It is hard to imagine anything worse than the Real IRA’s bombing of the market town of Omagh on 15 August 1998. It was the deadliest single atrocity of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The 29 people who were slaughtered that day included toddlers, primary school kids, teenage girls volunteering in the Oxfam shop and a young woman who was pregnant with twins.
Yet for those left behind, and for the 220 people injured that day, there was in fact one thing worse: the tormenting thought that it could all have been prevented. The bereaved and the survivors have had to live with the haunting possibility that the police and the intelligence services could have saved them from this unspeakable calamity. Only now, with the announcement by the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, of an independent inquiry into what the security services knew in advance of the attack, can they hope to lay those ghosts to rest. The inquiry should have been established 20 years ago. In December 2001, Nuala O’Loan, then the police ombudsman for Northern Ireland, published a report on what the Royal Ulster Constabulary may have known before the Omagh massacre. Her remit did not go beyond the RUC, and O’Loan could not investigate the British intelligence services or indeed the police across the border in the Republic, where the bomb was prepared. Yet even this limited perspective revealed some very disturbing evidence.
On 4 August 1998, 11 days before the bombing, the RUC received an anonymous telephone call warning that there would be an “unspecified” terrorist attack on police in Omagh on 15 August 1998. The caller gave a detailed account that identified two putative attackers by name. The officer who took the call was convinced that the informant was genuine. This warning was given to special branch, but never passed on to the relevant divisional commander in Omagh. According to O’Loan: “When he was shown the intelligence two years later, on the anniversary of the explosion, he said he would have set up vehicle checkpoints.” Those checkpoints would probably have blocked the bombers.
Three days before the bombing, a reliable informant, known as Kevin Fulton, who spied on the IRA for MI5, told his handlers that the Real IRA was about to “move something north over the next few days”. Fulton had earlier told them that a known associate of the Real IRA “smelled of fertiliser”, which was used in making the bomb. While the car bomb was being moved into position in Omagh on 15 August 1998, a call was made from this same man’s mobile phone to one of those later thought to have been responsible for the atrocity. No attempt was made to assess this intelligence, let alone act on it. Records of the handler’s meeting with Fulton seem to have disappeared from the special branch files. Likewise, when a review of the RUC’s own handling of the Omagh case was conducted in 2000, these warnings were initially withheld from the investigators. The record of the anonymous call was specifically marked as “Intelligence does not refer to Omagh”.
Most egregiously, we know that intelligence reports relevant to the atrocity were never passed on to the police team that was supposed to be bringing the perpetrators to justice. O’Loan identified at least 280 such documents, and believed there were probably more. Does any of this really matter? None of it changes the essential truth that the massacre was the work of a gang of IRA dissidents seeking to destroy the peace deal created a few months earlier through the Good Friday agreement. None of it can now make up for the failure to convict anyone for this horrendous crime. (The Real IRA leader, Michael McKevitt, who was almost certainly involved in the Omagh bomb, was convicted in the Republic for the less specific offence of “directing terrorism”.)
It matters, though, for two big reasons – one human, the other political. First, there is the pain of the bereaved and the injured. It is unconscionable that their suffering has been deepened both by the failure to bring the perpetrators to justice and by what looks very like a covering up of information that would help them to understand what happened. They should not have to wade through waters that have been deliberately muddied. The demands of basic decency aside, however, there is a wider political context. The refusal of the state for more than 20 years to engage with the aftermath of Omagh is part of a wider failure to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. O’Loan’s report appeared shortly after a much more spectacular terrorist atrocity, the 9/11 attacks in the US. Tony Blair, who was then prime minister, was “moving on” from Northern Ireland to other (disastrously ill-conceived) missions. Raising awkward questions about the uses and abuses of intelligence became, in the run-up to the Iraq war, increasingly undesirable.
This neglect of duty by Blair has turned, under Conservative governments, into active hostility to truth-seeking. The Omagh families are finally getting an inquiry because the high court in Belfast recognised that they have a right under the European convention on human rights to a proper investigation of their loved ones’ murders. But ending the UK’s adherence to the ECHR is an obsession of the Tory right. Even worse is the government’s Northern Ireland Troubles legacy and reconciliation bill, now before the House of Lords, which seeks to close down all further criminal and civil actions related to crimes committed during the Troubles. It will even shut down inquests – 23 of which are pending.
The vindication of the Omagh families after more than two decades of official obfuscation is a reminder of why the ECHR is necessary – without transnational standards of human rights, the UK’s duty to stand up for its own citizens can be brushed aside. And the concession of an inquiry into Omagh contradicts the British government’s belief that “reconciliation” can be achieved by burying the pain of the Troubles. Every bereaved family has the right to know as much of the truth about how their loved ones died as can be recovered from the pit of shame, amnesia and evasion into which so much of it has been cast. Whether the perpetrators were loyalists or republicans, soldiers or police, the agony of not knowing is the same. Only a comprehensive truth recovery process in which immunity from prosecution is dependent on honest accounting for what was done to the victims can stop the past from being a living torment. So long as that imperative is postponed, ghosts will continue to haunt the land.