Police chief fails to soothe Omagh relatives' anger

Relatives of the Omagh dead yesterday rejected personal assurances from Northern Ireland Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan that the police investigation into the 29 murders had been properly handled.

They left a tense five-hour meeting with Sir Ronnie unconvinced of his force's record, one saying he was "bitterly disappointed" that nothing new had been offered.

They were unimpressed by a spirited and detailed attack by Sir Ronnie on the Police Ombudsman's claim that his force had shown "defective leadership and poor judgment". Only one person has been convicted in relation to the 29 killings which took place in the Co Tyrone town in 1998.

The Chief Constable went on the offensive against Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, accusing her of a grave injustice to police officers as well as causing "deep and unwarranted distress" to the families of those killed.

Mrs O'Loan last night strongly defended her report against his criticisms, calling for rigorous investigative procedures. Sir Ronnie has turned down most of a series of recommendations she made in her report.

In a lengthy response to Mrs O'Loan's strictures, published yesterday, he argued that the only mistakes made in the investigation had been few and largely inconsequential.

In a scathing critique of her report he maintained: "The errors, inaccuracies and misunderstandings it contains have seriously distorted the facts about the events surrounding the Omagh Bomb and its investigation."

He defended his Special Branch and rejected suggestions that the bombing could have been prevented had officers acted differently, dismissing the Ombudsman's work as "inaccurate and error-ridden".

Following a difficult meeting with Sir Ronnie in Omagh yesterday relatives voiced criticisms. Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Aidan in the bombing, said: "We're bitterly disappointed at what we heard today. It's not good enough to make some cosmetic changes."

Referring to Sir Ronnie's rejection of the recommendation for an outside officer to take over the investigation, he said: "All we're going to get is a new supremo, an overseer or advisor coming in maybe once a month from Liverpool, examining the books and then flying out again on the evening flight."

Another relative, Lawrence Rush, added: "We are left in this precarious position where the investigation is stagnating. The fact remains that the investigation was flawed, as highlighted by Nuala O'Loan." Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife Philomena, said that when he asked Sir Ronnie a question "I got a typical politician's answer, to be quite honest."

Although he said the relatives were "incredibly courteous and incredibly patient", Sir Ronnie described the meeting as probably the most difficult in his career. He said he was disappointed at their reaction, but added: "I have to say that if I had been through what the victims have been through I don't know if I would be reassured."

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