O’BRIEN: This is the 7th July 2021. My name is John O’Brien, and I’m a retired member of the Garda Síochána.
I joined the Garda Síochána in 1968 and I retired in 2006 with the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent.
Today’s recording is a preface to the recording made with John Greene, that’s by me with John Greene, of Cork City 103 at the end of last year, and the context for that was that I had published a book at that stage, A Question of Honour: Politics and Policing ‑ The Inside Story, and John interviewed me over two sessions, two separate programmes on successive Sunday.
Now this is my contribution to the oral history being conducted by the Garda Síochána Retired Members Association, that’s the GSRMA, and it is part of that big programme that’s being run by them.
Really very pleased and thankful to John for his very good facilitation. Now the book is quite a long, quite a long book, nearly 500 pages, but in the course of the interviews we have covered significant events picked out by John in the course of nearly 40 years of a Garda policing and security career, and I’m really grateful to John for his assistance and for his help over that period of time.
I hope it is something that you will find useful and informative.
“MR. GREENE: John O’Brien was born in Killeady, Ballinhassig, and he joined the Gardaí in 1968. On retiring almost 40 years later in 2006, he had reached the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent. He had also been Head of the National Office for Interpol and Europol.
In between he witnessed tragic and troubled times. Political interference and political inaction. Does he have a story to tell? You bet your life he has.
His first book, A Question of Honour: Politics and Policing ‑ The Inside Story, tells it all and has just been published. From the Arms Trial of 1970 to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974, to being shot at near Hackballscross and to the Smithwick Tribunal, which came at a cost of almost €20 million, its findings published 24 years after the killing of two senior RUC officers returning from a security meeting at Dundalk Garda Station in March of 1989.
In a two‑part programme on Where the Road Takes Me, John discusses these events and more with me. As always, you’re welcome to eavesdrop on our conversation as I bid you good evening and I thank you for dropping by. “You know, not bad for a country bumpkin”, John says, as he looks back on a career that he loved.
Born in Killeady, John played hurling for Ballinhassig, remembers fondly attending the cinema in Bandon and working for Dwyer’s, a well-known company whose business premises was across the street from the courthouse in Washington Street in Cork.
But John wished to expand his travel and his boundaries and so applied for, and was accepted, for the Gardaí.
On Wednesday, June 26th 1968, his father and a neighbour drove him to the Garda Training College in Templemore. It was a day that will always be etched on his memory due to very mixed emotional reasons.
O’BRIEN: By the way, for the history, 1968 summer was absolutely beautiful, John. It was absolutely beautiful. You know those long days and the sun beating down. On the home front it was a bit difficult because my mother had become ill and was quite seriously ill, so all of that was happening on the way into 26th June 1968. So on that day myself and my father and a few neighbours, the Cronin family, headed off to drop young O’Brien at Garda Síochána Trainala na hEireann in Templemore.
I had been in Tipperary before at Munster finals, and in Limerick and all of that, but this was an adventure. I hadn’t travelled very far. And we went through the gate in Templemore and the first thing we were told, John, was “are you the O’Briens?”, and we said “yes”, and they said “listen, we’ve got some bad news for you. Mrs. O’Brien has passed away in Cork”. So for that day, that day is forever emblazoned in my mind, apart from joining the Guards, and that’s really why the book is dedicated, apart from any other good reason, to the memory of my good mother, Margaret O’Brien and, you know, so you carry those things with you forever. So it was a date to remember for a whole lot of reasons.
GREENE: I suppose, John, it’s true to say that at that particular time the careers that stood out during the 1960s were priest, teacher, bank official, and Garda. But not necessarily in that order. Was there a history of law enforcement in your family before that?
O’BRIEN: No, and I would say there wasn’t, although we were ‑‑ you see I lived in, as I said, in Ballinhassig and near Killeady. We were very aware of the local Guards and the local Sergeant. They came doing the Census. You know, some of them played hurling with the local team. There was a direct connection, and I always got a little bit of a magic when I saw them were usually cycling, John, through the countryside, uniform, looking really smart, and bright, but there was no history of law enforcement in that sense, other than we were, yes, fairly law abiding, and apart from the odd bicycle light, you know, it was a good relationship, and we would have known the Sergeant’s, you know, sons and so on. So it was a very comfortable relationship in that regard.
I think, to put it this way, very simply, we trusted the Guards. You know. They had a good place in our scheme of things and we were, you know, very happy and comfortable. I wasn’t so sure about, about many aspects of what it was going to be like, but I didn’t realise that I was starting on a journey, and like while your programme “Where The Road Takes You”, this was a journey that took me over the next kind of 40 years, and then some more, to practically every continent on the globe, you know, wearing the Garda hat and badge. So it was a very interesting kick off. But, no, there wasn’t an immediate interest in it, but certainly a very good vibe about the Guards.
GREENE: And what was your training like in Templemore then? Much different, I would imagine, than a young recruit heading there today. A sound knowledge of the law, arms training, and I suppose emphasis as well very much on so physical training.
O’BRIEN: Yes, but like you’ll remember when you were kind of 21, is what I was, is you’re strong. It is like training a hurling team or a football team, you know, so the physical activity was actually terrific. I hadn’t been in the FCA, and many of my colleagues had, so they had the rudimentaries of marching and drill, and drill was a significant part of the programme. It was a mixture. You’d probably say in old fashioned terms that it was stress training, you know, in other words you were put to the pin of your collar, but having said that, there was a great camaraderie between the different class members because for the first time I was meeting guys from all over the country, and it was all guys, there was no women in our class, so it was an all-male environment in that regard. So there was a great buzz. Interesting thing, John, you know, shows you the changing times. We were there permanently, we didn’t get home at the weekends. It wasn’t like it is now. We were marched to mass on Sunday in Templemore to meet the Canon, who was quite a character, you know, at the end of a long avenue in Templemore, with the devil’s bit looking down on top of us. One particular Sergeant used to march us to mass, and I liked this guy, and I’ll tell you why, John, he marched us down, but he didn’t agree with this, so he would march us down, he would wait outside until the Canon had given us our usual Sunday lambasting inside, you know the dangers to our souls, and then he would march us back. But he was making his own statement that he did not agree with that regime. I liked him a lot and I think I inherited a bit of that streak in me right through my career in the Guards.
GREENE: Your first posting was to Santry Station in Dublin. I know in the Army that you can suggest where you’d like to go, but the eventual destination is down to your superior officers. Was Santry in your psyche at all at that stage?
O’BRIEN: Santry was, and Dublin was, because I felt there was a fair degree of certainty, you know, of where you were going. If you didn’t kind of opt for Dublin, you could pick any point of the compass, and sometimes B Branch, which was our personnel section, took a kind of a perverse delight sending you to Donegal if you were from Cork and…
O’BRIEN: And Donegal back down to Cork. So there was a little bit of that ‑‑ horror of horrors, John, I could have ended up in Kerry! Now, I’m joking. Because most Cork Guards at that stage went to Kerry, and most Kerry Guards went to Cork. So it made an interesting turn of phrase around that particular time of the year every year, you know.
GREENE: As a young member of the emergency services, sooner or later you will have to attend a traffic collision. In the 1960s and for some time afterwards they were referred to as traffic accidents. Sooner or later you will have to attend a traffic collision where there are fatalities, and for young Garda John O’Brien, based at Santry in Dublin, he would soon discover that he would not be an exception.
O’BRIEN: This was a little while into my service, and I was ‑‑ at that stage I had got the first elevation in the Guards, I was riding a motorbike, which was fantastic, because it stops you slogging the beat, and we all wanted to be a bit of Cagney & Lacey. We all wanted to have mobility. And I got a radio message, and our call sign, or the call sign on the bike that I was riding was I think Hotel 6 and, you know, base would call then Hotel 6. “Pop around there to the back of the airport, young man. There’s an accident there”. See what’s, you know, see what’s happening. Riding around to the back of the airport and into a side road, a very narrow road, the cars are backed up towards you. Got off the bike, dismounted, parked up the bike and one of the people there said “Guard, listen, we’re glad to see you”. He said “the three people in the car are dead”. Now, nothing prepares you quite for that. You know. I had been 20 plus, but I think I had seen one or two dead bodies, you know, in the normal case of life and death at home, but I had never seen someone who had been the victim of a violent death, and yet small car, mini car, three women in it, two in the front and one in the back, and they’re still caught in the seated position, which is kind of a bit bizarre, and they are dead. And it is a very difficult one. Now at a particular point, John, your training kicks in, which is all about the necessary details, you know, witnesses, of course the people’s family have to be informed. You have to set all that in motion. So there’s a process to be followed. But the initial shock, nothing quite compares.
