Irish Times
14 Mar 2012

FORMER TAOISEACH Jack Lynch decreed the Garda give no assistance to the Northern authorities investigating the Narrow Water bombing in which 18 British soldiers and one civilian were killed, the Smithwick Tribunal was told yesterday.

The bombing in August 1979 caused the single biggest loss of British army lives during the Troubles. Two bombs were detonated, allegedly from the southern side of Carlingford Lough, as a convoy of soldiers, mainly of the Parachute Regiment, passed Narrow Water Castle in Co Down. A British tourist also died when soldiers shot across the Border.

The Garda arrested two republican suspects south of Carlingford Lough on the day of the atrocity, but released them after charging them only with motoring offences.

A former deputy assistant chief constable of the RUC, referred to only as Witness 68, told the tribunal the RUC were keen to get access to the two suspects should the Garda rearrest them.

Speaking via a video link from Belfast, Witness 68 said he was present at a meeting in Dublin Castle in April 1980, one of a series of four meetings when the RUC sought Garda co-operation in gaining access to the suspects.

Witness 68 recalled an assistant Garda commissioner by the name of McLaughlin had told the RUC officers present, in the course of an acrimonious meeting, that “the taoiseach, from the outset of the inquiry, had decreed the killings were a political crime and [that] no assistance be given to the RUC”.

The taoiseach at the time of the “outset of the inquiry” was Jack Lynch, who had been succeeded by Charles Haughey by the date of the meeting in 1980.

Witness 68 said Mr McLaughlin had been very firm and told the visiting RUC officers there would be nothing more forthcoming from the Garda and that they should go home and not come back. The RUC officers responded: “I can assure you that while this crime remains unsolved we will be coming back to see you all again,” Witness 68 recalled.

However, the RUC officers were later told by their chief constable they were “embarrassing the gardaí” and should not go back for further meetings. An agreement had been reached between the Garda commissioner and the chief constable on the way to proceed, they were told.

Witness 68 said the two suspects were Brendan Burns and Joe Brennan of south Armagh, who he said had been linked through forensic evidence to bomb-making materials and to the firing point south of the Border.

He said if he had the forensic evidence which was available to the Garda at the time, he would have used it to ask the Northern Ireland director of public prosecutions to seek an extradition warrant for the two men.

However, Witness 68 said co-operation from the Garda side was “nil” and akin “to pulling teeth from a hen”. He said former det sgt Owen Corrigan of Dundalk station had been the senior investigating officer on the Southern side and he maintained Mr Corrigan was known to be involved in criminality on both sides of the Border.

Witness 68 told Darren Lehane, counsel for Mr Corrigan, the evidence available to the Garda should have supported a charge of handling explosives or conspiracy involving a bomb, and he asked why the men were allowed to walk free.

He said Mr Corrigan had the opportunity to do “a great thing” for the Garda Síochána that day, but had not done so and the two suspects Brennan and Burns had later “killed at least a dozen people”.

Burns was killed in 1988 when a bomb he was transporting exploded prematurely. Brennan was arrested in Northern Ireland in 1995 and later convicted on bomb-making charges relating to other incidents.

However, Michael Durack SC, for An Garda Sióchána, put it to Witness 68 that in fact Garda files on Brennan and Burns had been conveyed to the RUC, having been sent to RUC headquarters.

He said Witness 68 should have known the suspects could not be arrested at the behest of a “foreign police force” and the RUC could not be allowed to interview them in the Garda jurisdiction.

Mr Durack said Witness 68 should have also known the RUC would not be allowed to attend such an interview. “It would have been illegal,” he said.