News - December 2001


7th Dec '01

A major investigation has revealed that the RUC had information about a planned attack in Omagh 11 days before the 1998 bombing which left 29 dead. (See: Red Action news archive 'Understanding the peace process'.)

The findings are contained in a draft report by the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland. The report found that:

*two months after the attack the highest ranking officer involved in the investigation was - a police sergeant.

*by that time the murder inquiry team had been reduced by almost half.

*RUC Special Branch, who were aware of the tip-off, were described as almost "obstructive" by the police ombudsman.

* the bomb-maker was himself a Special Branch agent

Among other things, it found that RUC Special Branch had been warned about a planned attack on 15 August - the day of the atrocity - but that information was not passed to police officers on the ground.

The damaging report says that had the information been passed on and security checkpoints been put in place, the bombers may have been deterred.

The Omagh bombing - later admitted to by dissident republican group the Real IRA - was the worst single incident in the 30 years of the Troubles.

The ombudsman's report is now with the chief constable and Northern Ireland Secretary.

The ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, began to examine police intelligence on the Omagh attack after an informant claimed in two newspapers that he had passed on information about a bomb being made by republican dissidents. But he did not mention Omagh.

One of those papers - the Sunday People - claimed that no action had been taken because the bomb maker, named as Kevin Fulton, was also a police agent.

In response to the allegations, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said the report "contains so many significant factual inaccuracies, unwarranted assumptions, misunderstandings and material omissions that a request has been made to the ombudsman's office for a reasonable period of time to respond in detail with what we see as the serious deficiencies in this report."

A statement added the service "absolutely rejects that either information provided by an agent code named Fulton or an anonymous call on 4 August 1998 could have led to the prevention of the atrocity".

It said its "primary consideration" was "the feelings of the bereaved families and victims of the Omagh atrocity".

The ombudsman's investigators discovered there had been another warning to the police.

On 4 August, a detective constable in Omagh had spoken to an anonymous caller for over 10 minutes and had been told of a planned attack in the town on 15 August.

He passed that information to special branch, but they did not alert officers on the ground.

The ombudsman's draft report is understood to be scathing in its criticism of how this information was handled, both before and after the bombing.

The report, however, does not go as far as saying the bombing could have been prevented.

It is understood to make serious criticisms of how intelligence information was handled by the police. It says:

The system failed when it came to the handling of intelligence. This had deprived the murder investigation team of "important investigative and evidential opportunities"

The arrangements for the interchange of information between officers were "totally unsatisfactory"

The detective constable who took the call in Omagh on 4 August was blameless.

The report says information about the 4 August warning was found in a special branch file marked: "Intelligence does not refer to Omagh".

The ombudsman describes this as a "significant error" and as "inexplicable and inexcusable".

It should have formed "significant lines of enquiry" for the murder investigation team.

The 4 August warning received in Omagh came at a time of growing dissident IRA activity.

Security assessments had pointed to co-operation between the various dissident groups.

Just three days before that warning, 35 people had been injured in a car bombing in Banbridge, County Down, again on a Saturday.

The ombudsman's investigators are aware that the anonymous warning received on 4 August referred to the Continuity IRA and not the Real IRA which left the Omagh bomb.

It has also emerged that within two months of the Omagh attack, the size of the murder investigation team had been reduced by 40%, and that the most senior officer working full-time on the inquiry was at the rank of sergeant.

But the main criticisms are about the practices of RUC Special Branch, both in how it treated colleagues and its response to the ombudsman's investigation - described as being "close to obstructive".