Amnesty International has criticised today’s decision by the Dáil to instruct the Smithwick Tribunal to provide an interim report to the Dáil by 30 June and to complete its work by 30 November.
The Smithwick Tribunal (see background information below), was established by Dáil Éireann and the Seanad Éireann in March 2005, and began its preliminary investigations in 2006. The Tribunal is examining allegations that members of An Garda Síochána or other Irish state agents colluded in the killing of two senior Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police officers by the Provisional Irish Republic Army (PIRA) on 20 March 1989 in Northern Ireland, near the border with the Republic of Ireland.
Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International, said:
“This inquiry into collusion - like other such inquiries - must be independent, impartial and thorough. Amnesty International is concerned that imposing time limits without setting out satisfactory reasons for doing so, may amount to an unwarranted interference in the independence of the Smithwick Tribunal.
"If there are to be changes to the tribunal's terms of reference, it must be to make it more effective, not simply to save money, as has been suggested by some. Financial considerations must not be allowed to reduce the effectiveness of an inquiry as important as this.
"The families of RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan deserve the truth about how they met their deaths and what role, if any, members of An Garda Síochána played in their deaths. Society as a whole, in both parts of Ireland, is also entitled to the truth about our recent past.”
Amnesty International considers that where an inquiry is established into allegations of serious human rights violations, in this case of the possible collusion of state officials in a killing, any such inquiry must be independent, impartial, prompt and thorough. The arbitrary imposition of time limits and reporting requirements by governments, regardless of whether they respond to public policy considerations such as cost or perceived ongoing delay in the investigation, can be construed or perceived as interference in the independence of the inquiry. Changes by governments to a human rights inquiry’s limits on resourcing, reporting or time must be intended to ensure that the inquiry is more effective, and must not be driven solely by extraneous concerns such as cost or delay, at the expense of the rule of law.
Amnesty International is particularly concerned by the apparent change in attitude to the work of the Smithwick Tribunal, given the speed with which the Irish government initially took up the recommendation of the Cory Collusion Inquiry by supporting the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the killings.
Amnesty International Ireland wrote to the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence on 27 May 2011 following reports in the press about the Government’s intention to impose restrictions on the tribunal. The organisation emphasised the need to ensure that the Smithwick Tribunal continues to have a mandate to carry out a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of all allegations of serious human rights violations. To date, no response has been received.
On 20 March 1989, two senior police officers in the RUC, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, were shot and killed by members of the PIRA, while driving back to Northern Ireland from a routine, informal meeting with their Irish counterparts in Dundalk, Ireland. They were killed in Northern Ireland, close to the border with Ireland. It has been alleged, but to date not proven, that information which directly facilitated the killing was leaked from a serving Garda official or employee to the PIRA.
In October 2003, the Cory Collusion Inquiry, led by Justice Peter Cory, a retired Canadian judge, submitted its findings to the Irish government in the Breen and Buchanan cases. Judge Cory had been appointed by the UK and Irish governments in May 2002 to investigate a number of cases involving alleged collusion by UK and Irish state agents in a number of killings, include those of human rights lawyers Patrick Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, in 1989 and 1999, respectively; the 1997 sectarian killing of Robert Hamill, a 25-year-old Catholic man; and the 1997 killing of Billy Wright, a leading Loyalist paramilitary, shot dead in the Maze prison. Judge Cory concluded that the documentary evidence brought to his attention, including intelligence reports and a statement from a former British military intelligence agent who infiltrated the PIRA, revealed “evidence that, if accepted, could be found to constitute collusion”. On this basis, Judge Cory concluded that “there must be a public inquiry”.
At the time the Irish government published the Cory Collusion Inquiry’s findings in December 2003, it simultaneously announced the establishment of a public inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. The Tribunal was formally established in 2005 by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform following resolutions of both houses of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament). The Tribunal, led by Judge Peter Smithwick, began its private investigation in 2006, and has stated that it has had to deal with documentation and witnesses outside the jurisdiction of Ireland, including new witnesses not residing in Ireland who have confirmed their willingness to give statements to the Tribunal, and that it cannot begin its preliminary hearings until it “has gathered all available information”. The Tribunal will sit in public on 7June 2011 for the purpose of an Opening Statement, and thereafter intends to commence hearing evidence on 9 June.
Amnesty International statements:
Rights groups call for public inquiries: Joint statement from Amnesty International, British Irish Rights Watch, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, AI Index: EUR 45/014/2004, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR45/014/2004/en