Tuesday 17 September 2019

Jim Cusack: Commissioner and more IRA questions

Contradictions between police chiefs on both sides of the Border brings into question levels of intelligence-sharing, writes Jim Cusack

Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald TD, An Tanaiste Joan Burton TD and Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan pictured at the Garda Graduation Ceremony at the Garda College, Templemore, Co. Tipperary
Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald TD, An Tanaiste Joan Burton TD and Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan pictured at the Garda Graduation Ceremony at the Garda College, Templemore, Co. Tipperary

Jim Cusack

The Government now seems set to 'accept' that the Provisional IRA has no 'military structure', so has no 'army council', no active armed element and no alternative illegal exchequer to finance its revolutionary political objectives.

That would appear to be the scenario the Taoiseach and his ministers are accepting after last Wednesday's statement by the Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan that she is standing by her assessment of earlier this year that the IRA does not exist as a criminal or terrorist organisation.

Speaking on Wednesday at Templemore Garda College, which has a museum with dedications to 12 members of the force murdered by the Provisional IRA, the Commissioner insisted that her letter of February 19 last to Sinn Fein, supporting the view of the IRA's non-existence, remains her position.

She said on Wednesday: "As the IMC report found in 2011, and our assessment is consistent with that, the military structures of the IRA have disbanded. The IRA has given up its terrorist capacity; however, some former members of the Provisional IRA remain involved in criminal activity and indeed in this jurisdiction we're very aware of a wide variety of criminal activity, but without sanction or support of the organisation."

Last month, in the wake of the PSNI's assessment that the IRA continued to exist and was responsible for the August 12 murder of father-of-nine, Kevin McGuigan, 53, outside his home in the Short Strand area of east Belfast, the Government directed that the Commissioner "reassess" her position as stated in her letter of February 19 last to Sinn Fein.

That reassessment would appear to have been publicly delivered back to Government by the Commissioner at Templemore on Wednesday.

The import of her statement was somewhat lost in the media coverage of Judge Fennelly's report into the 'resignation' of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and the collapse of the Stormont Assembly and Executive - over the IRA's murder of Kevin McGuigan.

The Commissioner's citing

mairia cahill page 27

of the IMC reports raises one or two issues. The 2009 IMC report that she originally cited does not actually appear to contain any firm view on the existence or non-existence of the Provisional IRA.

The 2011 report - the last of 26 reports by the IMC - that she cited last Wednesday does say the Provisionals' terrorist capability has "atrophied" but adds: "Some members and former members of all groups remain heavily involved in a wide range of serious crime, exploiting the contacts and expertise they acquired during the Troubles and thereby presenting a challenge to law enforcement, which is significantly more serious than it would otherwise have been."

A garda spokesman said the Commissioner's "current assessment of the status of the PIRA is consistent with the IMC's 2009 and 2011 reports" but did not reveal which relevant sections of the report. The Monitoring Commission consisted of four members with limited powers of investigation.

The apparent contradictions between the Commissioner's and the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton's positions on the existence or otherwise of the Provisional IRA throws into question the level and value of intelligence sharing and co-operation between the two forces.

A number of very significant developments arising from the Good Friday 1998 Agreement and subsequent agreements had an impact on the ability of police on either side of the Border to counter the activities of the Provisional IRA.

The old RUC Special Branch was closed down following the dissolution of the force in 2001 and its replacement with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The most obvious impact of this was that the Provisional IRA was able to prepare and execute the biggest bank robbery in European history with the theft of £26.5m (€36.2m) from the Northern Bank in Belfast in December 2004.

The PSNI, without a Special Branch and its agents inside the IRA, was at a loss about who was responsible.

The Garda, which still maintained an effective Special Branch at the time, was able to inform the Government within 48 hours of who was responsible and also that they had unfortunately just missed seizing a very large amount of the stolen cash as it passed through a premises near the Border in south Armagh under the control of the local IRA military commander, a member of the IRA's army council.

However, in the aftermath of the 2006 IRA statement that it had dumped arms, garda sources say that more or less the same downgrading of the Garda Special Detective Unit operations against the Provisional IRA that had occurred in the North also secretly took place here.

Garda Special Branch officers often earned high levels of overtime and allowances due to the irregular hours and often very dangerous undercover work they conducted.

When the austerity cuts hit the public service in 2008, 'Branch' officers, along with 'crime ordinary' detectives, were hit particularly severely, some losing more than a third of their salary. The loss of overtime is said to have severely hampered investigations and few were carried out into the Provisional IRA.

Whereas the two forces' intelligence arms worked closely and very effectively up to the 1990s, the relationship was said to have been altered following what was supposed to be a flagship cross-Border operation against IRA fuel smugglers in south Armagh in March 2013 after the murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe in Dundalk.

This operation turned into a fiasco when the main target, the then headquarters of the Provisional IRA's fuel business, was cleared of evidence in advance of the raid as a result of what appears to have been a major security leak. It is believed the IRA in south Armagh had 18 hours' prior notice of the raid.

When gardai, PSNI and customs officials from both sides of the Border raided premises, including a diesel-processing plant, they found smouldering heaps of burnt documents, wrecked computers and sacks of cash apparently hidden and forgotten about in the rush to clear other incriminating evidence.

The source of the leak was never identified. No one was charged with any major offences of defrauding the State, despite an estimated €500m-a-year loss to the Exchequer in lost tax. The fuel operations alone are said to produce an annual profit of €70m for the IRA, sources say.

While the Government and, officially, An Garda Siochana hold to the line that the Provisionals are not involved in organised crime, the evidence of what appears to be a major international crime operation continues to mount.

At the start of this year, a Spanish police operation was reported to have smashed a massive cigarette-smuggling operation involving Provisional IRA figures. Spanish police seized properties valued at over €10m and cash in bank deposits of a similar amount.

However, false information attributing the smuggling operation to the so-called dissident republican group, the 'Real' IRA was widely reported in the media. No one linked with the 'Real' IRA was identified as having any connection with these operations identified by the Spaniards as 'terrorist financing', however.

In fact, Spanish Justice Department documents firmly attributed the smuggling and money-laundering operation to the "Provisional IRA" and said the money and assets were for "terrorist financing."

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