By the way, 20,000 people died on the Irish roads during the same time as The Troubles in the North of Ireland. So there was an enormous casualty on our roads, an enormous loss of life and a huge amount of injury. So that was the first introduction, John.
GREENE: In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, terrorism began to rear its ugly head with a spate of shootings and bank robberies, a lot of which were connected to what we now refer to as “The Troubles”.
You also had the murder of Garda Dick Fallon in April of 1970, and then the Dublin car bombings in 1972, and the Dublin and Monaghan car bombings on May 17th 1974.
O’BRIEN: They took place in the wider context, because what was happening in the North, there was certainly a spill over into the South in terms of the destabilisation that happened in Northern Ireland spilling into the South. I lived in Santry in the same road as Garda Dick Fallon, Garda Richard Fallon. 3rd April 1970, he went to, with some colleagues, he went to a bank raid, an arm alert on Arran Quay at the Royal Bank of Ireland on Arran Quay at about 11:00 o’clock in the morning, and in the course of the interaction there, Dick was about to capture one of the guys who was a member of the Saor Eire gang, a notorious splinter organisation who were, as they said, “in expropriating money from the Banks”. In other words, robbing them. And they had started maybe about two years previously, and Dick was shot dead mercilessly on the steps of that Bank.
That also happened in the context of the attempt to import arms into the country, which led to the firing of two government, government ministers subsequent trials and the investigations by the Public Accounts Committee. So there was a wider impact to it and there are many questions asked as to how liberal the southern authorities were, or government were, in the circumstances that led up to those events, you know, was there a certain degree of ambivalence and so on? We know for a fact that some of the Saor Eire people had been in London trying to buy arms as part of the endeavours that was in place, you know, from like ’69 onwards. So it was a very difficult time and it asked big questions of the politicians, and indeed in the chapter in the book where I deal with it, the heading is “Can you trust the politicians ever again?”, simply based on the track record of that time. But it was very, very significant and a tough, a tough time, John. A tough time.
GREENE: On December 1st, 1972, Dáil Eireann had been debating an amendment to the Offences Against the State Act. Basically the intention was to increase powers to deal with the Provisional IRA and any other subversive organisations. John O’Brien says that the politicians of the day were dithering as to whether they would pass this Act or not.
O’BRIEN: Fianna Fail were in power and at that stage certain members of Fianna Fail were quite anti that legislation. Fine Gael were certainly against it as well, including who became ‑‑ Mr. Cooney, who became Minister For Justice a short time later, were against it, and that was being debated on the evening or the night of December 1st 1972. I was travelling from my home in Drumcondra to Dáil Eireann, and I was travelling down Gardiner Street, going towards the Custom House, people will know where the Custom House is, and the Liberty Hall, and as I stopped at traffic lights close by, there was an enormous explosion. It was like the air had split before you. I drove around by Liberty Hall and saw that the car bombs, bomb or bombs, had exploded in front of Liberty Hall. The windows were blown out. Cars were on fire. Drove on, and only for the lights being red I would have driven right slam bang into it. I drove to Leinster House and took up duty there with some of my colleagues because there was a protection cordon there because of the legislation and protests, and almost within minutes another car bomb exploded, which was in Marlborough Street, just at the back of O’Connell Street.
Now, the significance was, in political terms, immediately, immediately after that, the Dáil had a change of heart and it voted through the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act, providing for increased powers.
Now to consider that that was just serendipity that those bombs went off at that particular time, I think in the light of history would be, you know, a step too far, and certainly outside influences benefited from that bomb because we had now more tough legislation to deal with the Provos and that area. So that’s the context of ’72.
The Dublin and Monaghan bombings of the 17th May ’74 were single highest casualty of The Troubles. 34 people were killed, most in Dublin, and the remainder in Monaghan. Now the dynamics of those bomb explosions, big car bombs went off in Dublin within two minutes of each other. Now there was nothing in the Loyalist’s technology or the Loyalist’s methodology indicated that they had that ability to do that, and they certainly didn’t exhibit it subsequently, and indeed explosives experts, British, as well as I, said that they didn’t have that technology. At that time the Sunningdale Power Sharing Agreement had been introduced in Belfast. There was a province wide strike by the Ulster workers strike and Loyalists in the North. The North was brought to its knees by that strike and, of course, after the Dublin and Monaghan bombings then the Sunningdale Agreement was shelved in the North and we went back to doing things in the North like we did in the past.
GREENE: John O’Brien says that there is one very important element or epilogue to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Seemingly the perpetrators could very easily have been brought to justice. In Part 2 of Programme 1, we find out how and speculate on why not.
I’m with retired former Garda Detective Chief Superintendent John O’Brien. My conversation with him continues in Part 2.
Well before the break we were discussing the Dublin and Monaghan car bombs of May 17th 1974. While most point the finger of responsibility towards the Loyalists, security forces on either side of the Irish Sea believe that Loyalists did not have the capacity to carry out such an extensive and horrific crime. Neither had they shown afterwards on any occasion that they were capable of carrying out a similar crime to such an extent. So who was responsible? Well, the Irish Government of the time were given the opportunity to prosecute those who were responsible, but John O’Brien says, chose not to do so.
O’BRIEN: At the British Prime Minister/Taoiseach meeting on two occasions, the 11th September 1974, 21st November 1974, the British told the Irish that they knew the identity of the people who had committed the bombings. They knew the identity of the people who had committed the bombings and they had interned them. There is no sign of what any Irish Government did with that information for about 20 years, and even now on the anniversary of the 17th May, you will hear a Government Minister saying “we are going to appeal to the British to give us the names, provide us with the information”. It rings very hollow in the light of the 11th September ’74, 21st November ’74, and all of that information is in the Barron Report which was commissioned in the 2000s. So that’s a huge question that remains unanswered.
By the way, last point, on the 21st November 1974, it was also the day that the Provisional IRA exploded bombs, three bombs in pubs in the centre of Birmingham in the UK and 21 people were killed as a result of that. So, terrorism was not the exclusive preserve of any one side, but clearly in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan of 17th May and December 1st 1972, major questions arise as to the perpetrators and essentially what the Irish did about it, or the Irish Government more particularly did about it. So they’re hugely important events.
GREENE: And do you believe that when the British Government told the Irish Government “we know the names of the people involved, we have interned them”, do you believe they were willing to reveal those names at the time or did they?
O’BRIEN: I certainly believe that they were, and in any event, regardless of their willingness to do it, the onus would have been on us to pursue that very specific information, and that’s contained in the government minutes of those particular meetings. So there is no ‑‑ like this is not kind of fanciful thinking. So there once was, on the southern side to, to do that, and it is inexplicable that it wasn’t done. Now it may well be that somewhere along the line was a philosophy, you know, the enemy of ‑‑ “my enemy is my friend”. In other words, that the Provisional IRA were seen as the enemy and that all of the other questions that needed to be asked in relation to the involvement of collusion, the involvement of any other British elements in either of those bombings, was not the priority and there was a different pursuance, but do you know what, they’re questions that the people involved should long have answered, and it is not answered by saying now in the current timing many, many years later, we’re asking the British to give us all the information you had, because the British, two occasions, at prime ministerial level, told the Irish “we know and we have interned them”. So anything that follows after that is on our plate, government wise, in terms of what we did to pursue it.
GREENE: What was known then, John, as the Arms Trial began I believe around 1969, when a plot was discovered to bring in arms which were to look as if they were destined for the defence forces here, were instead to go across the border, and Captain Kelly and then Ministers Gibbons, Haughey and Blaney were the main players, and there was an anonymous note, I believe, sent to Fine Gael leader at the time Liam Cosgrave, to ensure that this was not hushed up. So, how did it pan out afterwards?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, there’s another ‑‑ two other important characters in that story. One is Peter Berry, who was the Secretary of the Department of Justice, and had been for many years, and the other one is John Fleming, who was the Chief Superintendent in Special Detective Unit, or more colloquially known as Special Branch, and they had been getting information ‑‑ like Peter Berry played a role which would be quite unusual in current terms. He was like the Chief Head of Security, even though he wasn’t in the Garda Síochána, he had a long history going back to the ’20s, and they had been getting information, and the attempt to import arms was frankly shambolic. I mean the people involved had left trails like an elephant in the snow across Europe from Vienna back to London, and the British Security Services had certainly monitored them and they were feeding the information back, quite apart from any information that the Guards might have been getting from their own local resources. So it was well established that it was intended to import arms. And by the way, in terms of financing that, the important thing to remember is that in August of 1969, the government established a special committee to deal with “early relief of the stress in the North” and they had given £100,000 then for that purpose, and that was administered by the Department of Finance, which was then headed up by Charles J Haughey, and through a system of conduits. By the way, of that £100,000 that were allocated then, £76,000 and odd change was never, ever traced properly. It was a shambolic attempt. It wasn’t really thought through, because of course it would have been a rivers of blood strategy.
