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Police dismiss Omagh bomb report

JM Thorn

30th January 2002

On the 24th of January Ronnie Flanagan, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), met with the relatives of those who were killed and injured by the Omagh bomb to give his response to the Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan’s report on the investigation of the atrocity.  That report, which had been prompted by the revelations of a police informant known as Kevin Fulton, was highly critical of the RUC investigation.   Flanagan had initially tried to delay its publication.  When this was rejected by the Ombudsman, parts of the report were leaked to the media.  As access to the report was highly restricted, it could only have come from the office of the Chief Constable or the Northern Ireland Office.  The intention of the leak was clearly to spike the report and divert attention away from its findings.  It focused on revelations that the RUC had received two warnings prior to the bombing.

The Ombudsman’s Report

The Ombudsman’s report cast serious doubts on the integrity of the RUC/PSNI investigation.  Despite Flanagan’s claim in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb that  "no stone would be left unturned with no effort spared to bring the culprits to justice", the report shows clearly that the police effort to pursue the perpetrators has been very limited.

As stated earlier, the Ombudsman’s report revealed that the RUC had received two prior warnings about an attack on Omagh. Eleven days before the bomb, an anonymous caller to an RUC station warned of an "unspecified" attack on Omagh being planned for Saturday 15 August 1998.  The caller did not mention a bomb but claimed that a number of people, whom he named, would move weaponry to the town and stage an attack on security forces.  Satisfied that the tip-off could be genuine, the officer who took the call passed the information to both a senior officer and Special Branch.  However, Special Branch officers did not inform the senior police commander for Omagh.  The second warning came from the RUC informant known as Kevin Fulton.  Three days before the bomb he told his police handler that the Real IRA was preparing to 'move something North over the next few days'.  He also told the officer that a named member of the Real IRA, known as "A", had sought to acquire equipment for bomb making. Records kept by the police handler showed that Fulton contacted him again shortly before the bombing to reiterate the information he had supplied.  However, Special Branch claimed that it did not receive any of these documents.

A large part of the Ombudsman’s Report drew on the RUC’s own internal review of the Omagh investigation.  Although conducted between March and November 2000, it remained a secret until leaked through the media, more than a year after completion.  It revealed that the anonymous telephone tip-off was not passed to the investigators; that the bomb car had been allowed to rust in a car park; and that the senior investigating officer was denied access to surveillance videos of south Armagh, the area where the bomb was probably built.   It also revealed that the senior investigating officer and his deputy did not work full-time on the case; that the size of the investigation was reduced after just two months; and that the investigation’s computer system was faulty.

The Ombudsman’s report is particularly scathing about the role of RUC Special Branch in the Omagh investigation.  It revealed that two days after the bomb, Special Branch officers provided the investigation team with "limited intelligence" on five suspects.   While these five were soon eliminated from the inquiry, the report states that the information provided by Kevin Fulton was not subjected to "rigorous analysis in the context of other relevant intelligence within the Special Branch system."  The Ombudsman's team also identified 360 documents held by Special Branch relevant to the Omagh investigation.  Yet 78 per cent of this material was not passed to the investigating team.   The report concludes that some "critical information" was not initially handed to the Ombudsman's team and that senior RUC officers were "defensive and at times uncooperative."

While the Ombudsman’s report highlights the failings of the Omagh bomb investigation it does not explain the reason behind them.  They are merely put down to “defective leadership, poor judgement and lack of urgency” on the part of senior RUC officers.  However, the Report and the history of Special Branch, point towards the failure of the investigation being the result, not of subjective errors of judgement, but rather of a conscious and deliberate policy.  With new revelations almost every week, mostly from former informants and agents, a growing picture is emerging of the role played by RUC Special Branch in the manipulation and direction of both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries.  The most high profile case is the murder of solicitor Pat Finuncane.  William Stobie, the former UDA quartermaster, who was recently on trial for his role in the murder, defended himself on the basis that he was a Special Branch agent at the time and had informed his handlers of what was about to take place.  Unsurprisingly the murder trail collapsed.   A few weeks after the collapse of the trail Stobie himself was murdered by the UDA.

