Omagh: the case against a public inquiry

David McKittrick in the Independent with all his authority as the chronicler of individual suffering in the Troubles throws cold water on the case for a public inquiry into the Omagh bomb.

“For just as there are few moral absolutes in Northern Ireland, so the Omagh families have no absolute right to have the final say on what should happen in the justice system.This is a difficult and painful thing to articulate, given the terrible suffering these people continue to endure.”
Questions about the cost-effectiveness of the Bloody Sunday inquiry and some of the Cory inquires are alluded to, as well they might be . But he adds:

“Gordon Brown’s establishment of a review of the Panorama revelations was a sure sign that security agencies have a case to answer. It may also have been a device to ward off the calls for a full public inquiry. Governments have a reflex against setting up such inquiries, not least because, in cases like this, it is pretty obvious they will turn up damaging revelations about a secret world which functioned with little accountability.”

Another case against the families’ call for a public inquiry succeeding is the belief shared significantly by Lord Saville. that the post-Saville Inquires Act 2005 jeopardises an inquiry’s independence by giving the government the right to limit its timescale and costs. While the Hamill inquiry is being held under that Act the even higher profile of the Omagh case would be bound to highlight the act’s perceived flaws.

“Omagh may well hold more secrets that could undermine the new political system,” says McKittiick.
Maybe, David knows much more than I do, but this seems less likely than some cases, as no group associated with the system was allegedly involved – although their names may well have been known to the leading lights of today’s Sinn Fein ministers. Any secret talks between governments and C- or R- IRA in 1998, after secret talks had been so much a feature of the peace process, would seem unlikely to rock the system ten years on. Perhaps Omagh would link to a chain of collusion in the SB’s habits that remains unexplored in the Finucane and other cases, but on the face of it, it doesn’t seem a likely prime example. And after Stakeknife, and the Stephens inquiries, are there any real shocks left? I still have hopes that a credible reply from GCHQ would unlock more of the truth, if not now, later. In the meantime, is it really beyond the majesty of the law to postpone the families’ civil action for a few months?

Quote from Omagh families’ spokesman Michael Gallagher: “We welcome the swiftness with which the Government has moved on this.
It is indicated that this will take up to three months. We feel that the civil action now taking place, which will be over by that time, is the best possible way of using any intelligence or evidence gleaned from that.”

  • susan

    I suspect David McKittrick’s speculation is correct, that Omagh does hold more secrets that could undermine the new political system. Even after the revelations of Stakeknife, even after the findings of the Stephens inquiries. Both because of the numbers and unquestionable innocence of the slain at Omagh, and because of what would emerge about the associations of the accused.

    My fear is that a power-sharing deal too fragile to survive the revelations of a full inquiry into Omagh may also be too fragile to survive, even without a full inquiry.

    I hope I am completely, utterly and spectacularly wrong.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Of course there doesn’t need to be an inquiry to discover the truth – the government could just come clean and save itself countless millions. I think people would have so much more respect for the state if it ever held its hands up and admitted a mistake.

    Since we already know the worst case scenarios – that GCHQ was illegally listening to phones across the border (forgiveable in the circs) or that it fucked up in getting the information to those who needed it – I doubt it will cause much surprise or cause things to fall apart any more than O’Loan’s report into the subsequent useless police investigation.

    I agree with Walker – I fail to see how such revelations could impact on the stability of the insitutions – and if they do fall apart, it certainly won’t be because of Omagh.

    It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time a McKittrick article has endeavoured to take the heat of the UK security services when the shit was hitting the fan. Remember his Colin Wallace articles?

  • “GCHQ was illegally listening to phones across the border”

    How do you know that, BG? Perhaps the surveillance – if it happened – was jointly agreed. Ditto, the possible decision to let the bombing proceed.

  • susan

    I can’t conceive of David McKittrick proposing that the Executive would collapse if it emerged that GCHQ were listening to phones, legally or illegally — that seems preposterous. Worse revelations have already emerged without detectable political destabilisation.