But 6th February 1970, a decision was taken by government, communicated through the Minister of Defence then, James Gibbons, to move arms from Dublin and other through to Dundalk in preparation for some possible intervention in the North. So it was a very strange time. I mean I feel sorry for a lot of the people involved, but the plain fact of the matter is ‑‑ the money tells a story here ‑‑ is that this money did not go for relief of the stress in the North. It was funnelled through a number of accounts in Cavan and in Dublin, and it obviously found its way into the attempt to purchase arms, you know, through Vienna and through Germany and then back through London.
GREENE: And you had two trials, I believe. One was aborted and then all accused were acquitted in the other one.
O’BRIEN: Yes, indeed. And at that stage the trials were trial by Judge and jury. It wasn’t before a Special Criminal Court. And they were charged effectively, and we’re talking about Charles J Haughey, in particular ‑‑ Ian Blaney had been charged originally but he was not returned for trial, which was the process which meant that there was no evidence against him. Also there was James Kelly, Captain James Kelly, who was a military intelligence officer. John Kelly, who was Dublin ‑‑ I beg your pardon, a Belfast Republican who had been involved, and they were charged with conspiracy. In legal terms a conspiracy is very difficult to prove. It is like me proving or you proving what I’m thinking right now. You know, you need substantial ‑‑ in modern terms what should have been allowed to happen, and I’m not saying this other than from an investigatory point of view, you would do what is called a controlled delivery. Now a controlled delivery is where you know something nefarious is happening, you allow it to progress along to a particular stage until you get people with their hands on the contraband. But in this case it was aborted, and they were trying to prove conspiracy, which was impossible. But the Judge, I think it was Judge Henchy summing up on the second trial did a marvellous summing up of the case, and he very simply said “if Party A is telling the truth, Party B is lying”. And we can substitute Mr. Haughey or Mr. Gibbons or we can substitute anyone else.
GREENE: Looking back on all of this now, it would be difficult to pick somebody, anybody, who would come out of it smelling a little of roses, but in John O’Brien’s view, if you had to choose, it would be John Kelly, the Belfast Republican, former member of the IRA and subsequent member of the Provisional IRA.
O’BRIEN: And while I have absolutely no sympathy for his convictions in that line, his summation at the trial, or his defence, or his explanation, he said, “look, when we came South to Dublin looking for help we came looking for guns. Yeah. We came looking for” ‑‑ he, I think, gave a very honest account of what happened. Other than that, there were lies and more lies. The money is the only thing for me that tells the absolute story. You know, three quarters of it went missing and was never accounted for because it had gone down that road.
GREENE: Now in the book, you refer to, in the second trial then, Captain Kelly being interrogated, and is it Gibbons and Haughey being interviewed? A lot of people think they are one in the same thing, but they’re not. There’s a big difference.
O’BRIEN: No, and thank you for reminding me, because there are, you see ‑‑ you see I have a lot of sympathy for Captain Kelly and his family. Now I think his methodology was a bit naive, and I understand that, but to go back to the interrogation or interview. There was two Government Ministers involved at that end, Charles J Haughey and Neil Blaney, and when the Guards were in the process of investigation, they interviewed Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney by arrangement, and both Haughey and Blaney made the same response: “Chief Superintendent, we would love to help you, but there are serious matters of State Security involved and official secrets. If you would kindly give us your questions, we’re very happy to respond in due course”. That was the kind of an interaction between the two former Government Ministers as it were at that time.
In relation to Captain Kelly, he was arrested. He was brought to the Bridewell, and John Fleming, who was a Chief Superintendent, in his own statement for the trial says “I interrogated him at…”. But there’s a bizarre twist to the interrogation of Captain James Kelly. He was brought across to Dublin Castle, which wouldn’t have been used as a holding centre at all, you know, it was an administrative centre, not a holding centre, and the then Minister For Defence was allowed to meet with him, and like in the hierarchical terms the intelligence section of the Defence Forces report to the Minister, and that’s a very important dissection. They’re in a chain of command to their own Chief of Staff, but they actually, on intelligence matters, report to the Minister, who was James Gibbons. And they were allowed to have a conversation. But even more bizarrely, it was then decided that Captain Kelly, his situation could be advanced by meeting the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, and he was brought to Government Buildings. Now remember he’s still in custody, he’s still under arrest! So he’s brought to Government Buildings to meet the Taoiseach of the day. There’s a discussion in the anteroom in Merrion Street as to whether the Guards would accompany him in to meet Jack Lynch, and eventually it was decided that the Taoiseach and Captain Kelly, a man under arrest, would meet in private. And they met in private for 35/40 minutes, which is a totally unprecedented thing. Captain Kelly covers it in his own memoires. Unfortunately the Taoiseach did not, or we have no account from, you know, from the Taoiseach or any of the other Government Ministers in relation to it. But that was an extraordinary thing, you know.
Back to your thing of interrogation and interview, the two of ‑‑ those two parties, the Ministers and the Captain, were dealt with in two diametrically opposed ways, and it would not be condoned under any current circumstances that there would be, I guess very plainly, John, preferential treatment for one over the other.
GREENE: There was a lot of talk at that time about Army incursions into the North, and apart from the fact that the Army numbers here were far below what the British Army could muster in the North, and when the Army then had crossed back into the Republic the Nationalists community would have been left on their own and would certainly not have been protected by those who were there to do it. That was something that could never happen.
O’BRIEN: Ah, yes. In the Army I think General John McKeown I think, who was the Chief of Staff at the time, had done their own capability assessment, and the capability assessment was that you could probably take bits of Armagh, and Newry and Derry as an initial push, but I mean the reaction to that by the British, who obviously had superior forces both land, sea and air, you know, you just simply weren’t going to survive. Curiously though, a number of men from Derry were ingested into the FCA at the time and were given some military training in Dunree in Donegal, in one of army bases there, and that was again another subject of controversy in recent times. So, there was a lot of emotional reaction to it. And of course we understand, because I remember, you know, watching the scenes in Derry in August of 1969, and it was obvious that the RUC at that stage had lost control. You had seen the things on Burntollet Bridge in the civil rights marches. So the Catholic/Nationalist population in the North were certainly under the thumb at that stage. But as a military intervention, any military person would have formed the assessment this would have been the height of folly. But that kind of thinking didn’t seem to animate, and maybe the cabinet cohesion wasn’t what you’d expect it to be, you know, there was a lot of fanciful thinking.
I mean the South left to its own regards then, we wanted to get our economy straightened out. The application had been made to join the common market, you know. There was another agenda in the South and the Northern Troubles inserted themselves into what would have been the, you know, the economic revival process in the South. So a lot of things were going on at the same time.
GREENE: And that’s the end of Part 2 in Programme 1. There is plenty more to come in Part 3, including a brush with death at Hackballscross.
My conversation with retired Detective Chief Superintendent John O’Brien continues on “Where the Road Takes Me”.
An Garda Síochána has the responsibility for carrying out all policing duties in the State. It provides state security services and carries out all criminal and traffic law enforcement. Unfortunately at times that involves being shot at, sometimes with tragic consequences. Being shot at has to be one of the most dramatic experiences in one’s life, the effects of which don’t end when and if you survive.
In January of 1979, John O’Brien had reached the rank of Sergeant and was stationed at Hackballscross, a small village in Co. Louth, close to the border. Legend has it that a local 18th century farmer hacked thieves or rebels to death as they attempted to disturb his property. The nearest police or Garda presence at the time was a Crossmaglen, a security post shared between the British Army and the RUC. It was a Friday. John and a colleague were in a Garda car patrolling the area and looking forward to getting home for the weekend.
O’BRIEN: Yes, indeed, John. I was a young Sergeant stationed in Hackballscross. What a wonderful name. What the derivation of it was. In the local kind of thing they used to refer to it as “The Hack”. So in Garda terms if you were going to “The Hack” you were going to Angola. Yeah.
O’BRIEN: It was a different kind of station. The nearest station to us, by the way, in policing terms was Crossmaglen, which was the RUC British Army base, and it was there I saw the Vietnam style thing where a helicopter would rise up from the base with a jeep underneath, you know, because it was unsafe to use the roads around Crossmaglen for security forces due to the activities of the Provisional IRA.
In effect the British owned the skies and the Provos owned the ground in South Armagh and so we were right up against that. The people to us were very friendly, you know, there was very little hostility. There was a wonderful Northern kind of thing where they saw nothing/heard nothing, but they all put in claims for compensation when bombs went off on the border and cracked their glass or broke their windows, you know. So it was quite an interesting Irish kind of phenomena. And we were very different. Our policing, by consent model, was very different to what was prevailing on the other side of the line.
