Sir Ronnie’s record – the book is not closed

Two landmark cases in the record of Sir Ronnie Flanagan as Chief Constable of the RUC have produced exonerating statements without getting to the bottom of the cases – the Omagh bomb and the murder of Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson. Answering questions at the Nelson inquiry Sir Ronnie said: “I certainly did not consider Mrs Nelson to be a terrorist,” and he denied calling her “ an immoral woman.” It’s noteworthy though that the former civil service head of the NIO Sir Joe Pilling, according to counsel, had testified that Sir Ronnie raised the alleged affair of Mrs Nelson with a local Republican Colin Duffy with him.“I have no recollection of having discussed with Sir Joe Pilling about this matter,” said Sir Ronnie.

By itself this is a side issue, but it suggests the sort of complicity with republicans that made Mrs Nelson vulnerable and at best regarded with suspicion by police. We can imagine the canteen conversations.

In the latest Omagh ruling by the Intelligence Services Commissioner retired judge Sir Peter Gibson the intelligence services especially the electronic monitors of GCHQ are exonerated from failing to pass on any mobile phone activity by the bombers to Special Branch. Let’s recall Panorama’s claims. Reporter John Ware summarised them in a Daily Telegraph article last September headlined: “The words that might have saved Omagh.”

If GCHQ’s monitoring was “live”, as Special Branch had requested, then by this late stage, it should have been clear that there was a serious possibility that they were listening to a bomb run. Had they alerted Special Branch, it could have made all the difference: there are few routes in and out of Omagh, and these could have been blocked by checkpoints.

But nothing was passed on to the police. By 2.10pm, it was too late: according to the phone logs, the bomb car was inside the town.

In his report, Gibson says:

“I am satisfied that in the days surrounding 15th August and on the day itself, to the extent that any relevant intelligence was derived from interception, it was shared with RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] HQ and Special Branch South promptly and fully, and done so with the latter in accordance with procedures agreed with Special Branch South.”

“The portrayal in the Panorama programme of the tracking on a screen of the movement of two cars, a scout car and a car carrying a bomb, by reference to two “blobs” moving on a road map has no correspondence whatever with what intercepting agencies were able to do or did on 15 August 1998,” he said.

Panorama did not claim that two cars had been successfully tracked. In reply John Ware said he stood by his story and added that, in certain respects, Sir Peter’s was “highly selective and a little disingenuous”. He said it had not focused on the key theme of his programme – why detectives had not been given the information.

“Almost the entire report is focused on whether or not GCHQ intercepts could have prevented the bomb,” he told BBC Radio Ulster. “That was not the main nub of our programme – it was an important part of our programme, but the nub was why the detectives at the end of the intelligence food chain, so to speak, did not get all of the information that had been available to GCHQ.”

Part of the commissioner’s report was withheld “for security reasons”

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