Sinister silence protecting gang behind Omagh bomb
Two "ordinary" criminals from Dundalk, men with records of car theft and burglary but no known serious involvement in republican terrorism, stole the family saloon car which was used to transport the Omagh bomb. The two were recruited by another Dundalk man, in his mid-40s, the leader of the group which has styled itself the "Real IRA".
The decision to use the Dundalk criminals came about because other criminals in Dublin and Co Kildare who had previously been used by the "Real IRA" to steal cars for bombings were, evidently, passing information to the Garda.
The Garda Special Branch had intercepted a series of "Real IRA" bomb runs in the first half of the year including the car bomb, on its way to England, which was stopped at the Dun Laoghaire ferry terminal on April 2nd, the day before the Aintree Grand National.
Evidence given in the case against the driver of that bomb, Larry Keane from Athy, showed he was a common criminal but with family connections to a republican terrorist group dating from the early 1970s. He had agreed to drive the car bomb for £2,000. He is now serving a 15-year sentence.
The "Real IRA" also used members of a Dublin car-stealing ring who worked for a man in Co Kildare, a key figure in the dissident terrorist group. He and about a dozen of the car thieves were questioned by gardai investigating the bombing.
It is understood a number of the thieves, some of whom are drug addicts, admitted stealing cars for the Kildare man, but so far there is not sufficient evidence to implicate him in a serious crime. He remained silent when questioned by gardai.
It is believed the explosives used in the bombing were mixed in Kildare, possibly near the village of Edenderry and then transported to south Armagh, where they were prepared by a number of ex-Provisional IRA members who had transferred their allegiances to the dissident group after the second IRA ceasefire.
The Vauxhall saloon was stolen in Carrickmacross on the Thursday night before the bombing and driven across the Border to Cullaville, where it was delivered to the bombers. At this point the trail, as far the joint RUC-Garda investigations are concerned, goes cold.
There are about 30 or so south Armagh men, some from the Cullaville area, who are suspected of being the bombers, but to date there is not sufficient evidence to charge any of them.
One key suspect, a man in his late 30s who lives near the Border a few miles west of Cullaville, is believed to have been the main organiser in the last stages of the operation. He has long been suspected of being a senior IRA bomb-maker and is capable of devising extremely powerful devices like those the IRA exploded at Canary Wharf in 1996 and the City of London in 1993.
The bomb produced by the men in south Armagh that Friday created the worst single act of violence in Ireland. Only the simultaneous bombing of Dublin and Monaghan by loyalists in May 1994 surpasses the Omagh death toll.
The impact of the bombing on a town like Omagh, with a population of 17,000, compares only with the effect of the Luftwaffe blitz of Belfast in May 1941 in which 745 people died. The equivalent would be the sudden death of around 3,000 people in Dublin.
Despite the magnitude of the death and injury at Omagh, it appears that the perpetrators have not only largely escaped but are considering a renewal of their bombing campaign. Recent intelligence reaching both the RUC and Gardai indicates that the dissident republican element in the Border area between Dundalk and south Armagh is becoming active again.
Bomb parts and two firearms found in Dundalk two weeks ago are believed to have been kept in readiness by the "Real IRA" for a new campaign which, it was believed, was to be launched in the new year.
There is also concern about the intentions of dissident loyalists. While the main dissident loyalist paramilitary group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) declared a ceasefire at the end of the summer and is negotiating the early release of its 30-odd prisoners, a splinter element emerged in recent months and is apparently intent on continuing attacks against Catholics in the North.
This group is understood to have support in north Belfast - where a Catholic man, Brian Service, was shot dead on October 30th - in Portadown and Antrim. There have been disputes between the pro and anti-ceasefire elements in the LVF leading to a number of injuries and arrests and seizures of weapons by the RUC.
Night-time firebomb attacks on Catholic homes in loyalist towns is also continuing despite the deaths of the three Quinn children, Richard, Mark and Jason, in a loyalist firebombing at their home in Ballymoney on July 12th. Since then there have been sporadic attacks in Antrim and north Armagh.
It appears that loyalists who have been mounting the Drumcree protests intend to continue their confrontations until the setpiece annual standoff in July. If there is major trouble at Drumcree next year there is an expectation that there will be a repeat of the attacks on Catholic homes and businesses of 1998.
These concerns aside, however, both the Garda i and RUC appear happy that the ceasefires called by the main paramilitary organisations - the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) - are holding firm.
The volatile republican group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) is understood to have recently met and endorsed its ceasefire declaration of September.
Despite the firmness of the ceasefires, however, there is no sign from any of the main paramilitary groups of an intention to decommission weapons. While most political pressure over this issue has been directed against the IRA, its membership has largely rejected the notion of handing over weapons.
Its recent meetings merely endorsed the continuation of the ceasefire rather than considering moves towards decommissioning.
It is also understood the UDA and UVF memberships have also firmly indicated to their leaders that they do not want, at this point, to hand over weapons.