Omagh bombing ‘could have been prevented’, says former police ombudsman

Relatives marking 20 years since the August 1998 dissident republican blast

The North's former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O'Loan has stated her "firm" belief that the Omagh bombing could have been prevented.

Ms O’Loan on the twentieth anniversary of the Real IRA attack, which claimed the lives of 29 people and a woman pregnant with unborn twin girls, said she now believed the bombing could have been thwarted.

“It is now my very firm view that the bomb could have been prevented,” she said on Wednesday when supporting the calls of some of the Omagh families for a public inquiry into the bombing.

The PSNI chief constable George Hamilton in an immediate response described Ms O'Loan's comments as "bizarre" and as serving to cause further trauma to the Omagh families.


Ms O’Loan in her initial report into the August 15th, 1998 atrocity, which was critical of how intelligence was handled ahead of the attack, said she did not know whether the bombing could have been prevented. But it was now her “firm view” it could have been stopped, she told the BBC.

“That is a terrible thing to say on the anniversary of an event in which 29 people and two little unborn babies died,” she said.

“But I think it is the view of most of the families to whom I spoke when I published my report. There was sufficient intelligence to take action,” she said.

“The taking of that action could have prevented the bomb from exploding.”

“This wasn’t just a random bomb. The police knew an awful lot about the activities of the IRA in this area,” she said.

Ms O'Loan was critical of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and how intelligence about the Real IRA was handled in her 2001 report into the bombing but she did not find that the bombing could have been prevented.

On August 4th, 1998, 11 days before the attack, the RUC received an anonymous phone call about an “unspecified” attack on police in Omagh planned for August 15th.

In her 2001 report, Ms O’Loan found that the RUC special branch took only limited action on the information and that the warning was not sent to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh.

On Wednesday Ms O’Loan said “had the various intelligence services worked in a more cohesive way and had the necessary action been taken by senior officers in (the RUC) special branch then the information about the attack” could have been conveyed to the police sub-divisional commander in Omagh.

"He could have just set up checkpoints around the town and the affect of that could have been to drive the bombers to abandon their bomb," she told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme.

But very shortly afterwards the PSNI chief constable George Hamilton, who also served in the RUC, went on BBC's Stephen Nolan programme to reject Baroness's O'Loan's conviction.

“I find it bizarre that 20 years on when our thoughts should be with the families, and trying to support them, that assertions like this based on no new information is being brought into the public debate,” said Mr Hamilton.

“Today should be one about sympathy and empathy for the families, not about traumatising them further by telling them this could have been prevented,” he added.

“My understanding from all of my involvement in Omagh over the past 20 years is that there is nothing that we could have done to have prevented that horrible atrocity,” Mr Hamilton said.

The chief constable added, “I have accepted, I have conceded, I have apologised that immediately post event there were things we could have done better in terms of the quality of the investigation, the dissemination of intelligence to investigators - all of that, and that is an uncomfortable place to be - but on this fundamental point about whether or not we were sitting on information and didn’t disclose it, or didn’t use it to prevent the atrocity, that is not something that I as leader of this organisation am prepared to accept.”

Mr Hamilton referred to how around the time of Omagh the Real IRA carried out bomb attacks in towns such as Banbridge, Portadown and Moira. "There was no obvious reason why Omagh should be attacked and that was the assessment at the time made in good faith," he said.

Mr Hamilton said the information received on August 4th based on assessment was not sufficiently specific as to lead to checkpoints being set up around the town.

Kevin Skelton, whose wife Philomena was killed in the attack said Ms O'Loan's comments do not "make any difference".

“Telling us now that the bomb could have been prevented is a bit late. It should have been prevented at the time. It won’t bring my wife back,” he said.


Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times