RUC unwilling to charge named Omagh suspects

Lack of criminal proceedings against men revealed in film was because of wariness over 'laws that shifted burden of proof'
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The lack of charges brought in Northern Ireland against suspects for the Omagh bombing is partly due to a reluctance to use the sweeping new laws rushed through after the attack, legal sources say.

The lack of charges brought in Northern Ireland against suspects for the Omagh bombing is partly due to a reluctance to use the sweeping new laws rushed through after the attack, legal sources say.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the judiciary are believed to have reservations about employing the laws. Westminster and the Dail in Dublin were recalled from recess to push the new measures through within weeks.

The laws allow a prosecution to include a declaration in court by a senior RUC officer that an accused was a member of an illegal organisation, such as the Real IRA. This was to be used in particular against suspects who remained silent, with a court allowed to draw inferences of guilt. The RUC is said to believe convictions obtained with heavy reliance on the word of one of its officers asserting guilt would generate considerable political controversy.

The Northern Ireland judiciary is also thought to have reservations about the legislation, which has been criticised for shifting the burden of proof from the prosecution to the accused. A senior judge is reported to have said privately: "Have these people never heard of the presumption of innocence?"

The revelations came in the wake of the BBC Panorama programme that named four men living south of the border as having questions to answer about the Omagh bomb, which killed 29 people in 1998. The programme named and pictured the men and their homes. Although most relatives of victims appear to back the programme, some believed it might help guilty men escape justice.

Lawrence Rush, whose wife was killed, said he was disgusted. "The proper place for justice is a court room and not a TV screen. Are we going to let these people away? This is what we're doing. They cannot be tried in any court of law because their case has been prejudiced."

Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Adrian was killed, said: "I was glad it went ahead. Some of the families are getting together to talk about the possibility of civil action. It might be another way to get information into the public domain and we expect the police would provide whatever help they could for any future private prosecution."

A Northern Ireland judge, Mr Justice Kerr, refused an application to stop the programme being shown, saying there was no reason to suppose criminal proceedings would be prevented. Those who backed the showing included the Secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson. He said: "The programme was very powerful, a very professional piece of work, which above all never lost sight of the people who should be most in our thoughts today, that is the victims and their families."

But a contrary view came from Dublin. The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said: "Bandying around names on television programmes won't help the victims. The legal people say it could well hinder them."

Unusually, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, found themselves in agreement on the issue, albeit for different reasons.

Mr Trimble said: "I have very grave doubts about the wisdom of that programme. It's the case with regard to so many terrorist atrocities in Northern Ireland that identities are known. Is it wise to broadcast that? I would hope it would not prejudice any trial."

Mr Adams said he did not see the programme, but added: "I am against the naming of people involved for all sorts of reasons, not least because those who we know were involved in the killings on Bloody Sunday have been granted anonymity in the courts."

Police on both sides of the border know the names of every person who helped commit the Omagh bombing. In Dundalk, base of the Real IRA, they say: "Even the dogs in the street know who they are."

The findings of the investigation into the worst atrocity in 30 years in Northern Ireland had been widely disseminated to journalists, who have refrained from naming men questioned over the Omagh bomb.

The lack of hard evidence has prevented charges being brought. The naming of four possible suspects by Panorama has now brought into focus the bombing, which killed 29 people and unborn twins, and the frustrated police inquiry that followed.

All four men - Colm Murphy, Liam Campbell, Seamus Daly and Oliver Traynor - had been questioned. Most "evidence" on which police have been challengedis based on mobile phone calls on the day of the bombing, relayed on masts on the route taken by a red Cavalier car carrying the 500lb bomb and a car scouting ahead.