    The accusations that at least two of the men frequently accused of ties to the Omagh bomb were either informers and/or double agents have persisted. I am not saying the accusations are true — I am only saying some of the details about the men are hard to brush off or explain away. Would an inquiry finally prove or disprove those accusations, and how damaging to whatever public trust and confidence still exists would the process of a real inquiry be?

    I don’t know if I agree with McKittrick’s case against a full inquiry though. To put a further burden on the bereaved families by asking them to act for the greater good by accepting that full truth will never be known….that’s a lot to ask.

  • Alex S

    As a point of both legal and moral principal the victim of a crime does not have the absolute right to determine by what means the legal system deal with the matter, but they do have a right to expect fairness

  • Ulsters my homeland

    Whether GCHQ was listening illegally or informers had to be protected is really not the issue. The issue is about the legality of intelligence in the courts. GCHQ didn’t pass on information to special branch because it would jeopardise the case. (Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t).

    Concerning the issue that GCHQ could have done more to prevent the bombers, the same legal issues have to be considered. GCHQ can’t influence the criminal process in any shape or form, whether that initiates from setting up a road block, searching a car or individual.

    What’s the point in having intelligence if it’s not able to be used in the criminal process?

  • dub

    This holier than thou approach from Brian Walker and McKittrick is just a posh refined version of Denning’s infamous “appalling vista” judgement. same stink though.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    Does anyone know why intelligence isn’t allowed in the courts? who or what stopped it?

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    UHM (unintentionally) funny shocka!!
    “Does anyone know why intelligence isn’t allowed in the courts?”

  • earnan

    Why would they let the bomb go off??

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    “David McKittrick in the Independent with all his authority as the chronicler of individual suffering in the Troubles …” Hmmm

    But he doesn’t seem to clarify his terms. Is he saying they have no right to justice? I think they do. Just as people have a right to, say, a fair trial or perhaps freedom of speech. Would anyone argue that citizens of this country or any country purporting to be democratic society (in the generally accepted definitions) don’t have such rights?

    So, McKitterick seems to be arguing a different point entirely, that the Omagh families don’t right to have the final say “on what should happen in the justice system”. Our justice system and justice are different things. The former being corrupted and corrupt many might argue.

    And what of his arguments? “cost-effectiveness of the Bloody Sunday inquiry”; “Omagh may well hold more secrets that could undermine the new political system” are a couple. Northern Rock gets a 27 billion quid cheque a year ago this week. Today the US bailed out millionaire bankers with a trillion dollar cheque? Cost is a hollow and pathetic excuse.

    This one seems particularly crass: “Those who firmly believe a deliberate massacre was planned and carried out will probably denounce the report as just another cover-up.” So, we don’t have enquiries because people MIGHT not accept the outcomes? Since when has there been an obligation on people to accept the findings? The important thing is that the process is seen as transparent and fair, not that there is universal acceptance of the verdict.

    This point: “But the challenge is how to reconcile these with the rights of a wider society which longs for political equilibrium and lasting peace. Given the agonising choice, it would probably prefer to protect its future rather than unearth more of its troubled, and troubling, past.” would seem to indicate that justice is just not convenient. That may well be true but that doesn’t mean the families in Omagh and across the land don’t have a right to it.

    If billions can be paid to prop up people who speculated badly in a de-regulated financial system so that they don’t lose their savings then perhaps, just perhaps, talk of “cost effectiveness” is a damning indictment of what is valued in this society.

    The people of Omagh have a right to justice. Absolutely they do. They won’t get it or anywhere near it of course, not because of cost but because the state has plenty to hide.

    “David McKittrick in the Independent with all his authority”? Hmmm.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    I don’t. That’s why I described it as one of the “worst case scenarios”.

    Either way, McKittrick’s arguments strike me as decidedly weak and flawed.

  • McKittrick’s arugments are worse than that – they are untenable.

    Few trials, even those of serial killers and mad bombers, reach conclusions that represent moral absolutes. They still could have gotten the wrong man, and then the punishment for many, especially those who believe in capital ones, will not fit the crime.