But to go to the day you were talking about, it was in February of 1979, myself and a good colleague were patrolling in a patrol car, unarmed, and in uniform, and coming up to lunch time and we were thinking really of a weekend heading back to our respective families and what have you. So we were just hoping the clock would move around quickly.
It was about 1:00 o’clock, and we got a radio call to say that our colleagues from Castleblaney were following a car that had been ‑‑ come from Crossmaglen, apparently, and looked like it had been involved in a shooting or bombing episode in Crossmaglen and it had made its way back into the South. So we were on what’s the Dundalk to Castleblaney Road and we headed towards the border crossing point, which is a cross known locally as McShane’s Cross, and we got there, no sign of anything. We took a right turn, which would take us on a side road that would lead in the general direction of Crossmaglen, and as we reached a border point there we could see British helicopters in the sky. Very clear day by the way, John. Like, a bit like the Inauguration Day in Washington, you know, they always have that…
GREENE: Lovely blue sky, yeah.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, the clear blue skies. So think of that. So there we are. So we drive down a long country lane. Bridgie McCoy’s Lane. I’m a country boy so I’m well used to Bridgie McCoy type lanes, and low and behold at the end of the lane there was a car parked up there. It had been hand painted. It was obviously one that had been used in the attack in Crossmaglen. Now we were unarmed and we’re on the radios and we can see the Brits in the sky and we’re waiting for armed backup. While we were there, I looked across the fields and maybe two fields away there was what looked like maybe a semi‑derelict farmhouse and, you know, and out buildings, and I said to one of my colleagues, a young Guard from Castleblaney, I said “listen, while the guys hold the fort here, why don’t we just go and have a quick look”.
GREENE: And so instinct kicked in. The farmhouse and the adjoining haggard looked as if something suspicious was going on there. John O’Brien and his colleague decided to check it out. A brave but unwise action. They were, after all, unarmed, and in what was known as “bandit country”. Remember how he described it earlier, the British Army owned the skies, the Provisional IRA owned the ground.
O’BRIEN: We walked through two fields, Grape Coats on, it was January ‑‑ it was February, just at the end of ‑‑ at the start of the year ‑‑ and we walked along and then we went into the haggard at the back of the farmhouse, and as we did a guy jumped out carrying a long gun, and he had a colleague behind him, and when they saw us and we saw them, a bit of a shock, John, a bit of a shock, because even though you know you’re in that territory maybe there’s some bit of you that says you don’t expect to find anything. They looked at us, we looked at them. They turned and ran. We turned and ran after them. Now consider one guy is carrying a gun, a long gun, an Armalite, and he is in actual fact protecting his mate who was running ahead of him. So in order to get closer to him we threw off our Grape Coats, our caps, everything, just so we could have more mobility, and we’re slowly closing on them, and after going through two or three fields, and all the time off to our right we can see the helicopters in the sky. We’re in bright blue. We’re unmistakably doing what we’re doing. And then the Provo turned with the gun and he fired a shot at my friend and a shot at me, and I took a big mouthful of Louth, or Meath, or Monaghan earth, because quite frankly we probably had crossed the borderline, you know, because you’re out in the country, there’s no obvious sign. And after the initial shock they carried on into the North and I asked the Guard with me to go back to the cars and, you know, tell the folks what happened, and I kept an eye on them for a little while, and they, would you believe it, climbed under a cock of hay in a field in the North, so husbandry hadn’t been particularly high in that part of South Armagh at that time of the year, and I kept tabs on them, obviously hoping that some reinforcements would arrive, but like a long story short, there were reinforcements arrive about maybe 20 minutes and the whole thing was over. It was a remarkable event because we didn’t have, John, SOPs, Standard Operating Procedures, which said that “when you’re confronted with armed individuals in situations like this, this is what you do”. Remember this is just scarcely nine years whence Dick Fallon had been shot in Dublin. Michael Reynolds had been shot in Dublin also. And Michael Clarkin had been blown up in Portlaoise. But we did not have an SOP that said “guys, you disengage, you observe, you know, you stand back”.
GREENE: Were those two shots, John, do you believe those two shots were warning shots or were they intended to hit their targets?
O’BRIEN: To be honest, and I have to be very honest, I think if he intended to hit us, certainly he wouldn’t have fired single shots. He would have fired a burst. Because we were, I don’t know, we were like maybe 20 or 30 feet from him. You couldn’t be sure. It could be a deterrent. He could have meant to hit us. But I think in all terms with a long gun, you know, at that kind of range…
GREENE: He was bound to hit you if he wanted to.
O’BRIEN: Ah, yes. You’re totally at his mercy. By the way, the other thing I forgot to mention was that when we got back to the original haggard we found that what they had actually been doing was discarding their weapons in a dry stone ditch, you know, they had pulled the stones apart and they had dropped ‑‑ they were dropping in ‑‑ there was another long gun, another Armalite light there and a couple of loaded magazines. So had we arrived five minutes later, there would have been a different story, we think.
Frankly I would have loved to have met that guy in subsequent years, you know. What became of him? What was his story? Did he survive? Did he live? What was in his head? You know, that kind of thing. Because at this stage we’re talking about history. We’re not fighting the battle all over again. You know it held a place in my memory, but I had a wife and three young kids at that stage. This was not a very wise decision that we took that particular day.
GREENE: I know it brings up the debate which is ongoing and ongoing about should or should not Gardaí on the street be armed. But having two Gardaí, unarmed, in an area that was completely lawless, and a no‑go area, does seem a little bit ridiculous, John.
O’BRIEN: When you analyse it in those terms, it does. But the Provos have what they called Army Order No. 8, if I remember correctly, which said that they wouldn’t engage with Free State forces. But of course that would significantly be honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. So, do you know what, it was often like Nelson’s Telescope. In the southern authority’s view, they put the telescope to the blind eye. And a lot of the activity on the border there was never reported in the media North or South. I mean we had an incident book that we kept in Hackballscross and every Thursday, Wednesday or Thursday, we call it ‑‑ it was hijacking day on the Concession Road. That’s a bit of the road that ran from the Co. Louth side through a little bit of South Armagh and into Monaghan, and that was an infamous ‑‑ and I cover it in the book, and other incidents as well, there’s ‑‑ everyday or certainly every couple of days there was either a shooting or a bombing in that territory. It was like that, it was the telescope, and Southern ideas was to the blind eye rather than, you know, absolutely absorbing it, and it was foolhardy.
I’m not in favour of arming all Guards because there are inherent dangers in that. A gun is a very dangerous thing, you know. You can’t call back that bullet after it has gone, and for someone to have firearms, they need to well trained, well disciplined, and well ordered, and even then mistakes can be made. We’re fortunate in this country that the majority of people are happy to be governed or to be ruled by policing by consent, you know, so you don’t have that adversarial contested state like you had in the North and in other parts of the world right now.
GREENE: Not long after that, 1983, you had that mass break out of 38 prisoners from the Maze Prison and Gardaí were being held up at gunpoint and stripped of their uniforms at that stage, you had murders and kidnappings, and the master craftsman behind all of these seemed to have been Dominic McGlinchey. Now Don Tidey and Dr. Tiede Herrema would be names familiar to all, and the kidnapping of Don Tidey, although he was released afterwards and you had a happy ending from that aspect, you also had a very tragic subplot to that as well with the murder of Garda recruit Gary Sheehan and from the Defence Forces, Private Patrick Kelly. What are your memories of that?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, and that, as you say, was in November of 1983, and incidentally that was the toughest time. 1980 to 1985 was the toughest time in terms of Garda casualties, and indeed in terms of the military as well.
Dominic McGlinchey was not part of that scenario. He was, at that stage, had kind of acquired total maverick status. He was going around the country robbing. He was, you know, responsible for lots of atrocities in the North and so on. So he was like almost like a subtext to that plot. The people largely involved in the kidnapping of Don Tidey were certainly some escapers from the Maze Prison who had come South and who certainly didn’t have Army Order No. 8 on top of their head. You know, they would shoot to kill. Tidey’s kidnap from Dublin, the car used to take him away had been appropriated in Kerry and he had been moved across the country eventually to Leitrim, relatively close to the border, but in an area that was difficult to police in terms of its physical, you know, the physical make up. There had been a massive sweep across the country, you know, searching houses and what have you, and eventually it centred in that area just north of Ballinamore on that particular day. It’s a time of the year where the days of the week were very short, obviously, this time of the year frankly, and that search operation was in place, which eventually in the middle of day located or made contact with the kidnappers holding Don Tidey and shots were exchanged. The Guard was shot dead. So was of the Army Private. And Don Tidey, in the confusion and the shooting, managed to get free and he was rescued by a Garda party, who didn’t know who they had for quite a while, and while that was happening a car full of Provos drove by and opened fire on that party again. So it was a very scarey time but a difficult time. Look, quite frankly, it wouldn’t have been possible for the crime to take place without logistical support from the South, and certainly in that area there was support for the Provos, and eventually they made their way back to Mayo and there was another encounter there, and it was many years later before someone was charged with the murders involved. Eventually acquitted before the Special Criminal Court.
