The Police Ombudsman has accused the RUC of an “unexplained and prolonged” delay in acting on information provided by Special Branch after the Omagh bomb.
It also emerged that police were originally acting on innacurate intelligence and later that a decision not to act on information was made that could have adversely impacted the investigation. But no records as to the rationale for the decision were kept.
While pointing out that the Real IRA attack could not have been prevented, the Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s anti-terrorist unit withheld the telephone numbers of dissident republican suspects and other intelligence matters from the police investigating Omagh.
Twenty-nine men, women and children were killed in the explosion in August 1998. One of the victims was a pregnant woman whose twins were almost full term. Among the dead children were young people on a day trip from Buncrana and their friends from Madrid who had been staying with host families.
Five arrests were made two days after the bombing but all those held were subsequently released without charge.
Dr Maguire said that RUC special branch had not provided all the intelligence it held because of its interpretation of the law at that time and their concerns breaches of the law could render evidence obtained inadmissible in court.
“The consequence was that the police investigation was required to invest substantial resources in analysing related records, resources that might well have been better utilised at that early stage of the inquiry,” he said.
He also wrote: “I am satisfied that investigative efforts to locate and arrest the suspects identified to Police Officer 3 on 20 August 1998 could have been pursued in a similar timescale as those arrested on 17 August 1998. Instead, Police Officer 3 chose to regard the information as not being actionable. There is a complete absence of records relating to this crucial decision and so no evidence as to the rationale, whether it related to the origins of the information, the absence of the suspects from the jurisdiction or the anticipated effectiveness of such arrests.
“This may well have had an adverse impact on the investigation of the Omagh Bombing. My investigation has been specifically concerned with certain intelligence obtained between 15 August 1998 and 9 September 1998 held by the police. It did not involve an audit of all intelligence material held by the PSNI, or any other agency, in relation to the Omagh Bomb. All other intelligence held by the PSNI has been subject of review by my Office in previous investigations.”
Dr Maguire said that during the course of his 18 month investigation a substantial amount of intelligence and investigative material was analysed by investigators who also conducted enquiries with a wide range of witnesses, including Sir Peter Gibson, who led a government-backed review, serving and retired police officers and members of other government agencies.
“This intelligence operation assisted in generating information in relation to members of the group, albeit significant in number, believed to have been responsible for the Omagh Bombing, including some whom police subsequently identified as suspects,” he said.
“Neither the investigation subject of report by my predecessor in 2001, nor my current Inquiry, identified intelligence held by the PSNI in relation to previous bomb attacks which, if acted on, would have prevented the Omagh Bomb.
“However, I have established that RUC Special Branch provided accurate information regarding suspects for the atrocity to the SIO responsible for the investigation on 20 August 1998. Further intelligence was disseminated to the police investigation team on 9 September 1998 with arrests following twelve days later.”
He also said that in view of the limited information on which police were initially prepared to make five arrests two days after the bombing and the absence of any contemporaneous records which might have established and/or clarified the lack of response to the information disclosed by Special Branch on 20 August 1998, “I have concluded that there was an unexplained and prolonged delay in the arrest of further suspects for the Omagh Bombing.”