    Here, though, we are not talking about any trial, only an independent inquiry since the previous ones, and the civil one now in progress offer little chance of answering much in a satisfactory way. The previous criminal ones failed because the authorities had the wrong man, or did not provide the necessary witnesses to achieve a satisfactory result.

    And any talk about the Saville one is completely uncalled for because it tried to make up for the failed criminal process against those who killed all those innocent people by establishing their apparent guilt, leading to a lawyer’s paradise.

    The victims and survivors of the Omagh bombing – what should have been prevented on every front – require any independent investigation which establishes what really happened, why it happened, and who was responsible for it.

    And people like McKittrick who offer nothing but officialdom’s hypocrisy about it all should get the universal derision they richly deserve for their attempts. He should be ashamed for the question-begging nonsense he has provided.

    Actually, a good inquiry may help clear the way for better government in Northern Ireland by showing that their alleged betters across the sea were responsible for many of the problems its residents suffer from.

  • susan

    The families deserve the truth — I jsut wish I could muster some confidence that a full inquiry would actually provide it, and not be another sop promising the families all, raising high hopes and high emotion, but delivering the square root of zero.

    THe information John Ware and the Panorama crew uncovered on the mobile phone recordings was not available in the criminal prosecutions of Colm Murphy, Sean Hoey, it has yet to be made available in the civil case, as of yet we still have no assurances yet that it will be made available within the necessary timeframe ….outrageous, Orwellian, or business as usual?

    If a full inquiry is to uncover real answers, it must be all island, it must have real powers, the timescale of the intelligence opened to review must not be limited to just the day of the attack but provide access and review to the weeks, no months, of monitoring and recording and intelligence gathering that preceded the attack, and the weeks and months of monitoring that continued after the attack.

    Is such an inquiry possible, given the new restrictions on costs and timeframes and other limits put in place in response to the spiraling costs and scope of the Bloody Sunday inquiry? And if it is not possible under the current restrictions, is there the political will and the tenacity — from the public, in the press, in any of the current politicians — to challenge those restrictions?

  • “Of course there doesn’t need to be an inquiry to discover the truth – the government could just come clean and save itself countless millions.”

    BG, there are, at least, two Governments involved in the RIRA, Omagh and related bombs scenario. Hence the ‘weakness and flawed nature’ of the O’Loan inquiry and any other ‘selective’ investigations.

  • Avadu

    Several thousand families lost loved ones during the troubles, what makes the Omagh families more special or deserving of answers/justice than any other grieving family?

  • Why? Because so many people were killed, wounded, and tramatised, plus so much physical damaged caused, all at one go – what was at worst a government conspiracy or at best its most massive cockup, as Suzanne Breen has written in today’s Tribune:

    She has written the article that McKittrick should have written.

    And when someone like me agrees with Ms. Breen, you know that there is in broadest consensus throughout the world for a cross-border, fully independent inquiry.

    If Britain settles for its usual dodging any serious investigation, we should all just write it off as a conspiratorial police state which does whatever its political elite requires.

  • Pat

    First of all, as an outsider looking in, The Panorama programme’s title is wrong ” Omagh: What the police were never told” it is very clear that the police were told about the intercepts from GCHQ, special branch is part of the police, the title should have been called ” The blame game ” the programme exposed that the lies still keep coming thick and fast from “sources” Panorama should tell the families were it got the information from, the Omagh families don’t have to look far for this. The only way to ge the answers they want, is for a full public enquiry.

  • susan

    Breen’s piece in the Tribune deserved to be read and discussed by as wide an audience as possible. She allows the families to speak for themselves, clarifying in their own words why so many berevead families from very different political and religious backgrounds are still left asking the same unbearable, agonosing questions more than ten years later.

    Hopefully one of the Slugger moderators will highlight the piece in its entirety. She interviews Stanley McCombe, who lost a wife, Godfrey Wilson, who lost a daughter, Michael Gallagher, who buried a son. They deserve to be heard.

    As Breen writes:

    “The priority the intelligence services gave to the Real IRA is evidenced by the millions of pounds spent in having FBI/MI5 agent, Dave Rupert, infiltrate the organisation and befriend Mickey McKevitt….

