Omagh bombing inquiry announced decades after intelligence failures revealed

Omagh bombing plaque
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In August 1998 a bomb exploded in the North of Ireland town of Omagh. The blast injured hundreds and killed 29. One of those killed was a pregnant woman carrying twins.

In February 2023 the BBC reported that an independent statutory inquiry will examine:

  • The handling and sharing of intelligence
  • The use of mobile phone analysis
  • Whether there was advance knowledge or reasonable means of knowledge of the bomb
  • Whether disruption operations could or should have been mounted, which may have helped prevent the Real IRA attack

State failed to prevent bombing

In his statement to Parliament about the forthcoming inquiry, secretary of state for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris MP admitted that:

the Northern Ireland High Court found in October 2021 that plausible arguments could be made that the State had failed to comply with its obligation under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to take reasonable steps to prevent the bombing.

However, the inquiry may need not look far for information. A 2001 Police Ombudsman’s report seems to provide many of the answers, particularly regarding events that led to the bombing. Indeed, there’s evidence that far from ensuring the bombing failed, the police and intelligence services were more concerned with protecting their own agents.

The lead-up to the bombing

According to the Ombudsman’s report, 11 days prior to the bombing the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) received an anonymous phone call at the Omagh police station. The caller warned of an attack that would take place on 15 August. The informant named two individuals and gave a nickname for a third. Special Branch were informed, though they failed to pass the information on to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh.

Three days prior to the bombing the RUC received further information from “a ‘reliable’ informant known as Kevin Fulton”. Fulton informed his handler, a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officer, of suspicious activity by two individuals – ‘A’ and ‘B’ – connected with the Real IRA.

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The report added:

While the bomb car was being moved into position in Omagh on 15 August 1998, a 59 second telephone call was made from ‘A’s’ mobile telephone to one of those individuals who have been identified by the Omagh Bomb Investigation Team as responsible for the Omagh Bomb.

Fulton’s handler passed this information on to Special Branch, though the latter denied receiving it. However, the report stated that:

The Police Ombudsman’s Office is satisfied that the intelligence was given to Special Branch. The fact that Special Branch states that it never received these documents represents, at the very least, a very serious breakdown in communication.

Let the bomb go through

It was also claimed in the Ombudsman’s report that Republic of Ireland Garda officer John White passed on intelligence about the imminent bombing to senior officer Dermot Jennings. That intelligence came from White’s informant Paddy Dixon. According to White, Jennings said they should let the bomb go through so that the the Real IRA would not become suspicious of Dixon.

The BBC went on to claim that Government Communications Headquarters monitored the phone conversations between the bombers on the day the bombing took place.

The sub-divisional commander in Omagh subsequently made it clear that had he been fully informed of the anonymous tip-offs leading up to 15 August, he would have set up vehicle checks on roads to the town.

Web of collusion and spies

The Police Ombudsman’s report said that Fulton “was granted “participating informant” status by the Assistant Chief Constable Crime”. That meant that as part of his cover he was authorised to participate in criminal activity so as to prevent a serious crime. The report also made it clear that Fulton was financially well rewarded for his work. However, Special Branch reportedly considered him an “intelligence nuisance”.

According to the late journalist Henry McDonald, Fulton’s real name is Peter Keeley. Irish republican publication AnPhoblacht states Fulton was a member of the Force Research Unit, a British Army covert ops squadron. In 2001, the Belfast Telegraph referred to a “secret dossier of evidence” provided by FRU member Ian Hurst (aka Martin Ingram). Hurst claimed in the dossier that around half of all IRA top men worked for British intelligence. He added there was a “web of collusion and spies”.

In 2004 the Guardian reported that the anonymous caller who warned the RUC that the Real IRA was planning to launch an attack on Omagh was suspected to be a Special Branch officer. However, there appears to be no further updates on that claim.

Responsibility for bombing claimed

According to the Irish News, the following took place on the day of the bombing:

  • At 2pm a red Vauxhall Cavalier was driven into Market Street then parked outside a clothes shop.
  • 30 minutes later, Ulster Television (UTV) received a warning: “There’s a bomb, courthouse, Omagh, main street, 500lb, explosion 30 minutes.” A Real IRA codeword was given.
  • Two minutes after that, a similar warning was given to the Samaritans.
  • At 2.35pm, another warning was phoned to UTV.
  • The courthouse was at the top of High Street. However, the bomb car was parked 500 yards away on Market Street. The police then blocked off High Street, leaving pedestrians and shop owners to head to where the bomb car was parked.
  • At 3.10pm, the bomb exploded.

Three days later, the Real IRA admitted responsibility.

The aftermath of the bombing

The following is a summary of attempts to see justice done:

  • In January 2002, Colm Murphy was found guilty of conspiring to cause the Omagh bombing. Murphy was sentenced to 14 years, but won an appeal when it was revealed the Gardaí (Irish Republic police) had falsified interview notes.
  • In 2003 Michael McKevitt was found guilty of being a member of an illegal organisation and directing terrorism.
  • In 2007 Sean Hoey was cleared on murder charges arising from the Omagh bombing, after it was shown that the prosecution evidence was “inadequate”.
  • In June 2009, a civil trial ruled that Colm Murphy, Liam Campbell, Michael McKevitt, and Seamus Daly were responsible for the bombing. They were ordered to pay damages to 12 relatives of the victims. Murphy and Daly successfully appealed, and at a subsequent retrial the case against Daly was dropped.

The man referred to by the anonymous caller as “A” was later named under parliamentary privilege by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Jeffrey Donaldson. He is Patrick Joseph Blair. Fulton claimed “he met Blair shortly before the Omagh attack, covered in dust and smelling of bomb-making chemicals”. Blair denied he was involved in the bombing.

Intelligence questions remain unanswered

No one has been jailed in connection with the Omagh bombing. The upcoming inquiry needs to address why that is so – e.g., whether the protection of double agents took precedence above all else?

Indeed, the precise role of the police, Special Branch and FRU in the bombing is yet to be fully revealed. The survivors of the bombing and the relatives of those killed deserve to know the full story.

Featured image via Wikimedia / Kenneth Allen cropped 770×403 pixels

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