So, yeah, a tough time and a change of emphasis from the Provos in terms of, you know, shooting or taking on the Southern security forces.
GREENE: From a political point of view then, John, at that time relations with Britain were at an all time low. Charles J Haughey was in office and none better to get up the nose of one Margaret Thatcher.
O’BRIEN: Yeah, the Immovable Force in there, or the Irresistible Force or the Movable Object. You can take your pick from A to B out on both sides, and of course it was also the time of the Falkland’s War, John. The Falkland’s Island, the Malvinas, if you happen to be Argentinian, and Charlie certainly did his best to aggravate Mrs. Thatcher about that time, and it was a curious relationship because they had met face‑to‑face and he had given her a very special gift of silver and stuff and so on, but it was almost too great a temptation for Charles J to ignore, you know, to play the green card so strongly, and it meant that cooperation was very difficult.
We had an act at that time in force called the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act, which meant that you could be tried for an offence in the North, you could be tried in the Republic, or vice versa, and Charlie had sent word down the thing and said that that Act was not to be enforced, you know, so there was a very ambivalent and troublesome attitude to ‑‑ I mean in a democracy it is meant to be the rule of law, you know. It’s not meant to be the rule of the gun. Mr. Haughey had been in I think two short‑term governments at the start of the ’80s and neither of them leaves a very good taste in the mouth vis‑a‑vis the Guards.
GREENE: Next week in Programme 2, the shooting of two RUC officers and the subsequent Smithwick Tribunal that cost almost €20 million. The criminal justice system, has it worked up to now? And questions about the new operating model proposed for the Gardaí.
John O’Brien, originally from Killeady, Ballinhassig, joined the Gardaí on Wednesday, June 26th 1968. He should and does remember it well. He was beginning a career he would love, but on arrival at the training college in Templemore, he was informed that his mother had passed away since they had left Ballinhassig that morning.
Retiring in 2006 with the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent, the years in between would provide plenty of traumatic, tragic, eventful but also happy material for any book. As John joins me this evening, we continue and conclude our two‑part programme and trawl through some of the events that played a part in the latter half of his career. As always, you’re invited to join us on another journey as I welcome you to another edition of “Where the Road Takes Me”.
This evening we look back at the controversial and costly Smithwick Tribunal set up to investigate the shooting dead of two senior RUC officers returning to the North after a meeting in Dundalk with their Garda counterparts.
The criminal justice system, is it a happy and successful marriage between the judiciary, the prison service, the DPP, the Gardaí and the community? And why John O’Brien believes that the new proposals for an operating model for the Garda Síochána will not work. How it will affect over 14,000 sworn Garda officers and over 2,000 civilian staff. 427 Garda stations, he believes, will be directly affected by boundary changes and 535 Garda stations will be impacted.
But first, Dublin Jimmy. A typical career criminal of his time. However, it was one thing to be investigating his crimes but to discover that both now lived in the same rural town would put extra spike to the investigations.
O’BRIEN: Yes, indeed. Dublin Jimmy, which is the euphemism we would use for the guy who was a member of family in North County Dublin and we were living close to each other, roughly in the same town, and I had come out, I had been involved in the city centre policing in Dublin, I had come back to this rather quieter town and he had come to notice, and it was obvious that, you know, through other information, that he was involved with HGV’s, heavy good vehicles, and cars, lorries, that kind of thing, very resourceful, but had a hair‑trigger temper, you know. He was a guy with a very low tolerance rate, particularly of anyone in a blue uniform. And I had started a number of prosecutions with regard to him and others, and as a course of that he was in custody, which is really where he should have stayed, but the good Judge who was a President of the Circuit Court took a liking to him, thought he was, you know, a quiet country bumpkin that was being importuned by this rather overzealous Sergeant and gave him bail and then what followed was a rampage of robbery and violence, and eventually he, through our action, through our legal action, he was forced to leave the jurisdiction. He was disqualified for 25 years, which effectively meant that his mobility, his ability to move was absolutely restricted. He never suffered the full penalties that he should have suffered in this jurisdiction for his actions, but he moved north to Keady in Armagh and eventually then he progressed through the criminal ranks and he became a very big player in border events in later years which led to the kidnapping of Kevin Lunney and ‑‑ Kevin Lunney who associated with the Quinn’s name in Ballyconnel and all of that stuff. He was a remarkable, Dublin Jimmy was a remarkable guy. When I was on night duty, my wife would get a phone call at different times telling her “that f***er is dead”. And the f***er was me. And that happened quite, quite often. I cover it in a little bit more detail and probably a little bit more graphically in the book, but I mean he was a significant player, and probably typical of many at that particular time, but I think prevailingly he had the image of being that country bumpkin, and I use that as a country bumpkin myself, you know. Yeah, but it was far from the truth.
Incidentally, I was suspended for a day while I had to answer a false charge from one of his family members of assault. So, you know, the Guards can be quite tough on the Guards from time to time. Sometimes I guess it is legitimate and sometimes, as in my case, it wasn’t. So, you know, but I really don’t have any complaints about my times in the Guards, I should say that, John. I had a wonderful, wonderful time. But you’ve got to learn to take the, the rough with the smooth I think.
GREENE: You did spend a considerable amount of your career as well taking up the cudgel for complaints within the Gardaí and improving conditions for them. To a certain extent that ‑‑ was it a Superintendent once said to you “you can be very difficult to deal with”?
O’BRIEN: (Laughs). Yes. Yes, yes, that’s right. By the way, like we’ve been talking, John, about very serious stuff in all the course of this. I can also say there was great humour in the Guards from time to time and, you know, we came across hilarious situations. Like a colleague of mine who was escorting in very solum circumstances a funeral one day on his motorbike, and doing the appropriate thing, thinking he knew where he was going, but obviously he didn’t. He drove down a cul‑de‑sac, a narrow little street in the Dublin. Had to reverse everybody back out and resume. So, look, I digress, John. So, yeah. No, it is a very interesting, it is a very interesting career.
GREENE: It mustn’t have harmed your career because you were eventually promoted to Detective Chief Superintendent before you retired.
O’BRIEN: Yes, and there’s a lovely ‑‑ I can remember exactly when that was said. I was being promoted Sergeant, and there was the traditional dinner and going away thing, and the good Superintendent, who was a fairly monosyllabic individual himself, not greatly given to the, you know, to softness saying, he says “and now we come to John O’Brien”, he said, “and when I came here to this district”, he said, “I was told keep an eye on O’Brien, you know, he can be a difficult man to handle”. (Laughs). But it was, it is the paradox that you just mentioned, you see, because, yes, I was now being promoted to Sergeant and I was going to ‑‑ actually on my way to Hackballscross, the one that we discussed earlier on. But, look, the serious point is one should never be afraid to speak true to power. But, look, I was a team player, I loved the job I did, but there was certainly an awful lot of bunkum that I would be very unsympathetic, you know, about. So sometimes that could be translated as being difficult to handle, John.
GREENE: On 20th March 1989, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Robert Buchanan of the RUC were returning in an unmarked car from a cross‑border security conference at Dundalk Garda Station. They were ambushed and shot dead near the border at Jonesborough by the Provisional IRA. The resultant Tribunal to investigate the killings became known as the Smithwick Tribunal and was prompted by Peter Cory, a Canadian Judge commissioned by the Irish Government to investigate the killings.
In July of 2006, 17 years after the killings, Judge Smithwick stated that he would complete his investigation before public hearings began. Those hearings began five years later. The Tribunal itself would cost almost €20 million. To say that the whole affair was complex would be an understatement of the highest magnitude.
O’BRIEN: I tried to make it readable and digestible from, you know, from a reader’s point of view because, you know, the public, I think, rightly in so many cases get tired when they hear people, you know, debating the point. Now Tribunals are a particular vehicle for establishing the facts, but this Tribunal was founded ‑‑ it was commissioned I think in 2005, reported in 2013. It spent 6 years in private investigation, which is a remarkable feature. But just from our listener’s point of view I just want to focus my mind and theirs is: It is probably in my thought represents the single biggest travesty, you know, exerted against the Garda Síochána by ‑‑ formally by a government in terms of its outcome and its probity.