    The fact that information from the Omagh phone bugging wasn’t used to effect, even in the vital hours and days after the bomb, gives more weight to the conspiracy theory. The bombers’ homes weren’t raided and the complete phone intercepts were never passed onto lower-ranking detectives investigating the attack.

    Michael Gallagher’s son Aiden, 21, was among those killed. He believes one of the reasons for the non-action was that several of those involved in the attack were intelligence service agents. It is widely believed the bomb-maker, a Newry man living in Dundalk, was an agent.

    Similarities have been made to the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane – several members of the UDA killer gang were agents.

    The Sunday Tribune has also been told that an American spy satellite was monitoring the bombers’ conversations.

    Gallagher fears that the lack of action over Omagh wasn’t simply a cock-up. “Omagh was a very convenient atrocity,” he says.

    “It was used to strengthen the Good Friday Agreement. The government could point to the carnage in Omagh and say to the politicians and the public: ‘it’s the peace process or more of this’.” Had a bomb killed civilians in a mainly Protestant town – previous dissident targets had been Portadown and Banbridge – it would have shattered the peace process.”

    Gallagher says an independent, cross-border public inquiry is the only way forward: “I believe someone in the intelligence services took a decision not to intercept the Omagh bomb, that they decided to play Russian roulette with our loved ones’ lives.”

    Gallagher continues later in the piece —

    “I want to know who that person is and whether they are still in a position of power. I want to know how many other vital decisions they’ve taken in the 10 years since. I want to know who decided not to act on all the information afterwards. These faceless people in the intelligence services would have watched the scenes of carnage in Omagh on their televisions.

    “They would have seen our heartbreak. They would have heard us plead for information to catch the bombers. They would have tucked their children into bed while we buried ours. At the very least, they owe us an explanation.” Gallagher stresses he is not anti-security force. His brother was a former UDR member. His suspicion and anger is targeted at “the top police and military brass”.

  • susan

    I apologise for using such a long excerpt without permission. It just seems important, particularly here, that the piece be read.

    Not because the families necessarily have the answers, but because ten years on there is still so much confusion, and even ignorance, over what the families’ questions are, and why they still matter.

  • susan

    Panorama’s John Ware is back in the SUnday Telegraph today, arguing forcefully for the release of whatever intercepts material exists to the families’ lawyers:

    “The choice of Sir Peter is unlikely to “raise expectations” among the families, or anyone else. His annual reviews of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 shed almost no light on their workings. They do not even reveal such mundane matters as the number of warrants issued to MI5 for entry to premises.

    Sir Peter’s review will no doubt follow the pattern he has set in his annual reviews – that is, he will reveal hardly anything at all.

    There is a much easier way to clear up what GCHQ knew about the Omagh bombers and when: it is simply to establish whether any of GCHQ’s intercept material still exists.

    If it does, it is surely not Sir Peter who is best placed to assess whether it could have benefited the police investigation, but rather the detectives who were originally deprived of it.

    If the Government is serious about helping the families, there is a simple way to do it: disclose whatever material there is relating to GCHQ’s intercepts both to the detectives and to the families’ lawyers, who are now suing five suspected bombers in the High Court in Belfast.

    Yes, a ban on admitting intercepts as evidence is still in force. But Gordon Brown has committed himself to lifting it. And knowledge of the truth, whether or not it could be used in court, would make all the difference to the families of those murdered or mutilated by the Omagh bomb.”

  • susan

    David Trimble, Paul Bew and Labour’s Dave Anderson have written to Brown urging immediate release of the intercepts to the families’ lawyers in the civil case.

  • I find the foot-dragging by the media, especially this site, and Nuzhound, about what really happened at Omagh, and what should be done about it truly baffling.

    If you don’t care about it, simply get out of the business rather than treat us to all kind of marginal matters and even irrelevant ones.

    And if you do care about it, shape up, and start meaningful threads about it rather than bs from people like McKittrick, and comforting self-fulfilling prophecies by closely-connected government ones like Henry McDonald rather than leave it to posters like Susan et al. to fill in the gaps – what can never be completely satisfactory.

