Intelligence on Omagh withheld by Special Branch officers

Maguire says full disclosure would not have prevented the ‘Real IRA’ bombing

The aftermath of the  bombing in  Omagh, as  a new probe finds that police intelligence officers withheld  information from detectives investigating the incident. Photo: PA

The aftermath of the bombing in Omagh, as a new probe finds that police intelligence officers withheld information from detectives investigating the incident. Photo: PA

 

RUC Special Branch officers withheld intelligence from detectives investigating the Omagh bombing in 1998, a report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has found.

The report, by Dr Michael Maguire, concluded that the failure to pass on telephone numbers obtained through the UK Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) would not have prevented the Real IRA bombing. However, the effect was that, at a key point in the investigation, police resources had been diverted to gathering material the authorities already held.

“The consequence was that the police investigation was required to invest substantial resources in analysing related records, resources that might well have been better utilised at that early stage of the inquiry,” Dr Maguire said.

Twenty-nine people, including a woman pregnant with twins, died when the 500lb car bomb exploded in the centre of the Co Tyrone market town on August 15th, 1998. To date, no one has been convicted in relation to the bombing, the deadliest single atrocity of the Troubles.

Interpretation of Law

Dr Maguire said the RUC Special Branch had not provided the intelligence because of its interpretation of the law at that time: “I am satisfied that this action was a result of the interpretation by Special Branch of both the ‘strict conditions imposed by GCHQ’ on the RUC and the legislative framework that prevailed at that time and which, for all intents and purposes, is still in place albeit in a different legislative form.”

The ombudsman’s office began an inquiry after a report by a group of MPs outlined remaining questions surrounding the bombing. In March 2010, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee called for a new investigation into whether intelligence relating to those suspected of the bombing had been passed on to detectives investigating it and, if not, why not.

In January 2009, Sir Peter Gibson, who led a government review of intelligence matters related to the bombing, published his report, saying Special Branch had acted cautiously in providing material to the team investigating the bombing. Investigators from the ombudsman’s office spoke to a range of witnesses, including Gibson, serving and retired police officers and officials from other agencies. They also looked at a substantial amount of intelligence and investigative material.

‘Unfettered access’

“I believe we had unfettered and unrestricted access to all the relevant documentation held by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, ” said Dr Maguire.

Like a previous report by the ombudsman’s office, in viewing this particular material Dr Maguire also found no evidence police had information which, if acted upon, could have prevented the bombing.

He said Special Branch provided detectives with details of public telephone kiosks from which the bomb warning calls had been made as well as the identities of five early suspects, leading to prompt arrests. However, telephone numbers were not passed on.

Dr Maguire concluded that Special Branch had acted “cautiously” in not disclosing all the intelligence available to the team investigating the bombing. “The view held by the relevant police officers was a reasonable one in the circumstances,” he added.

In 2001, former ombudsman Nuala O’Loan carried out a report into police handling of warnings received from an informer. She concluded that they would not have been enough to stop the bombing but that checkpoints could have been erected around the town if police had reacted to a separate anonymous caller about a planned gun attack.