December12-18, 2001 By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — Relatives of the 29 people killed in the 1998 Omagh bombing are demanding a public inquiry into the police handling of information received before the explosion and the later RUC investigation.
The information was uncovered during the investigation by the Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan. Parts of her report, due to be submitted to the chief constable and the Policing Board on Wednesday, Dec. 12, were leaked last Friday. The leaks concern two phoned warnings before the bombing on Aug. 15, 1998 and a list of mistakes in the subsequent police investigation.
Several relatives said they would press for meetings with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, seeking a public inquiry.
Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son, Aidan, died in the blast, said: “The families deserve the truth. There is no question that the terrorists who carried out the bombing are those who shoulder the blame. But we pay others to try to stop them, and to catch them. We expect certain standards and certain procedures in police work and it appears they blundered massively.”
The first warning, the leaked report says, came 11 days before the attack, but allegedly referred to plans the Continuity IRA had for moving rifles and grenade launchers into Northern Ireland for an attack on Omagh police station on Aug. 15.
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An informer using the name of Kevin Fulton allegedly passed on the second warning, which came just days before the bombing. He reportedly refers to a known member of the RIRA making a bomb for an attack somewhere in Northern Ireland.
The revelations have led Sinn Fein’s Pat Doherty to claim a “cover up” and that the RUC failed to act in order to protect a top informer within the Real IRA. The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, has denied this. He has stated that the warnings could not have been prevented the attack, since the first was inaccurate and the second too vague. Flanagan, who received a confidential copy of a draft of the report 12 days ago, has castigated it as factually inaccurate, full of misunderstandings and omissions.
But Doherty has used the controversy to accuse the Special Branch and MI5 (a branch of the British secret service) of operating a murder campaign against republicans. It has reinforced Sinn Fein’s calls for the Special Branch to be disbanded.
Some relatives are angry at allegations that the RUC Special Branch may deliberately not have passed on warnings to local police in Omagh, who could have mounted extra roadblocks and patrols to prevent the bombing.
Des Doherty, a lawyer for Lawrence Rush, who lost his wife, Libby, said: “Mr. Rush strongly believes someone, somewhere has a bigger interest in not seeing prosecutions being brought which might affect some informer. It is a very murky and dangerous world.”
The report will say that the detective constable who took the call at Omagh police station on Aug. 4 reported it to a senior colleague. Special Branch was informed. However, Special Branch allegedly dismissed the information as unreliable because those named were ordinary criminals with no links to CIRA. The local police subdivisional commander in Omagh was not alerted.
The report also says that although the police rated “Fulton’s” tip-offs as top-grade at the time, Special Branch did not question the people named in connection with the Omagh massacre.
John Reid, Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, has condemned the leaking of the report, saying it was grossly unfair to the families and the police. He has also backed the police assessment of the two initial warnings.
“There was no warning that there would be a bomb in Omagh,” he said.
Unionists have called for O’Loan’s resignation. Former Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis, now Lord Drumglass, likened O’Loan to a “suicide bomber” blundering through the police community with little understanding for the intricacies of intelligence work.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, PSNI faced another crisis when a Sinn Fein Youth demonstration in South Armagh, aimed at pulling down two observation towers, turned ugly. Twenty-two officers were injured and two soldiers, one of whom was seriously burned by a petrol bomb. Sinn Fein claimed that the confrontation was spontaneous. But two of those arrested were from Belfast and the police say that the demonstrators were bused from place to place.