To make the point that I’m going to make now, a number of people who gave key evidence to the Smithwick Tribunal, one of them was Peter Keeley/Kevin Fulton, who was a British agent, acknowledged before the Tribunal. He was a guy who had been, who had joined the British Army, then had resigned tactically, had infiltrated the Provisional IRA in South Down and in Dundalk, and he was, by his own admission, and it is all in the Tribunal records, so it is there to be read, is where he had participated in bomb making activity, he had been present at shootings, he had been present at the kidnapping of Tom Oliver. All his own admission. Covered in his own book. But the key point I want to make about Peter Keeley/Kevin Fulton is: The State paid his lawyers €456,645. €456,645 to this informer agent of the British Army who was an acknowledged liar.
The other guy of interest from that same stable was Freddie Scappaticci, otherwise as known as “Stakeknife”. We paid his lawyers €382,000 ‑‑ when I say “we” I mean the Irish taxpayer ‑‑ €382,270. Now he did not give evidence to the Tribunal, but he was represented for its entirety.
And the third witness of particular note was the then Assistant Chief Constable of the RUC, Drew Harris, who is currently the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána, and his evidence, and again it is in the record, the Counsel for the Garda Síochána described his evidence or his testimony to the Tribunal as “nonsense on stilts”.
So, these were kind of ‑‑ they’re the kind of flash points from the Tribunal itself. It started really by, it was started by a book written by an author called Toby Harnden. He wrote “Bandit Country” published in probably 1999, and in it he made a number of allegations, and based on that, on the suggestions ‑‑ he made suggestions in his book which were amplified by a number of journalists in the South, and also by a number of southern politicians, including the former Minister For Justice Charlie Flanagan, where they reiterated ‑‑ and eventually as part of the normalisation of relationships between the North and South, it was agreed between governments that there would be a Tribunal of Inquiry into a number of events, and one of those that was up for mention was the murder, the terrible murder of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in 1989, just after Patrick’s Day.
GREENE: The Smithwick Tribunal was meant to be a reciprocal arrangement, which meant that in the North an equivalent Tribunal would be held in to, for instance, the murder of solicitor Patrick Finucane, but John O’Brien says none of this actually happened.
O’BRIEN: Frankly the naivety of the southern authorities in going down this road was absolutely mind‑boggling, but as you said in your remarks, 8 years, nearly €20 million, money paid to British agents operating within the Provisional IRA, this was a terrible decision.
By the way, it was never debated in Dáil Eireann, and this is the whole rationale of the Tribunal is that it is debated in Dáil Eireann, and in the book I also cover Supreme Court Judge Peter Charleton who has done a summary on the efficacy of Tribunals, which is well worth reading, I won’t attempt to summarise it here and now, and he is one person who is extremely knowledgeable on the methodology employed by Tribunals. But it is a terrible insult to the Garda Síochána. Myself and two other Chief Superintendent colleagues went through the evidence painstakingly, line by line and, frankly, if we were convinced, as the Judge was, that we had colluded with the Provisional IRA, we would have made abject apologies for it.
I had worked with, as they had, with the RUC in a perfectly lawful way, had attended in their stations. I gave them every cooperation, and we would have been horrified, and we would have said so if we felt there was credence in this. So, yeah, a really bad deal. Never debated by the department in the South.
GREENE: And what about a mention of Garda X. Was there a Garda X, do you believe?
O’BRIEN: I mean, I think, um, what I should say at this stage is that in terms of all of the information and the, you know, the underlying current of this is, is one has to understand very carefully the role of intelligence agencies and providing information. The information that ACC Harris, Assistant Chief Constable Harris provided to the Tribunal, was not graded. There is a formal way of grading intelligence. Yet the information that he provided was ungraded and it was basically on supposition. He gave evidence I think, I think on Monday, and it was read into the record on a subsequent day.
When I say information is graded, the best information is graded, and it is very logical and straightforward, it is rated A1. And the worst information is graded D4. So my role in the international liaison protection section in Garda Headquarters would get information all the time in relation to targets, and the question I would ask our intelligence people is: How is it graded? You know. What’s the ‑‑ it’s like alcohol, what is the strength? Yeah. What’s the grading? And if it wasn’t graded in the positive side, like an A1 or something of that nature, then you said “listen, you need to do some more homework on this before it becomes promoted”, John, and I hope I’m not being too obscure here, to what is called “actionable intelligence”. Actionable intelligence.
GREENE: And that’s the end of Part 1. We find out what “actionable intelligence” really means and the human side to the Jonesborough ambush. It’s all in Part 2 of where the road takes me in a few moments.
Part 1 of Programme 2 before the break we discussed the killing of two senior RUC officers who were ambushed by the Provisional IRA near the border in Jonesborough in 1989, and the subsequent Tribunal which was set up to investigate the killings.
Before the break, John O’Brien spoke about “actionable intelligence”, which often did not materialise during the Tribunal. So, what exactly is actionable intelligence?
O’BRIEN: Actionable intelligence is where you have got information that you can now do something with from an operational point of view. You can act on it. The information provided by ACC Harris was not actionable intelligence, and the whole role of the intelligence services on the British side in relation to Smithwick, and many other events in the North, there has been an incredible naivety on the southern side in relation to those activities. And I’m not fighting with the Brits over their intelligence services, I’m just simply saying we are totally naive in understanding what the role of intelligence services are when it comes to promoting the agenda of their Sovereign Government, and we just have to believe they are not following the same flag as we are. You know it is a very simple thing, and they are ‑‑ some of them are incredibly professional, but they also can step outside the law, and their agents can equally step outside the law, and the two names I mentioned Scappaticci and Fulton clearly emphasises that in total.
GREENE: If you delve deep enough into any one of the 3,500 people who lost their lives during the conflict in the North of Ireland, you will, more than likely, discover a human side that is rarely identified. Superintendent Robert Buchanan and Chief Superintendent Harry Breen were two completely different characters. Robert Buchanan, for instance, never took steps to secure his identity or his movements and travelled regularly in the same Vauxhall Cavalier, neglecting to change the number plates or indeed the vehicle itself.
O’BRIEN: No, no, Bob Buchanan and then ‑‑ he is described by the colleagues who knew him as a lovely man. Like he was a Protestant man who followed a particular church.
GREENE: Two different individuals.
O’BRIEN: Absolutely, two different.
O’BRIEN: Harry Breen would have been a more hard bitten RUC officer doing the job. He was the divisional Commander in what was the H District, which was Armagh, Newry, that area of the North, but Buchanan’s trade craft, as we call it, that is, he was using his own car, a red Vauxhall Cavalier, the same number plate for two years, through some of the, if not ‑‑ he had the most dangerous country in terms of this conflict from Monaghan, Armagh to Co. Louth, and Bob drove up and down. His former role was a border liaison Superintendent, meant to stay in contact with his opposite numbers on the Garda side, but he did not exercise, and I’m not saying that this, he deserved the death he got because he observed this kind of lack of counter activity, but his own organisation, the RUC, should have absolutely pulled Bob out of there. And he was due, actually, to go on transfer to somewhere else. So those who knew him on the Garda side were particularly sad because they recognised him for what he was. I mean in his car I think, the Vauxhall Cavalier, when it was riddled with bullets, was a Bible and some notes on a history that he was writing of his church in the North. So he is particularly ‑‑ that hits particularly sad.
And by the way, they killed him, the people who killed him, gave ‑‑ were interviewed by lawyers from the Smithwick Tribunal, never gave evidence before the Tribunal, they refused to do that, and they were granted immunity on the basis that they were cooperating with the Tribunal, and if there is any travesty of justice it is the fact, quite apart from my feelings about the Garda side, is that the people who committed these murders were identified by the Tribunal lawyers and then walked free and still walk free today.
GREENE: And unusual as well in the sense that the security forces in the North identified quite a lot of IRA radio traffic that day and designated the route that Harry Breen and Robert Buchanan would have taken as a no‑go area, but that information was not transferred on to these two people.
O’BRIEN: Yes, and like I think the radio traffic thing may have been elevated to a high, you know, to a higher level than it deserved, you know, in a review of the situation, but you’re right in respect of ‑‑ from time to time various border crossing points were ruled no‑go areas, and the area where ‑‑ the Edenappa Road where this happened, had been out of action to all RUC or security personnel for use. By the way, the murders were committed literally within the shadow of a British watch tower, but in a blind area. In other words where they couldn’t, where they couldn’t see. So there’s a whole lot of, there’s a whole lot of extraordinary events in terms of the ring craft and the trade craft being used.
