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Om(ert)agh

Much remains murky about the deadliest bombing of the Troubles, but it is clear it could have been prevented if two warnings had been heeded

IN MID-MARCH, following civil actions, the suspects for the 1998 Omagh bombing, which perpetrated the worst loss of life of the whole Northern Ireland troubles were bankrupted, one of them on his deatbbed. Focus was on the murderers not the victims or the security forces.

However, there are still questions about prior knowledge the security forces had, and the way in which they investigated the bomb. Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan said, on the eve of the 20th Anniversary: “My view now is that it could have been prevented”.

She met heavy criticism, but her contention is well-founded. It has been established that the security forces received two warnings. An unknown man rang detectives in Omagh on August 4. The conversation lasted 10 minutes. He told them the Continuity IRA was to attack police in Omagh on August 15. AK47 rifles and two rocket launchers were to be moved over the Border to a house outside Omagh a few days beforehand. The caller named three men and a family as being involved.

After the bombing, the Real IRA claimed responsibility. However, members of the Continuity IRA were involved. At least one Donegal-based member had scouted Omagh, along with David Rupert, an American working for the FBI and British intelligence who had infiltrated the Continuity IRA. Some Continuity members are believed to have been involved in moving the bomb.

Three days before the bombing, informer Peter Keeley told his police handler that a bomb was being made in the North Louth-South Armagh area, and would be sent North. Keeley, who uses the name ‘Kevin Fulton’, was an agent working for both police and one of the branches of military intelligence. He had successively infiltrated the Official IRA, the (Provisional) IRA, and the Real IRA. Keeley met a friend and Real IRA member Patrick Joseph ‘Mooch’ Blair near Dundalk. Blair was manufacturing explosives. These were for what turned into the Omagh bomb.

Police deployment on August 15 1998 has never been fully explained. According to evidence given at the inquest into the victims, there were no police on duty in Omagh town centre when the bomb was driven in at approximately 2.20pm. At the time, two three-man patrols were out in cars. When the bomb warning was given, one was in a housing estate on the north side of the town. The other was attending an incident in the countryside.

There were seven police on duty in the town’s police station. An eighth was on guard duty in the sangar outside. A ninth officer has given evidence he was on duty in the Omagh area, but did not specify where.

At the time, an additional 25-member Divisional Mobile Support Unit carried out mobile patrols of the Omagh area. Its members patrolled in uniform, but driving civilian cars. On the day of the bombing, 15 were on leave. The remaining 10, with some other officers, were given responsibilities to police a nationalist parade in Kilkeel, Co Down. Kilkeel is one of the furthest points from Omagh in the North, almost 72 miles away. When the bomb warning was received, these police were in Land Rovers in the yard of Omagh police station.

At the time the bomb was planted, the traffic warden who dealt with that part of the town centre was on his lunch break. The bomb car was parked on a single yellow line, where parking was forbidden: though the prohibition was regularly ignored. The particular traffic warden was known for his efficiency.

After the bombing, the fact of knowledge about the August 4 call was not conveyed to police investigators until O’Loan discovered it when drawing up her scathing report three years after the bombing. None of those named in this call were questioned afterwards. At least two were unaware they had been named until I spoke to them in 2002. There is no evidence any had any involvement with the bomb. However, whoever made the call had knowledge of some sort of attack in Omagh, and wanted to implicate them.

With too many questions unanswered, some relatives are now calling for a public inquiry. However, the British government has rejected further public inquiries.

The best opportunity left to advance the truth is a civil action being taken by the late Laurence Rush, whose wife was killed in the bombing. His family is continuing the action against the Chief Constable and Secretary of State, for failing to prevent and to properly investigate, the bombing.

Omagh was the worst atrocity of the Troubles, killing 29 and wounding 220.