THE Garda force has been rocked by the findings of the Smithwick Tribunal that unidentified members colluded with the Provisional IRA in the murder of two senior RUC officers following a cross-Border police meeting in Dundalk.
Successive garda commissioners and their senior advisers have repeatedly dismissed claims the IRA received a tip-off from a member of the force which led to the ambush of the two men in south Armagh as they returned from Dundalk on March 20, 1989.
But after an eight-year hearing, which cost more than €10m plus legal costs, the tribunal headed by Judge Peter Smithwick found that information had been passed on to the IRA about the meeting.
He said there was no direct evidence of collusion in the murders of Chief Supt Harry Breen and Supt Bob Buchanan.
But he concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, collusion had taken place involving a member or members of An Garda Siochana.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said he was appalled and saddened by the finding and he believed it was a matter of grave public concern.
On behalf of the Government and the people of Ireland, he said he apologised to the Breen and Buchanan families for any failings identified in the report on the part of the State or any of its agencies.
Judge Smithwick found no evidence to link three garda sergeants, who had been named in the tribunal, to any collusion with the IRA leading up to the ambush of the two officers.
He said Finbarr Hickey was "not in a position to pass information to the IRA which facilitated the ambush on the Edenappa Road".
In relation to Leo Colton, he found "the evidence does not establish that he colluded with the Provisional IRA in the murders of the two officers".
In Owen Corrigan's case, he said "while there is some evidence that Mr Corrigan passed information to the Provisional IRA, I am not satisfied that that evidence is of sufficient substance and weight to establish that Mr Corrigan did in fact collude in the fatal shootings of Chief Supt Breen and Supt Buchanan".
An apology was also issued by Justice Minister Alan Shatter, who said the finding was a matter of utmost gravity.
He said he would consider the report in detail in the coming weeks and would then present his views to his government colleagues. The tribunal report will also be debated by the houses of the Oireachtas.
Mr Justice Smithwick was critical of the inadequacy of two earlier garda investigations into the question of collusion and said the best opportunity of establishing the truth arose soon after the ambush.
"It is particularly regrettable that both police services acted swiftly to dismiss speculation of the possibility of collusion rather than to deal with that by means of a thorough and credible investigation.
"This was an example of the prioritisation of political expediency in the short term, without due regard to the rights of victims and the importance of placing justice at the centre of any policing system."
The tribunal chairman said he was depressed and disheartened that a culture still existed in the force where its reputation took priority over everything else. "Loyalty is prized above honesty," he said.
The judge added: "The integrity and confidence in An Garda Siochana can properly be maintained only if suggestions of illegal or inappropriate conduct by members are taken seriously, transparently and thoroughly investigated and, above all, not tolerated or ignored on the basis of some misguided sense of loyalty to the force or its members."
In the report, Judge Smithwick takes on the Garda commissioner, whose lawyers he accused of setting out to undermine former chief superintendent Tom Curran. The tribunal accepted evidence he told Garda HQ in 1988 that Supt Buchanan was on an IRA hit list.
The intelligence, from an informant, was passed to then assistant commissioner Eugene Crowley but there are no records or files to show the information was acted upon.
Judge Smithwick states the murders might have been averted if garda HQ had warned their counterparts in Northern Ireland about this intelligence.
Judge Smithwick also said the Garda commissioner's lawyers set out to cast doubt over Mr Curran's credibility "on the basis that the Garda commissioner did not like what Mr Curran had to say".
In an outspoken attack on the force, he said that it prioritises "the protection of the good name of the force over the protection of those who seek to tell the truth".
The Smithwick findings are expected to shock senior gardai, who have been satisfied that no evidence had emerged during the tribunal to back up the claims of collusion.
Judge Smithwick acknowledged that, leaving aside the question of intelligence, the tribunal had not uncovered any direct evidence of collusion.
"There is no record of a phone call, no traceable payment, no smoking gun", the judge said. He added: "This is not surprising. Collusion acts are by their very nature surreptitious."
The judge found that there may have been two acts of collusion before the ambush and was satisfied the IRA required positive identification that Harry Breen, in particular, was in Dundalk garda station.
The evidence pointed to the desire of the IRA to learn how British security services obtained advance warning about IRA plans to attack Loughgall police station in May 1987.
Tom Brady, Security Editor