  • susan

    Funny you brought up McDonald, Trowbridge, as I just returned one more time to provide a link to a 2003 article by McDonald that sheds light on why I and others here are arguing a true inquiry must be all island (or cross border, if you must).

    Breen’s article refers to the man many in Omagh believe may have built the bomb, “a Newry man living in Dundalk.” Probably most of us know the name of that suspect, and I am not going to name him here because Slugger and its moderators have never censored me and I have no wish to post anything that could conceivably cause them legal trouble.

    HOWEVER, as I said, that suspect is not the only one widely suspected of being an informer, and/or agent, and again, this 2003 article explains why an inquiry can only succeed if it involves both jurisdictions, with cooperation from both governments.

  • susan

    And speaking of filling in the gaps, I have to credit the irreplaceable editor of Newshound for the quick links to John Ware writing in today’s Sunday Telegraph, and Trimble in the Independent.

  • As for the McDonald article you linked, susan, and I have seen before, it should be noted that he put all the onus of failing to stop the bombers upon the gardai – a most convenient one for the UK officials.

    And I have found that Nuzhound is leaving out too many links these days – e. g., today’s article by Suzanne Breen.

  • “with cooperation from both governments.”

    Three premiers have already been named, Susan – Ahern, Blair and Clinton – but don’t expect it to be as simple as ABC. The monitoring system used may have been ECHELON.

    I’ve previously suggested that perhaps an EU agency could conduct an inquiry.

  • susan

    Nevin, who would you like to see conduct an inquiry, in terms of having full confidence? I only ask because I’m at a loss.

    I linked the 2003 McDonald article because I believe it may be relevant to why the Irish gov’t is not yet screaming for the release of the recordings.

    Breen’s other piece in today’s Tribune outlines the families’ disappointment with the “deafening silence” from the Irish gov’t in light of the Panorama revelations.

    Trimble has called for the release of the recordings, Attwood has called for the release of the recordings, SF has supported claims for a full inquiry. But as Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Aidan, told the Tribune:

    “If the Irish government had any backbone, it would be raising the matter with the British,” Gallagher said. “Three Irish citizens died in the bomb. Brian Cowen should be seeking an urgent meeting with the British prime minister and demanding answers.

    “If China or Russia apparently failed to stop a bomb which killed British citizens, there would be an international crisis. The Irish government is shirking its responsibility.”

  • susan
  • I’m at a loss too, Susan.

    The IMC is a body put together by the British and Irish governments in collaboration with the American one yet its independence IMO has been suspect for quite a long time now.

    I’ve got a letter signed by Sir Patrick Mayhew which asserts that exchanges between two governments are in secret ie they’re not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The MSM has done little to inform us about these intergovernmental workings.

    If I’m right about ECHELON then there may well be agreed protocols which restrict release of information without the agreement of all of the parties to the protocols.

    I’ve suggested an EU agency but perhaps there isn’t one that the three governments would be prepared to work with.

    Alex Reid and Martin Mansergh AFAIK had been in talks with the RIRA leadership during the bomb attacks so any deals done with PIRA et al might also be revealed during the course of in-depth investigations. There may be too many skeletons in too many cupboards, as well as too many cross-linkages, for the the truth to be established.

    I’ve just posted another ‘incomplete’ story on NALIL that impacted on the security and intelligence services. I’m convinced, in that instance, that a lot of effort went into scape-goating the innocent.

  • susan

    Nevin, thank you.

    Sometimes I am at a loss for words, and this is just one of those times.

  • Susan, there’s a second Breen article online; it’s front page:

    Relatives of Omagh victims angry over Dublin ‘silence’.

    There are still too many of the jig-saw pieces missing.

  • susan

    Yes, Nevin, thanks — I linked Breen’s second story in Post 4, page 2 of this thread.

    I’m glad Brian Walker has started a new thread and remains following the story. I do hope, as well, though, that both of Breen’s pieces today find a wider readership and more of the MSM again focus on what the families themselves are saying.

  • I missed your link to the second item, Susan 🙁

    Sadly, I suspect Brian is still trying to hang onto his chain metaphor …