David McKittrick: Police response to Omagh criticisms is impressive but not conclusive

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The Independent Online

The general judgement on yesterday's Police Service of Northern Ireland response to criticisms of the Omagh bomb investigation may well be that it is impressive but not conclusive.

The ombudsman's report which ignited this controversy was both detailed and scathing, with Nuala O'Loan's moral indignation strongly shining through. It set out a formidable case, essentially accusing the police of being both incompetent and over-secretive.

The book-length response produced by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Northern Ireland's Chief Constable, is also formidable, attacking the ombudsman practically line by line on facts, interpretations and indeed on her basic grasp of policework.

If Mrs O'Loan is correct, senior officers are guilty of a shocking failure of leadership. If Sir Ronnie is right, Mrs O'Loan got almost everything badly wrong, is incompetent and way out of her depth.

Each has now fired a broadside. Mrs O'Loan's report was a striking one, establishing a strong prima facie case against the conduct of the investigation. The police rejoinder is equally striking, containing such a mass of detail that readers will take days to absorb it all.

It too has an indignant tone. The Flanagan response takes on each O'Loan criticism, often in intricate detail, presenting the Omagh investigation and the police response to the ombudsman's inquiry in a completely different light.

This means two versions are now in the public domain. The police presentation is the longer and more detailed, yet the first impression is that while it presents a strong case it does not include a knockout punch capable of flooring the O'Loan thesis.

This means the two competing versions will both be regarded as credible, which means the controversy is bound to continue. In effect, both a prosecution case and a defence have been presented, but the jury is still out.

First to pass judgement yesterday were the relatives of the dead, whose continued suffering means their views of the two versions will obviously be influenced by deep emotions.

They are locked in a nightmare in which they believe the loss of their loved ones has been compounded by a lack of convictions, and thus a denial of justice. Since this controversy will run on for years, they face many further ordeals.

Although so much information has been released to the public, not all relevant material has been produced. The most important unpublished material is probably an internal review of the Omagh investigation carried out by a senior policeman.

The fact that this produced almost 300 recommendations suggests that its author had significant misgivings about the investigation. Publication might therefore indicate whether he tended more towards the Flanagan or O'Loan versions of events.

A copy of this report has been requested by the Police Board, the new committee set up through the Good Friday Agreement to oversee policing. The board includes representatives from most of the major political parties, Sinn Fein excepted, which means that the Omagh question is guaranteed to remain prominent.