Belfast Telegraph
17 March 2012

It was the event that poisoned relations between the RUC and the Garda for a decade, and today still rankles with retired officers of that era. Sir John Hermon – the RUC’s longest-serving chief constable – inherited the burden of resentment when he assumed the highest office in the force in January 1980.

As ‘Witness 68’, former RUC officer, revealed to the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin this week, the investigation into the Army’s greatest single loss of life in Northern Ireland effectively bit the dust because gardai were under political instructions not to co-operate.

It was the dreadful scenario outlined to me in an overview of the relationship between the two forces when Sir John Hermon summoned me to his office at police headquarters one Thursday afternoon years after the event.

I had gone to the building to get a briefing from the RUC’s then head of information, Bill McGookin, about the overall perception of the terrorist threat from both loyalists and republicans.

While in Bill McGookin’s office, he received a brief call on his internal phone at the end of which he said: “The chief wants to see you.”

Thereafter, for three hours in the presence of Bill, and Bill ‘Tug’ Wilson, his most senior aide, the Chief Constable furiously lambasted the Garda for their lack of co-operation and the political interference which he said had directed it.

I remember him saying “good men are being murdered along the border and we are not being assisted by the Garda in the pursuit of those terrorists who are killing and maiming”.

He and Bill Wilson explained how, in a period prior to Sir John’s appointment, Garda officers working along the border had been prepared to provide details of ownership of vehicles that crossed the border and were operated by the IRA.

But, they explained, that assistance could no longer be openly offered for fear of disciplinary action being taken against gardai.

Instead, every such minor inquiry had to be processed through Dublin, a procedure which took days and delayed the taking of effective action against possible terrorist attack.

Sir John made particularly scathing comments about the then Garda commissioner, Lawrence Wren, who assumed office in February 1983 and remained in post until November 1987.

Such was the ferocity of Sir John’s comments that Bill McGookin prevailed upon me not to use my notes word for word .

The version that appeared in the now defunct Sunday Press carried the import of the views of ‘senior RUC officers’, but not the vicious flavour of their tone.

It wasn’t made clear by Witness 68 this week whether the directive not to assist the RUC in their investigation of Narrow Water came from Jack Lynch, or his replacement as Taoiseach in December 1979, Charlie Haughey, but few would be surprised if it came from the latter, with his republican pedigree and his ‘four green fields’ political rhetoric.

But whoever directed the injunction not to assist, and pursued it for the following five years, until Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, perpetrated a massive disservice to law-abiding citizens on both sides of the border whose lives were blighted by terrorism.

Witness 68 and his former colleague, Witness 69, who explained how the Narrow Water crime scene on the Republic’s side of the border was effectively destroyed, are among the many officers who experienced the studied obstruction allegedly initiated from high political office.

As Bill Wilson said at that Thursday afternoon meeting more than two decades ago – and as others still alive have told the Smithwick tribunal – some individual Garda officers did continue to risk their careers by assisting their RUC counterparts in providing vital details to stop terrorism.

Sadly, though, many lives on both sides of the border would have been saved if the edict from Dublin had never been uttered.