There has been an outcry after former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan hinted at a police cover-up and said she was certain the PSNI (then RUC) ‘could have prevented’ the 1998 Omagh bomb attack, in which 29 civilians died.
Baroness O’Loan, who published a report into policing activity in the run-up to the tragedy, said she had “new information” about the bomb.
“When I reported on Omagh I said we didn’t know whether the bomb could have been prevented,” she said. “It is now my very firm view that the bomb could have been prevented.”
She was speaking on the 20th anniversary of the attack by the breakaway ‘Real IRA’ in the mainly nationalist County Tyrone town.
Earlier in 1998, the RIRA unit involved in the attack had struck commercial targets in town centres without fatalities, but on this occasion telephoned warnings failed to clear the area around the bomb. Civilians were instead directed into the path of the explosion, resulting in a devastating loss of life.
It eventually became known that the RIRA unit had been deeply compromised and that the car and phones being carried by the men were being monitored in real time. There has been speculation that the attack may have been allowed to proceed in order to further a British propaganda agenda, namely to eliminate support for republican armed struggle.
Backing calls by most of the families of the victims for a public inquiry, which has been strenuously opposed by the British government, Mrs O’Loan pointed out that state intelligence services had tracked the bomb to Omagh.
“If that had been conveyed to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh he could have just set checkpoints up around the town and the effect of that could have been to drive the bombers to abandon their bomb,” she said.
She also said “further information” had come to light, but she said she was “not in a position to talk about” it.
PSNI Chief George Hamilton reacted angrily, and accused Mrs O’Loan of “re-traumatising” the families of the victims. “Considerations around a public inquiry into the Omagh bombing are a matter for government,” he declared.
Mrs O’Loan responded to Mr Hamilton remarks, standing by her comments, and indicated that the RUC had blocked information about the tracking of the bomb from being released to investigators.
“It is my understanding of the further information which has emerged, some of which I am not in a position to talk about, but we have seen work by very prominent journalists and we have seen the various inquiries by (Intelligence Services Commissioner Peter) Gibson and people like that,” she said.
“And we can see Gibson very carefully choosing his language about the reasonableness of the police actions in disclosing or not disclosing intelligence.”
Relatives of the victims expressed shock, particularly at the timing of Ms O’Loan’s comments, which threatened to derail a day of commemorations. Mainstream politicians and journalists accused O’Loan of deflecting from long-planned peace messages and anti-republican condemnations.
There was then a hysterical response by politicians to a veteran nationalist commentator who separately wrote an article in relation to the bomb attack.
Writing on his blog, Jude Collins, suggested that the state authorities knew in advance about the Omagh bomb but deliberately did nothing. Noting that the bomb’s target had been commercial, and that warnings to clear the area had failed, he said that the 31 victims had been “slaughtered”, but not “murdered”.
“If we consider the pattern of events for some months before Omagh, the signs are that it wasn’t murder: the Real IRA didn’t set out to deliberately slaughter the good and defenceless people they did”.
His article is included in full below.