Special Branch failures hampered Omagh police

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The Independent Online

The following are are edited extracts from the report on the Omagh bombing by Nuala O'Loan, the Northern Ireland police ombudsman

The call

On 4 August 1998, 11 days before the bombing, the RUC received a telephone call warning that there would be an "unspecified" terrorist attack on police in Omagh on 15 August.

The anonymous caller named two people, C and D, saying they were to bring in AK47 rifles and two rocket launchers on a given date for the Continuity Irish Republican Army. He gave a nickname for a third individual, E, who was intending to bring the weapons across the border, stating the address to which the weapons would be taken, naming a further party who resided there and stating they would be used in an attack on police in Omagh.

The response

The officer who took the call was convinced it was genuine. He met the Detective Chief Inspector who accompanied him to the offices of Special Branch and passed on the message. Special Branch did not send a threat warning to the Sub- Divisional Commander Omagh, as required by a Force Order.

Special Branch told the Omagh officer C and D were "only smugglers".It was inappropriate to suggest that just because someone was a smuggler, it was unlikely that they would be involved in terrorism.

The RUC has confirmed that whichever organisation claimed responsibility for a republican dissident incident, they were all to be considered part of the Real IRA. The Police ombudsman's office does not therefore accept comments by the Chief Constable that the anonymous intelligence related to the Continuity IRA and not to the Real IRA.

Anonymous information has a considerable part to play in solving crime. The RUC made five arrests for murder and two for attempted murder based on anonymous information during 2000. It is accepted that the RUC would have received hundreds (or more) of anonymous telephone calls each year. However, the call was not a typical anonymous call. The caller provided considerable information.

The named men

Although Special Branch told the Omagh officer that the persons named in the call were "only smugglers", it has been established by the police ombudsman's investigators that D had been associated with republican terrorists in the year before the Omagh bombing.

The ombudsman's investigators discovered strong indications for a possible identity of E who had significant involvement with republican terrorist activity. There were sufficient grounds for more detailed inquiries to have been made rather than the immediate rejection which occurred.

The informer

Three days before the bombing of Omagh the RUC also received information from a "reliable" informant known as Kevin Fulton, which indicated that terrorists were about to "move something north over the next few days".

Between 6 and 8 June 1998 Fulton met his handler, a CID officer, and gave information regarding A who lived in the Republic of Ireland and was involved with the Real IRA. Fulton said that A had been seeking to obtain coffee grinders (sometimes used in the making of bombs). During a meeting on 23 July 1998 Fulton said that at one time A smelt of fertiliser (the suggestion being that he had been making bombs). During a meeting on 12 August 1998, three days before the Omagh bombing, Fulton said the Real IRA was about to make the move north.

A was a dissident republican and had possible involvement in other significant terrorist activities over a long period of time. Records for the meeting with Fulton on 12 August 1998, three days before the Omagh bomb, and for the meeting with him on 23 July 1998 cannot be found within Special Branch.

Special Branch states that it has never received these highly important documents. The police ombudsman's office is satisfied that the intelligence was given to Special Branch. The fact that Special Branch states that it never received these documents represents, at the very least, a very serious breakdown in communication.

Preventing the bombing

It will never be known whether or not the bombing of Omagh could have been prevented.

The RUC's review

A review of the RUC investigation was commenced in March 2000. The review contained an intelligence chapter, which was not initially made available to the police ombudsman's investigators and highlights significant and fundamental errors within the investigation.

Many evidential opportunities had been missed. The review report states that, when found, the anonymous information was marked as "Intelligence does not refer to Omagh". No lines of inquiry had been undertaken by the Omagh bomb investigation team relating to the information. The reviewing officer identified delays of a year before follow-up actions were initiated on statements obtained.

The senior investigation officer was refused access to some Army and Special Branch videos, which hampered lines of inquiry.

From very soon after the bombing, neither the senior investigating officer nor deputy senior investigating officer were on the inquiry full-time. Around two months after the bombing substantial resources were removed from the investigation and further cuts in staff were to follow.

There were many failures in the management and leadership of the Omagh bomb investigation. There were considerable errors in the management of the investigative computer database.

The information received between June and August 1998 has only recently been passed to the team investigating the Omagh bomb. This has deprived the team of significant lines of inquiry which could have emerged from considering this information in the light of other information available at the time.

The police ombudsman has concerns on the management and dissemination of intelligence by Special Branch. The police ombudsman's office has identified 360 intelligence documents within Special Branch which may have been of varying degrees of relevance to the Omagh bomb investigation. Seventy-eight per cent of these intelligence documents held by Special Branch have not been passed to the Omagh bomb investigation team.

Ombudsman's investigation

Special Branch and the Chief Constable were reluctant to grant access to their material to police ombudsman's investigators and failed to inform those investigators of a computer system where intelligence, vital to the investigation, was held.