In the same week as the Chief Constable’s response to the Ombudsman’s report it was revealed, at the trial of a police officer in Manchester accused of leaking information to the media, that the RUC Special Branch blocked the arrest of a south Armagh man who was the prime suspect in the IRA’s bomb attack on the city in 1998.  The clear implication of these revelations is that the judicial and legal process is being subverted in order to protect the interests of RUC Special Branch and its agents.  Indeed, the RUC’s own guidelines make clear that Special Branch has responsibility for handling agents, and primacy over detectives responsible for investigating crime.  According to these guidelines: “all planned arrests must be cleared with regional Special Branch to ensure that no agents of either RUC or army are involved.”  They also state that: “It is important to ensure that information provided by the person so recruited is handled in such a way that his value as an agent is not put at risk at an early stage.”  In this context, and based on what has been revealed in other cases, the increasing suspicion is that state agent in the Real IRA played a critical role in the bomb attack on Omagh.  If this is the case then it would explain why the investigation has been so ineffectual.  Because of its potential political impact, there is no way the British judicial and political authorities could allow such information to be revealed in a court.

The Police Response

The PNSI/RUC has completely rejected the findings Ombudsman’s Report.  In his reply, the Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, accused the Ombudsman team of gross “misunderstandings” and of makings unfounded “assumptions” about how the investigation should have been conducted.   He dismissed the significance of prior warnings about an attack, and defended the way Special Branch had dealt with these threats.   "Nothing that happened subsequently calls into question the accuracy of the Special Branch assessment in this case," Flanagan stated.   He sought to cast doubts over the reliability of the two informants who were the source of these warnings.  The anonymous caller was dismissed on the basis that he only made one phone call.  Flanagan  also questioned the credibility of the informer known as Kevin Fulton.   However, he did not explain why this was contradicted by assessments from his own force.  In 1998, CID rated Fulton `A1', meaning he was judged reliable and that senior detectives regarded his information as accurate, and Special Branch rated him `B2', meaning `usually reliable' with his information `believed accurate'.  Also in relation to threats, it was revealed in the same week as the police response, that the book detailing paramilitary threats in 1998 had disappeared from Omagh police station.  When investigators from the Ombudsman’s office requested to view the log in September 2001 they were told it had gone missing.  At the press conference, after his meeting with the Omagh relatives, Flanagan claimed that no book had ever existed for that period.

This wasn’t the only contradiction in the police response.   The second major area was the failure of the police to arrest any suspects.   Flanagan denied that the man known as 'A' in the Ombudsman’s report, had ever been a firm suspect, or an agent of the intelligence services.   He also claimed that  `A' could not easily be detained.   This is despite that fact that `A' regularly visits Newry where he moves about openly.

Along with its findings the police also rejected all the recommendations of the Ombudsman’s report.  The most significant of these was the call for an officer from outside the PSNI/RUC to take over the investigation.  Instead Flanagan announced that he would ask an unnamed officer from Merseyside police to play an advisory role.  The response from the Chief Constable amounted to an assertion of the absolute right of the RUC to control the Omagh investigation.  Any notion that the police should be accountable to, or take directions from, any other body was firmly rejected.

Not surprisingly Flanagan’s response failed the satisfy many of the concerns of the Omagh relatives.  One of their major complaints was about the secrecy that surrounds both the Chief Constable’s and Ombudsman’s reports.   Despite the coverage they have received, neither of the reports has actually been made public.  Only brief summaries of each report have been published.  Despite being the people most immediately affected by the Omagh bomb the relatives have also been denied access to the reports.  Only the police, the government and members of the Policing Board have the right to view the reports in full.  What additional information has been revealed has come in the from of selective leaks to the media, the source for much of which has been the Chief Constable’s office.  Flanagan's document was leaked to selected media in advance of publication, as happened with the Ombudsman's report.  Des Doherty, the solicitor acting for Lawrence Rush, whose wife was killed in the bomb, stated that his client believed  “the leaking of the two reports emanated from the police.”   He added:  "this only served to undermine Mrs O'Loan. It seems the RUC, and the PSNI as they now are, are not prepared to accept any criticism."  The leaks allowed Flanagan to criticise aspects of the Ombudsman's report, and put his own spin on its conclusions before the report was published.  His reply to the Ombudsman's report was in the hands of BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight team several days before its official release on Thursday. This was long enough for Spotlight to put together a programme setting out Flanagan's side of the story.

