The PSNI police chief Hugh Orde has said it is “highly unlikely” that anyone will be jailed for the 1998 Omagh bomb, following the freeing of Armagh man Sean Hoey and the trial judge’s stinging indictment of the PSNI.
The disastrous case was marked by dramatic revealations of police lies, the alteration of evidence, forensic failures, and a controversy over the contribution of a former FBI spy.
Orde defended the second, and current, Omagh investigation, which he insisted was a “genuine attempt to do our very best to re-investigate a crime that had failed to be investigated properly”.
The British government appeared to be attempting to deflect blame towards former PSNI/RUC police chief, Ronnie Flanagan, when Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward refused to voice support for the then RUC chief.
Suspicion has mounted over the role of state agents in the preparation of the bomb and the failure of the PSNI to interrupt the plan or evacuate the area around the bomb. The subsequent explosion in Omagh town centre caused the deaths of 29 civilians but destroyed support for the breakaway ‘Real IRA’.
Speaking at Belfast Crown Court on December 20, Mr Justice Weir found Hoey not guilty of a total of 58 charges. In delivering his verdict, Justice Weir referred to “a most disturbing situation exposed by the defence”.
The judge was highly critical of the evidence presented by the PSNI and said they were guilty of a “deliberate and calculated deception”. He openly expressed fears that unnamedd others in the PSNI were involved in ther fraud and said transcripts of the trial had been sent to the Police Ombudsman.
Despite coming on the eve of Christmas, the fallout from the verdict has rocked the political and judicial systems in the North.
Speaking after the verdict, Sean Hoey’s solicitor, Peter Corrigan, said his client was an innocent man who had been completely vindicated.
“Today’s judgement - a reasoned, lengthy and well considered judgement - completely vindicated this position that he maintained. Sean Hoey is an innocent man,” he said.
Outside the court, Sean Hoey’s mother Rita said: “I want the world to know that my son Sean Hoey is innocent. The authorities north and south have held two separate trials, but one witch-hunt.”
Republican Sinn Féin described thre prosecution as “malicious”.
“Sean Hoey was incarcerated for over four years before his final acquittal,” said RSF PRO Richard Walsh.
“Nearly a whole year lapsed between the conclusion of his trial and the verdict. The silence of those purporting to be the political representatives of the Nationalist community is deafening as to why an innocent man had to serve the equivalent of an eight-and-a-half year sentence on remand.”
Among the casualties of the trial was the forensic technique known as Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA testing, which was discredited by the judge and has now been abandoned by the PSNI.
Its validity is not recognised in the vast majority of jurisdictions, and the laboratories used in the Omagh case were not accredited for its use.
There have now been calls for the charges proffered against others arising out of LCN DNA ‘evidence’ to be withdrawn, and convictions based on it to be reviewed.
“All cases arising out of the events at Omagh like so many others have been based upon falsified and misleading evidence, and backed up by perjurers in both the RUC and the 26-County police,” said Republican Sinn Féin.
There has also been strong criticism of the PSNI’s practice of holding people on remand for a number of years without trial, as was the case with Sean Hoey. Journalist and broadcaster Eamonn Maillie described it as “selective internment”, while RSF said it showed that British rule in Ireland could only be maintained “by coercion and the denial of the most basic civil and human rights”.
Four upcoming cases are now in doubt following the acquittal of Sean Hoey. Legal representatives for four men, Dominic McGlinchey, John Brady, Liam Hannaway and Harry Devine have written to the Public Prosecution Services (PPS) demand that all charges be withdrawn against their clients, which are partly based on LCN evidence.
Human rights commissions on both sides of the border have called for an independent judicial inquiry into the bombing.
Fine Gael, Labour and Independent TD Finian McGrath have added their voices to calls for an inquiry following the outcome of the Omagh bomb trial this week.
Fine Gael justice spokesman Charles Flanagan called on the Garda Commissioner to launch an inquiry into the conduct of the 26-County police force in relation to the Omagh bombing.
Mr Flanagan said: “There is a lot of disquiet in this jurisdiction as well.” He added: “Much of that disquiet is around the role of the gardai. There have been allegations that warnings that were given to the gardai prior to the tragic event were not acted upon in the manner in which they might.
“The Garda Commissioner should institute an inquiry to examine these allegations and a report should be prepared for the Minister for Justice which should in turn go to Government. At that stage it may become clear whether or not there is need for an independent inquiry.
“There is a large degree of disquiet and many questions that remain unanswered,” Mr Flanagan said.
Independent TD for Dublin North Central Finian McGrath said he was “appalled” at the manner in which the families of the victims were treated and he would be meeting the Taoiseach to request a public inquiry.
He said: “In January I’m going to the Government and the Taoiseach and requesting that there be a major public inquiry in relation to this particular issue in the South, because there are certain aspects to the case that were handled in a very unprofessional manner. I also have major concerns about the serious possibility of agents being involved either directly or indirectly in this particular atrocity. We need to get to the truth on this matter.”
Meanwhile, Colm Murphy has launched a new legal challenge to his retrial on a conspiracy charge connected with the Omagh bomb.
The High Court in Dublin last October cleared the way for Murphy’s retrial after it refused an application to halt the trial.
Murphy was jailed for 14 years by the Special Criminal Court in January 2002 for his alleged role in the Omagh bomb. He remains the only person to be convicted in either the Six or the 26 Counties in connection with the bombing.
Last week, Murphy’s solicitor Michael Finucane told the Special Criminal Court that appeal papers were lodged with the Supreme Court last month and they are now awaiting a date for the hearing of the appeal against the High Court decision.
Murphy was in court for the brief hearing and was remanded on continuing bail until March 14th next year when the case will be mentioned again.