Every year since the tragic event at Omagh the victims’ families commemorate their loved ones with on-going calls for an independent inquiry into the attack that took place on the 15th August 1998. Although both the British and Irish governments made many promises, 14 years later the families are still seeking a public inquiry.
On Monday 18th June 2012, a group representing some of the bereaved Omagh families presented Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Patterson with a specially commissioned report claiming that the atrocity could have been prevented by both governments. After the meeting, a spokesperson for the families in a delicately veiled threat called on both governments to respond positively or face a court challenge. The relatives also told the waiting media “we have brought together all available evidence on the case and showed where the authorities on both sides of the border could have prevented the bomb attack on Omagh.”
The report was commissioned from a group of London-based-consultants and is said to contain ‘fresh information’ on the Omagh bombing. There are some issues surrounding the report that are questionable and it would be in the public interest to know exactly who financed the commissioning of the report. One month after their meeting with Mr Patterson the relatives met with Dublin’s Justice Minister Alan Shatter on 19 July 2012 and presented him with the ‘new report’. The families informed Mr Shatter about ‘new issues’ which they said were not previously made known to the families or the RUC. The families spoke to the media after the meeting and said “…the Minister agreed that we raised some issues of a very serious nature and that he would need to consider the detail…” (Irish Times 20 July 2012).
However, it’s unlikely that anything new is contained in the report. It is highly probable that the content of the report is merely a repeat of the old evidence in a different format. The group also hope to meet the Stormont Minister Mr David Ford and PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggot at a joint meeting to discuss the ‘new information’. Since the bomb attack in 1998 various annual events have taken place to commemorate the tragic events with one common theme evident “cover-up and denial of the truth by both governments [British and Irish]”.
It is now being alleged that some significant detail has been made available that would shed new light on the previous investigation. When launching details of the ‘newly commissioned report’ the families gave the impression that they had uncovered ‘new information’ that would show where the Irish and British authorities were in possession of vital information on the involvement of state agents who were active on the day of the attack. However, the sketchy detail outlined through the media briefings would not appear to reveal anything that has not already been said to date. All indications point to another publicity stunt with a report containing innuendo and nothing of substance. During the 2008 Omagh civil case there were continuous suggestions that the intelligence services [Irish and British] withheld vital intelligence reports to protect state agents and informers from exposure. The defendants in the case continually complained that they were denied full disclosure from the intelligence services. If the families are now in possession of new evidence they should make it known immediately.
In the past they were never shy about briefing the media on issues without anything other than insinuation accompanied by various names leaked to them by the intelligence services and a discredited police force. To date the court cases which took place against a few individuals in the Omagh case would not inspire confidence in the judicial system. Some of the cases collapsed and even the civil case (which has a lower standard of proof needed) was far from convincing in its finds. Within 2 weeks of the revelation by the families, Mr Owen Patterson replied (through the media) and said that “…the perpetrators should be tried and convicted…” he also indicated that he ‘might’ order an inquiry into the attack. However, Mr Patterson’s reply was cosmetic and hallow, similar to that of his predecessors. In fact, it could be seen as a deflection from the families claim that the security services on both sides of the border could have prevented the attack and didn’t.
It is evident throughout the civil case that state informers played a major role in supplying intelligence of an attack on the town of Omagh. An active RUC informer (Fulton) supplied intelligence to the police (RUC), a car thief (Dixon) supplied prior intelligence to the Irish police, and a US informant (Rupert) supplied intelligence to MI5, to the FBI and to the Irish police. There were also claims that Rupert visited Omagh before the attack. Each strand of the intelligence supplied left no doubt that Omagh was being targeted. It also emerged that a tracking device had been placed on at least one of the vehicles that travelled to Omagh on the day. Allegedly, that car was tracked on its journey by a US satellite. Those are some of the facts that emerged prior to and during the Omagh civil hearing and it would leave no doubt that the security services had prior knowledge of an attack on the town. It also emerged during the civil hearing that some of the police (RUC) files relating to the Omagh investigation mysteriously went missing. The files have never been recovered or an explanation forthcoming (to date).
The police Ombudsman’s report into the attack was critical of the RUC investigation and concluded that they ignored warnings from agents that an attack on the town was imminent. The report was published prior to the civil hearing, which further substantiated the allegation that the authorities had prior knowledge of an attack. Mr Michael Gallagher suggests that the latest report reveals detail on how the RUC had been deprived of the ‘newly uncovered information’ but he refuses to elaborate further than that.
At the opening of the civil case in Belfast one family member was authorised to speak to the assembled media, Mr Kevin Skelton revealed ‘…Since the bombing, the British and Irish governments had been more concerned about covering up what took place rather than trying to resolve it…’ Skelton also revealed that he had been informed by senior security sources that, if the truth ever came out it would end the careers for many people in the north and south of Ireland. Interestingly, Mr Skelton’s outburst was never challenged, neither did he reveal the information he had been given by his source. In the immediate aftermath of the civil case Michael Gallagher wasted no time in calling on both governments to have a public inquiry, which he said was the only vehicle that could establish the truth. His comments at the time would clearly suggest that he was not convinced that the civil case had established the full facts surrounding the attack.
The comments from both spokespersons before and after the civil case left no doubt that vital information was withheld in the civil case. Therefore, this would clearly suggest that the judge hearing the civil case was not in possession of the full facts in the case! I have written many articles on the Omagh inquiry including the civil case and I have never been convinced that the civil hearing bore anything even close to being open, fair or transparent.
At the conclusion of the hearing the only conclusion open was that it was a mere deflection and a cover-up of the truth. Most observers believe that the British authorities manipulated, influenced, and directed some of the bereaved families; they even financed them in the civil case. The families made some mistakes in allowing themselves to be used by the authorities. Some believe that they should have stayed independent as it would have assisted them in exposing the truth. As a result, they must now take some responsibility of inadvertently assisting in the cover-up. By having full control of the events, the British were able to conceal the role of their agents and by extension their own involvement. The Irish authorities are also culpable in the cover-up, similar to that of the British, nothing short of a mirror image.
Many legal observers in the North of Ireland say that the findings from the civil case was nothing more than an embarrassment for the judicial system in Belfast. After 14 years it is difficult to see how the truth will come out through an inquiry, the opportunity has already been lost for the present. Opening up the truth would still expose too many with too much to lose.
A number of the bereaved families must also bear some responsibility by being misdirected and blinded with naivety, revenge, and understandably, anger. Maybe, it is now time for Mr Gallagher and Mr Skelton to come forward and reveal the dark secrets that they have in their possession all these years, if indeed they have any. If they are in possession of intelligence details, which has not been disclosed, they should publicly spell out the details and the evidence they believe remains in the archives of the Irish and British security services.
In the public interest, it is vital that the information is opened up without any further delay. Perhaps in the years ahead an inquiry will eventually take place when those who withheld the truth are no longer in a position to keep the files sealed. However, by then the embarrassment and public outrage will be diminished with time.