But by the way, just to remind myself here, Kevin Fulton/Peter Keeley, in his evidence to, or his testimony to the Smithwick Tribunal, also said, also said that RUC officers had been passing information to the Provisional IRA. Now we have no sign or any possible connection that that was ever followed up. So Smithwick was a totally select process. Unfortunately it is the same thing that we caution Guards about: don’t start an investigation assuming you know the answer to your investigation because then you’re certainly going to wind up in the wrong place.
GREENE: Talk to me a little bit about the criminal justice system. In an ideal world it is supposed to be a happy marriage between the judiciary, the prison service, the DPP (the public prosecutor), law enforcement, the Gardaí, and the community. How well is that working at present do you think, John?
O’BRIEN: Um, it works in, if I can use a word, it works in normal circumstances quite well. It can be tedious, it can be annoying from a Garda point of view, you may have a case, it may not, you know, meet the test of time. The difficulty always is that when you a hit a particularly serious situation. Like, for instance, in ’96 when the journalist Veronica Guerin was murdered and Jerry McCabe, the Detective Garda in Limerick was shot by the Provisional IRA, a new raft of measures were brought in, which were a terrific help in dealing with crime, the Criminal Assets Bureau being a classic point.
Normally it works, it works well, but there is always a tremendous slowness on the part of official Ireland to modify or codify the criminal law. It is more difficult when it comes to either subversive crime or organised crime, and there’s always a huge debate about the Special Criminal Court, and on one side, you know, the debate says because it is non-jury it shouldn’t happen, and the other side of it recognises that witnesses can be intimidated and there is a need for it. There’s a need to codify the criminal law so that it isn’t as complex and convoluted as it is. There is a limit to what can be achieved when dealing with the serious organised crime, like the drugs and what have you, and that requires tremendous effort and that will produce results. Are the rules good enough? Fair enough? On the balance of probability they are, but the most serious crime in terms of the court process is something that needs, you know, a more rational and mature consideration.
For instance, I make the point, our system in Ireland is an adversarial system, which means both sides in legal terms when it comes to court beat the living hell out of each other on the facts. Yeah. You know one argues it is black and white. If you go to the continent or if you go to France, it is an inquisitorial system, and in a country like that you have no right of what we call the right of silence, you have no right to be cautioned, you have no right of habeas corpus. So if we have particular system that evolved from the British system and evolved now into a purely uniquely Irish system, I would be reasonably happy that it is fair, but certainly I think on the more serious end it needs a lot of looking at.
I would be more concerned, to be honest with you, on the policing model. In other words, that’s the model of policing being employed now and into the future by the Garda Síochána on their part of the equation, because, after all, the criminal justice system is a partnership between different elements; the Guards, the courts, you know, the Department of Justice and, of course, most importantly, the public, because it has to be a system that is supported by the majority of people. It just can’t be something that is imposed on people.
GREENE: So, a model of policing that is supported by the community and not imposed on them. The community, of course, being part of the criminal justice system, as previously mentioned.
Well in the past, and it was a system that seemingly worked very well, and I know from living here in Bandon that Gardaí lived in the town they were stationed in. They created a bond between themselves and the community. They integrated with the community and they got involved in local organisations. The result was that members of a community who got to know them well now had a face, a person, an individual or a friend whom they could contact if they had a problem or if they were aware of a crime or anything suspicious happening in their community. Gardaí now tend to live in a different area to where they are stationed. Yet it is a simple thing to pick up a phone and ring a Garda station. But it is it human nature, people will do it even more so if they know the person at the end of the line.
I know that here in the Cork West Garda division, which is a huge area, the Officer Commanding Chief Superintendent Con Cadogan is working at a return to the policing model just mentioned, where the Gardaí and the community work closely together. But John O’Brien is concerned that the national model being proposed will include expanding many boundaries, including the already large Cork West Garda division. The proposed plan, he says, will directly affect 14,279 sworn serving Garda officers and 2,332 civilian staff. 427 stations will be affected directly by boundary changes and all 535 station, he says, will impacted.
O’BRIEN: No, and I fully agree with you, you see. I also live in the community and I would suffer to some degree from what you just described. That context, the immediacy, the knowledge, the recognition, and do you remember I said at the very start in terms of my own relationship at the very start with the Guards, that trusting capability is based on we knowing each other and having a respect for each other. I am particularly, particularly concerned with the model for policing that is now being advocated by the current Garda Commissioner, which has a whole radical restructuring process running on at the back end of the service, which to my view is very unsound because it hasn’t been tested or piloted.
For instance, you know, where you were talking to me from now is in the Cork West Garda division, which is a big area, all the way from where you are all the way to the tip of Beara Peninsula, and I guess you’ll know better than I, John, how long it would take to simply travel that distance, you know, a couple of hours. And the proposal now says that that division, Cork West, should be amalgamated with Cork North, which is Headquartered in Fermoy.
So in a future edition, the Chief Superintendent in Bandon will be asked to manage a policing area that runs all the way from the Waterford border to the tip of Beara Peninsula. Now to me, that is taking policing far away from the reality we just spoke about, where there is immediacy, contact. I mean one person simply could not cover that area in a span of control. It doesn’t matter how good you are. And I was in charge of two Garda divisions at different times, so I would claim to have some direct knowledge of how much you can reasonably cover and how good a service you can offer.
And by the way, that system has been replicated throughout the country in many respects. For instance, Tipperary and Clare divisions are been amalgamated. Now, again, you’re looking at running all the way from the Cliffs of Moher right down to Carrick‑on‑Suir, you know, being ran under the command of one individual, and their whole system has been destructured within that without a single thread of researched evidence to indicate that it is a better way of doing things.
It seems to be, to me, largely based on a British model of policing that isn’t applicable in our circumstances, and I wish to God that our politicians would take a closer look on what is happening before it is too late, because I think, based on my experience of I guess nearly 50 years of policing, I think that is not something that fills me with any great confidence for the future, even though the people will always try to do the best they can. But it is imposing an impossible structure in a very difficult situation. And the world is changing, you know. There was a time, I guess, you know, when drunk driving was the thing in terms of offences. Now it is as likely to be drug driving. So the whole country profile is changing, and people isolated in communities is simply a terrible thing and anything that brings the policing service away from that really should not be condoned.
GREENE: All right. So what you’re saying is that we’re not, we’re not coming up to speed with the changing face of crime nowadays.
O’BRIEN: Certainly the changing time, the impact of the drugs on society and so on, in terms of everyday society, is, in my view, the policing model that is being advocated stands far less a chance than a more thoughtful community based approach, even though all of the buzz words are used for the new policing model, I’m saying, I’m saying to our good listeners, don’t believe it. Examine it, talk to your politicians, and for God’s sake do something about it.
GREENE: And that brings Part 2 of our programme to a close. On this evening’s edition of “Where the Road Takes Me”, I’m speaking to retired Detective Chief Superintendent John O’Brien about his time in An Garda Síochána from 1968 to 2006. John is originally from Killeady, Ballinhassig. We continue and conclude the programme in Part 3, and its coming your way in a few minutes time.
Earlier in the programme, John O’Brien commented on the new operating model proposed by the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. They set out what he has termed as a new operating model for the force. But John O’Brien believes that these proposals are hypothetical. They are based on assumptions and presumptions which are unprecedented, untested and uncosted. So I made contact with the Garda press office for a statement on what John had said, and in particular how those proposals would affect the Cork West Garda division which polices an enormous area of the county and beyond in its present format. What I got back was what was proposed for Cork City, but still the basics of the plan are contained in the statement. I asked John to read the statement and come back to me with his reaction and if his criticisms had changed as a result of what the statement had said.
O’BRIEN: Having read the reply from the press office, there’s nothing in my previous thinking that has changed. I still believe that the proposals were hypothetical, that they were based on assumptions and presumptions which were unprecedented and unfounded. The basic premise behind this new operating model was untested and it was uncosted, and critically there was no economic or operational impact study.
The other thing I’d say is, I think you asked a question in relation to what would be Cork West, and you were given a reply in relation to Cork City, which set out a series of ‑‑ gave you a series of information. But the key thing I think to cut to the chase in all of this is ‑‑ well we could argue on the relative merits on A and B forever on this is, if a new system is to be put in place, and if it is already in place, it should be possible to have something like the metrics that indicate the degree of success or otherwise with that system. I think that’s a very simple proposition.
For instance, any citizen of Cork City or Cork County, or any other county, should be able to say with a great deal of conviction “because we’re now operating in this particular way, there has been a high visibility patrolling increase”, in other words there has been more Gardaí out in mobile patrol and on foot patrol. There has been a significant improvement in response times to calls for help in the community. Thinking particularly about 999 calls. Somebody way out the country has intruders on. How long does it take us to get to them? Is it now better because of this new system? And is there ‑‑ the old thing, the very old concept of policing consent: Is there high uniform visibility? Do the Guards know you? Do you know the Guard? Is there that direct relationship of trust? How is that improved because you’re doing things a different way? And of course because all of this happens in a financial background, what have the financial savings been? How, you know, how do you quantify those?
