By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Irish government ministers have angrily denied what they describe as "contemptible" allegations that there has been political interference in the gardai’s Omagh bomb probe or that draconian new powers enacted following the atrocity had effectively lain unused.
The allegations first appeared in media reports and were referred to by opposition spokesmen when a Fine Gael motion was debated in the Dail.
The row came in a week that saw gardai intensify investigations into the August 1998 bombing, which killed 29 and injured hundreds more. Six men in their 20s and 30s were arrested for questioning in Monaghan and Louth.
Justice Minister John O’Donoghue said it was "deplorable" that newspapers should carry allegations of political interference and he attacked opposition TDs for lending credibility to the reports.
"The very suggestion that the government should seek to interfere with the Garda investigation into the Omagh bomb is horrifying," the minister said.
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It is simply unreal to imply that if the opposition were in office the Omagh bombers would be behind bars.
He said that the new anti-terrorist powers are being used and up to the time when he renewed the law in June, 29 people had been held under the extended 72-hour detention measure.
The minister said "that no one ever pretended that the post-Omagh legislation would – or should – allow people to be charged without evidence."
Fine Gael leader John Bruton moved the motion that called on the government to set out what action had been take under the amended Offenses Against the State Act, what was planned and what discussions on the matter had taken place between the Irish and British governments.
Bruton referred to the taoiseach’s pledge, when the new laws were introduced, that the government was determined to crush and dismantle the Real IRA.
The new laws were designed to overturn the rules of evidence to facilitate prosecution for membership of an illegal organization.
"If the identities of the Omagh bombers are known, why have these new powers now been used against them?" Bruton asked.
"The new Act also created new offenses of directing an unlawful organization, possession of articles for the purposes in certain offenses, unlawful collection of information, withholding information and training in the use of firearms. How often have these powers been used against the Real IRA? Very seldom, I suggest.
"The time has come for an account to be given by the law enforcement authorities of both jurisdictions on this island as to why there have been no prosecutions of the principal perpetrators of the Omagh bombing."
Bruton also sought an explanation of statements made by Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne last March. When asked would the masterminds of the attack get away, he replied, "sadly, possibly and maybe probably."