New Omagh intelligence inquiry must unlock a chain reaction of truth

It seems to have come as a surprise to at least one minister. “We are not immediately attracted to the idea of a public inquiry,” security minister Paul Goggins said for publication only this morning. Sure enough, the inquiry by retired Appeal Court judge Sir Peter Gibson the Intelligence Services Commissioner announced by the Prime Minister after yesterday’s visit to Belfast isn’t to be held in “public:”

“to review the intercepted intelligence material available to the security and intelligence agencies in relation to the Omagh bombing and how it was shared.”

But it’s right on the button of the Panorama report, it’s time-limited to three months and the Prime Minister has promised to report to Parliament. On the face of it, this is a significant move, but there are plenty of caveats.
There are two principal linked questions emerging from the RUC account given to Panorama:: Why didn’t GCHQ pass on their monitoring to the police immediately to cut off the bombers – if they were listening live? And two, why did they not share, promptly and in full, the results of their monitoring to the police, if not for use in court which was banned, then to help in the hunt for the bombers while it was still hot? This is a top secret area. Sir Peter Gibson has not been one for pushing out the envelope. In his annual report last year he “declined to reveal the number of bugs these agencies had planted, on the grounds that to do so would “assist those hostile to the UK”. In other words, he could submit his report under secrecy.

But Gordon Brown can hardly get on his feet in the Commons a couple of weeks before Christmas and say “ the guys done ok, I can tell you no more.” He has to explain in full was meant by GCHQ’s alleged deadly, terse admission: “ We missed it”

For a decade, the Omagh families have been given a horrible run- around by the celebrity bit players in the tragedy, the presidents, princes and prime ministers who by their hurried visits to inconveniently sealed off Omagh streets lent credence to the view that “no stone would be left unturned.” Their torment is all the more exquisite for the truth allegedly lying just out of reach. This particular inquiry is about one link in the evidential chain. Yet if truth emerges about this one, pressure will inevitably mount for a chain reaction of truth to run right along the length of this terribly botched disconnected investigation, through the old SB, the CID, Sir Ronnie Flanagan and the Gardai. The police and security establishment will be expecting no less. They must be prevented from exploiting this inquiry just to settle old scores. Under revised rules, intercept evidence can now be used in court but only with the permission of the agency involved. If GCHQ has such evidence it is their bounden duty to reveal it. Either way the time has come – is long overdue – for telling the real story either in court prosecutions if possible or if not, as much of it as the law allows in public. Anything less would be the most hollow of mockeries. Gordon Brown cautious champion of openness, has a chance here to do himself proud. He could leave a much worse legacy.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London