Category: Archive

Cop crisis

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — Just days after the chief constable met relatives of the Omagh bomb victims in an effert to allay their concerns about alleged police incompetence, the deputy chairman of the Police Board in Northern Ireland says it faces its most important test to date in the deepening row over the bomb inquiry.

The deputy chairman, Denis Bradley, a former Derry priest, met Monday with the relatives of the Omagh victims to hear their complaints over how the police conducted the hunt for the bombers.

More than three years after the bombing, which killed 29 people, only one man has been charged and convicted, and even he was on the fringes of the conspiracy. The police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, has produced a scathing report into the police inquiry, while the chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, has put up a stout defense.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, the row is expected to reach a climax when the full Police Board meets both the chief constable and the police ombudsman, two days before a public meeting in Belfast.

Bradley, who helped set up the secret talks between the republican movement and emissaries of the British government 10 years ago that led to the peace process, also said on Monday he wasn’t sure yet precisely what powers the Board had.

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If the Board, for example, disagrees with Flanagan and sides with the ombudsman in deciding to call in an outside officer to head the inquiry, it is far from clear what happens next.

Flanagan has said he’s prepared to select an officer from the Merseyside Police Force in England to act in an advisory role to the Omagh bomb inquiry, but is insisting that Det. Superintendent Brian McArthur retain overall responsibility.

He has accused the ombudsman of material inaccuracies, misunderstandings, unwarranted assumptions along with other “compelling reasons” why her report treated his force unfairly. In a 200-page statement, provided to relatives but not to the press, he claims her criticisms were “unfounded” and “unsustainable.”

“The investigation has been driven with energy, professionalism and determination,” he said, rejecting all claims of a lack of cooperation with the ombudsman but claiming the right to “expect the same high standard of professionalism, rigor, openness and fairness” that she expects of the police.

Relatives of the victims, however, are warning they will withdraw support for the police investigation and demand a public inquiry if the Police Board does not resolve their criticisms of the police inquiry to date.

Sinn Fein does not sit on the Police Board, in a row over what powers it has, although the SDLP has three members and says it will listen to both sides before deciding which of the ombudsman’s recommendations it will support.

Flanagan, families meet

On Thursday, Jan. 24, Flanagan met with the relatives in an intense 5-hour meeting at an Omagh hotel. They emerged to say he had not allayed their concerns either over alleged incompetence in how the inquiry was conducted, or their anxiety that the bomb could have been prevented if warnings had been acted on.

A spokesman for the relatives, Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son, Aidan, in the 1998 blast said they are not happy with the response from Flanagan and are considering withdrawing their confidence in his inquiry.

Twenty-nine people, including a woman pregnant with twins, died in the dissident Real IRA bombing and hundreds more were injured. Flanagan says he believes it was carried out by a 16-member gang whose names are known to police, although they have insufficient evidence for prosecutions.

At the beginning of the meeting, Flanagan reportedly told the relatives that it was the “most important” day of his life, but afterward one relative said all he had done was provide them with four pages of statistics and detail, amounting to little new.

The meeting followed a scathing report by ombudsman O’Loan citing police inaction before the bombing, despite two warnings, which, although unspecific and confused, were not followed through, and the subsequent handling of the bomb inquiry.

Gallagher said it had been a very difficult day for the bereaved, who, he said, were “by no means happy” with what they had heard. He said he personally felt disappointed with what he had been told, as Flanagan had told them the police had “done nothing wrong.”

“That’s hard to accept,” he said, adding that a public inquiry might be the only way forward.

Flanagan said the meeting was “not about defending anyone’s personal reputation, or defending the reputation of any organization,” but about giving victim’s relatives information.

“Of course there were minor administrative mistakes made, of course there were errors and of course there were things we could have done better,” he said.

But he added that none of these had led to “any diminution in the prospects of bringing people to justice.”

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