Legal action is to be taken against the British government unless it hands over recordings of the telephone conversations of a ‘Real IRA’ team as it was transporting the devastating 1998 Omagh bomb.
Suspicion has grown over the years about the role played by British agencies in the bombing, while killed 29 people after warning calls failed to clear the central commercial district targeted by the device.
Now an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama programme revealed that staff at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in England were monitoring the conversations as they drove the bomb into Omagh in August 1998.
In a television documentary, Panorama reported several top sources as saying that GCHQ had tapped the mobile phone calls at the request of the RUC’s Special Branch.
Ray White, a former assistant chief constable in charge of Crime and Special Branch, confirmed this, although former RUC chief Ronnie Flanagan has denied being aware of the intelligence.
Panorama pointed out that the suppressed information could, in normal circumstances, have prevented the attack taking place, or brought about swift arrests.
Bereaved relatives met the programme makers and were briefed on the documentary’s findings.
Michael Gallagher, chairman of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, said the programme’s revelations were “earth-shattering” for the families. He described them as the most significant development in the case since 2001 when the then police ombudsman, Dame Nuala O’Loan, published a scathing report on the original police “investigation”.
In December, a judge acquitted Sean Hoey, an electrician, in the bombing. The judge called the police work “slapdash” and said it was flawed by “deliberate and calculated deception.”
Colm Murphy, Hoey’s uncle, was convicted in 2002 of conspiring with the bombers. But his conviction was overturned in 2005 when a judge ruled that detectives had lied about the evidence against him.
Intercepts of phone conversations cannot be used as evidence in criminal trials but they can be used in civil cases, such as the one currently being pursued by the Omagh families.
Jason McCue, a lawyer for the families, said he had asked GCHQ seven years ago for any information it held on the bombing but that his letter had gone unanswered.
Mr Gallagher said that possible criminal proceedings could involve people being charged with perverting the course of justice or withholding information.
He also said the group had written to the 26-County and Spanish governments about issues raised by the programme. Two Spanish people died in the blast.
“Someone has made the decision to withhold this information,” he said. “Someone in the intelligence community, possibly someone within GCHQ.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday called for a new investigation by his country’s intelligence services into the Omagh bomb. But he defied renewed calls for an independent public inquiry into the tragedy.
Mr Gallagher said that if the British government withheld the information, a full public inquiry into the bombing must be held.
“In the interest of justice and morality it is time to come clean,” he said.
“It goes without saying that if this evidence is not made public through the civil action then such a refusal will in itself create irresistible pressure for a public inquiry.”