The relatives were also unconvinced by the content of Flanagan’s response. Many of them remained ‘unhappy’ and ‘disappointed’ despite a five-hour meeting with the Chief Constable.  They were particularly disturbed by his refusal to concede that there were any major flaws in the investigation.  The tenor of the relatives meeting with Flanagan was summed up by Michael Gallagher: “We are by no means happy with what we heard  . . . He basically said that the police had lost a few papers, which didn’t really matter anyway”.

It has been reported that some victims’ relatives have considered withdrawing support from the police investigation.   They are currently calling for a public inquiry into the Omagh bombing and its investigation, and are pursuing a civil action against those they believe are responsible.  While these actions could prejudice a future trial, the fact they have initiated them shows that the relatives have no confidence that a case against the Omagh bombers will ever come to court.

The Political Response

The call for a public inquiry has received little political support.  In the wake of the Chief Constable’s response, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble went on the attack.  Addressing the East Antrim Unionist Association he claimed that : "the Chief Constable has demolished the argument that intelligence was mishandled and the Ombudsman's implication that somehow the RUC could have prevented Omagh."  He went to call for the downgrading of the Ombudsman’s office, callings for its powers of investigation to be transferred to the Policing Board -  "The efficiency and effectiveness of the Police Service is the Policing Board's proper concern, not the Ombudsman's."  In effect, Trimble was calling for the abolition of the office of Police Ombudsman.  If its not there to scrutinise the police then what is its purpose?  Of course this is coming from the man who is supposed to be the leader of pro-Agreement unionism, the First Minister whose duty it is to defend the integrity of the institutions created by the Good Friday agreement.  Now he is calling for one of its key elements to be abandoned!  This position was backed up by all unionists whether they styled themselves anti or pro agreement.  It was also backed up by senior police officers.   The Police Superintendents Association called for a watchdog to be established to monitor the Ombudsman's office! Its president, Mr Bill Lowry, said confidence in Nuala O’Loan was being eroded -  "If this is an indication of the standard of her investigations, then it doesn't give me much confidence".  She had dared to criticise the police and for that she must go.

Ironically the party faced with the greatest dilemma is the SDLP.  It had endorsed the new policing arrangements, and joined the Policing Board on the basis that real reform of policing was under way.  Now they have been presented with a Report, coupled with a furious reaction from unionists and the leadership of the police, that shows that this is not the case.  If, as the SDLP has maintained for many years, policing goes to the heart of the peace process then the Ombudsman Report is not only a condemnation of the police but of the peace process itself.  How can it be maintained that the Northern Ireland state is being reformed if the police, one of the central pillars of that state, cannot be trusted to carry out an investigation into the worst single atrocity of the ‘troubles’?  For supporters of the peace process the answer is unpalatable.

The only response they can give to these questions is a dishonest one.   This was epitomised by the SDLP’s representative on the Policing Board, Alex Attwood.  He claimed that in his response the Chief Constable had  “begun to respond to the six recommendations of the Police Ombudsman’s Report”.  The reality was that he had forcefully rejected all her recommendations.   Rather than being a search for truth, the controversy surrounding the Omagh bomb investigation is reduced to finding “an agreed means out of the current disagreements”.  Clearly the SDLP is not going to pursue this issue.  Neither are Sinn Fein.  Although they may seek to gain some political advantage in the short term, like the SDLP they are wholly bound up with the peace process, and are not going to take a position that could destabilise it.  Ultimately they will join the Policing Board, and endorse the new police service.  Sinn Fein will not seriously pursue the Omagh bomb issue if it raises a barrier to this.  It is therefore in the interests of all the participants in the peace process, unionists, nationalists, republicans, the British and Irish governments, to neutralise this issue.

Those who are seeking the truth over the Omagh bombing and the subsequent investigation therefore find themselves ranged against powerful forces.  Yet, it is an issue that is not going to go away.  Its pursuit is likely to throw up more revelations that expose the reality of the peace process.



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