So in other words, that you’ve gone to all this trouble to really, what I see is upscuttle the whole policing by consent model in the country, where are the dividends and how do you measure them? And I’m not talking about buzz words and I’m not talking about jargon, sometimes is impenetrable. Effectively tell us why this is better?
And of course the other thought that comes to my mind is: Change doesn’t always mean progress. And I’m thinking of big initiatives and the wider scheme, like the HSE and different organisations where there’s a big trumpeting of change.
And the last thing I’d say is that way back in 1995, a similar project to this was undertaken. It was called “Regionalising the Garda Síochána” and that was a disaster. The same way, it had no prior planning, there was no proof of concept. And in some ways the organisation was still trying to get out from under that, and here we come along again in 2019 with something that’s even crazier.
GREENE: It does state that nationally 721 officers will be freed up from administrational duties and put on operational duties. But 721 ‑‑ and I think 31 in Cork ‑‑ 721 nationally is spreading it fairly thin I would imagine.
O’BRIEN: It is, of course, and of course you divided it by the number Garda divisions, whether it be 25 or 19 divisions, you divide it down to the individual units in each station, and you also have to consider the other thing, with is euphemistically called “wastage”, you know, how many have retired in the same period of time? How many people are on sick leave?
Essentially, and while I would never deprive the additional numbers, although, John, the numbers now in the Garda Síochána are probably at the highest they’ve ever been at any time in the history of the State. It is not an impactful figure in terms of the Garda service, nor is it an impactful figure in terms of the metrics that I’ve just mentioned, you know, the response times, the visibility, the greater contact with the community and the financial savings. It is not a metric of that at all.
GREENE: And finally, John, what will this mean to the Bandon Garda Station at the moment, which is the HQ for the Cork West Garda division, which is a huge area? What will that mean with this plan?
O’BRIEN: With this plan the intention is that, as I understand it, that Cork West division, based in Bandon as you say, and running right into the heartland of West Cork, will be amalgamated with the Cork North division, which is currently headquartered in Fermoy and runs all the way to the Waterford border and up to the Tipp border into the borders of Cork City. It would mean the amalgamation of those two divisions and it would mean that instead of one Chief Superintendent, as is the case now, responsible for each of those divisions, one Chief Superintendent will be responsible for the amalgamated divisions. So one individual would have the operational responsibility for policing all the way from the Waterford border to the tip of the Beara Peninsula. It doesn’t bear any kind of logistical sense, and it certainly doesn’t mean that if I’m living in anywhere in that area that the quality of the policing service I’ve got is improved. It is change for change sake and it certainly isn’t progress.
GREENE: For the final ten minutes of this evening’s programme, it is a case of stop press and change tack. One of the major news stories from this week was the announcement by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis that the British would not now hold an inquiry into the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, who was murdered by Loyalist Paramilitaries in 1989. Pat Finucane had represented prominent members of the IRA and had successfully taken a number of human rights cases against the British Government. On this programme we’ve already discussed the Smithwick Tribunal. We may never have discussed Pat Finucane this evening only for the announcement regarding the inquiry during the week. The reason we do so is that there is a strong connection between both. John O’Brien now fills us in on the background.
O’BRIEN: The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was the historic agreement which basically brought an end to The Troubles, an end to the killing in Northern Ireland, or at least the transition from that, and what followed that for a period of a couple of years was normalisation process between the governments east and west, and obviously with the political interests in the North, and of course that involved Paramilitaries as well. That in turn led to something called the Western Park Agreement in 2001, and one of the issues for the Western Park Agreement was to deal with legacy issues, and legacy issues, I know in the Irish context, means looking at all of the atrocities that happened during The Troubles and apportioning responsibility, blame, or at least getting a conclusion to them, and in particular the whole idea of collusion and collusion by security services in relation to, in relation to any of those atrocities. So that was the key point in the Weston Park Agreement.
And following that, both governments, east and west, agreed that a Canadian, a retired Canadian Judge, Judge Cory, would do an analysis of a number of cases North and South, and on the basis of his recommendations then either government would then go ahead and hold full public tribunals in relation to those cases.
As it worked out, Judge Cory then decided, in relation to the South, that what became the Smithwick Tribunal would be instituted, and that was into the murders of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan, which we have discussed already. And in the North, he decided that there should be enquiries into four key murders/atrocities in the North as well, and one of those was the Patrick Finucane murder in 1989. So that’s the background to it, and the real interesting question is, you know, what happened, what happened from there?
GREENE: The big question in all of this of course is how high up along the line does the collusion go? Well, John O’Brien offers an interesting insight. O’BRIEN: There are formal systems of reporting, certainly on a daily basis, and more often, depending on the particular emergency. So the key thing for us on this Island to remember is that the intelligence systems in the UK go back to No. 10. So there’s no question of political deniability. Obviously that is useful. That’s the understanding that we must have when we look at the British system.
There is a commonality between the Smithwick Tribunal and Patrick Finucane for ‑‑ one particular reason is both Tribunals were influenced by a British agent. The Smithwick Tribunal came about in the first instance because Judge Cory was a Canadian Judge who was saying do we need to have a Tribunal in relation to the murders of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan? And Loyalists brought their ‑‑ Northern politicians brought the individual Peter Keeley/Kevin Fulton, who became the key witness, or one of the key witnesses, together with ACC Drew Harris, at the Smithwick Tribunal, brought him to Judge Cory, and based on his unverified statements to Cory it was decided to have the Smithwick Tribunal. That was the key British agent, and he was an agent of the British Military, and I’ve spoken about it already and it is well covered in my book.
In relation to the Pat Finucane murder, that was influenced by another British agent for the British Military, Brian Nelson. So all of the commonality that existed from the very word “go”, that there was British agents operating within the system, influencing the outcome for Cory, and obviously directly involved with the security services in relation to the murder of Pat Finucane, and that gave rise to something else, which I find particularly disturbing, is in the book I’ve called “Operation Collusion South”.
After the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, from the evidence available, it is clear that there was a concerted effort by some Northern politicians and others to make sure that there would be sufficient suspicion passed on the Garda Síochána, in this case in relation to the Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan murders, and that was almost like a counter balance to the manifest allegations of collusion on the Northern side. And I now that sounds very cynical, but it started with the 1989 book by Toby Harnden, that’s the book “Bandit Country”, and then very interestingly on the 13th April 2000, Jeffrey Donaldson, Democratic Unionist Party MP in committee in the House of Commons mentioned the mole allegedly responsible for the collusion on the deaths of the two RUC officers, and on the very same day, and on the very same day, 13th April 2000, Charlie Flanagan, Jim Higgins and Brian Hayes, three TDs in Dáil Eireann, raised the same question without mentioning the mole. Now that’s why I say there was a progress or a process by which the Northerners and other influences were making sure that there would be an accent in ensuring that there was a Tribunal, and in my view a totally unjustifiable Tribunal, in relation to the murders of Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan.
GREENE: One final and very important point to all of this: At the Western Park Agreement in 2001, the Irish Government agreed to hold an inquiry into the shooting dead of the two senior RUC officers returning from Dundalk Garda Station in 1989, Harry Breen and Robert Buchanan. For their part, the British agreed to hold an inquiry into, amongst others, the murder of Pat Finucane. However, in the meantime, when the British realised what damaging results this particular inquiry was likely to reveal and how high the collusion could possibly go in their ranks, they moved quickly in 2005 to ensure that any such inquiry, if it were held, would be a toothless one.
O’BRIEN: 2001 was the Weston Park Agreement, and the agreement then to have the inquiries North and South. But in 2005, and this is very, very important, the British introduced and passed an Act that limited the powers of their own Tribunals in relation to seeking information and holding public inquiries. So that’s at the key of the whole thing. While the Irish government entered into it, I would say in good faith, the British, when they had a look at what Judge Cory was saying in relation to the Northern one, including Pat Finucane, they decided to limit the power of a public inquiry, and that was done in 2005. So, in card playing terms, somebody was playing a joker from the bottom of deck, I’m afraid, in this particular transaction.
GREENE: On this weeks and last week’s programme, I’ve been speaking with retired Detective Chief Superintendent John O’Brien, originally from Killeady, Ballinhassig.
For me, and I am sure for you, it has been an interesting and enlightening experience gaining a different slant to major news stories from the past and indeed the present. Still, we’ve only scratched the surface.