinn Féin is great at lecturing this State and my party on how children's rights were not adequately respected in the past. What respect did its member and members of the IRA have for a little boy in July 1988 when they ended his life? Why do former members of the IRA and their political representatives in this House not tell people the reason Tom Oliver, a farmer on the Cooley Peninsula, was murdered in August 1991? What does the current Sinn Féin Deputy for County Louth have to say about the murder of Mr. Oliver? Does he have any relevant information to give the Garda Síochána or Smithwick tribunal about the murder or the disappearance of Jean McConville?

It is my responsibility, as an Irish Republican, to ask these questions and it is the responsibility of the political leaders of Sinn Féin, who provided political support to the people who carried out these murders, to provide answers rather than evading their responsibilities. The Fianna Fáil Party supports the motion.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The deadline for concluding the tribunal of inquiry chaired by Judge Smithwick has been extended several times. On each occasion the Minister has moved a motion to give effect to such an extension, none of the Deputies who contributed has sought to score points off other political parties. The contribution made by Deputy Niall Collins is unfortunate given the seriousness of the issue before us and I ask him to reflect on it.

As with previous motions, Sinn Féin will support the motion to extend the timeframe for completing the Smithwick tribunal's work. It is important the tribunal of inquiry is allowed to continue its work and consider additional information that recently came to light. The individual who is suffering from ill health must also be given an opportunity to present any evidence he may have to the tribunal. As the Minister indicated, it is proposed to extend the deadline for completion of the tribunal of inquiry's work by nine months, during which time two interim reports are to be produced. Sinn Féin welcomes this proposal and wishes Judge Smithwick well in his deliberations. We look forward to the conclusion of the tribunal of inquiry and the findings the judge will issue. Sinn Féin supports the motion.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Technical Group considers that the motion makes a reasonable request given the circumstances, including that a key witness is not available owing to a medical condition. While it is important that the tribunal of inquiry chaired by Judge Peter Smithwick completes its work as quickly as possible, it must be able to do so in a comprehensive manner, which would not be possible without interviewing the witness in question.

Notwithstanding the Technical Group's concern that the tribunal of inquiry is taking longer than is desirable, it is clear that it will be some months before the witness in question is interviewed. Will the nine month extension be sufficient to investigate fully the new information that has come to light? Has this been factored into the nine month period? It would be unfortunate if the Minister found it necessary to seek a further extension in future. As I indicated, this is a reasonable motion which the Technical Group supports.

6:40 pm

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank all those who spoke and for their support for the motion. It is very important that this tribunal completes its work. It is unfortunate that a key witness is suffering ill-health and that is delaying matters because the tribunal has been sitting for a substantial period. I am very conscious of the bereaved families of the two RUC officers who so dreadfully lost their lives. We have a duty to them to ensure that the most comprehensive inquiry is completed and that it reaches conclusions on the issues that fall within its terms of reference.

It is unfortunate that at a very late stage some new information has become available. It is important that any information that may shed light on allegations made is furnished to the tribunal but the tribunal has been sitting for some years and, as I said in my opening comments, it is a little surprising that in June of this year, and as recently as September of this year, new information has arisen.

It is in the interests of the family concerned and the public interest that Judge Smithwick is facilitated in completing his work. In answer to Deputy Catherine Murphy's query, the timeframe that is being given to the tribunal is that requested by Judge Smithwick. I am not privy to the detail of the material he has received. He has seen it and I can only assume that he believes any further work the tribunal is required to undertake based on that material will be both completed in the intervening period and will allow sufficient time for him to write his report and furnish it to both Houses.

It is important to put on the record of the House, in the light of such recent information suddenly becoming available, if there is any individual anywhere on this island or outside this island, any group on this island or outside this island or any individuals who are engaged in subversive activities on this island who have any information of any description that has not yet been furnished to this tribunal that would facilitate it undertaking the work it has been asked to undertake by this House and the other House, that information should be provided. I do not want to be in a position where the witness who is currently unwell has completed their evidence and to receive a letter perhaps in June or early July of next year from Judge Smithwick because some further new information has suddenly been furnished to him at the beginning of June of next year.

It is reasonable that any relevant information to the workings of this tribunal that is held by any individual, body or group of any nature on this island or on our neighbouring islands or elsewhere be furnished to Judge Smithwick so this tribunal can properly proceed to complete its work. In the context of one particular witness being unwell, I am assuming the tribunal can focus on the new information furnished to it and progress that aspect of matters. If there is anything else it should know that is being withheld from it, it is important it receives it.

I thank Members of this House for their support and for their contribution. In the public interest and in the interests of the two bereaved families, I hope that the next occasion on which we are addressing this issue is in the context of a final report having been received by both Houses. I appreciate we will receive two interim reports. I do not know if they will give rise to debate. I am anticipating that they may simply indicate the extent to which the chairman believes he can meet the timeframe that is now prescribed by both Houses.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 7.24 p.m. and resumed at 7.30 p.m.