Omagh, 15 August, 1998: “You will want for Nothing”

Rights NI is delighted to welcome this guest post from Christopher Stanley. Christopher Stanley is Legal Officer with Rights Watch (UK) and can be reached at cstanley@rwuk.org. This was originally posted on the Rights Watch UK blog at http://www.rwuk.org/all/omagh-15-august-1998-you-will-want-for-nothing/

In the year marking the 15th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, let us not forget that in Omagh on 15th August 1998 a bomb killed 29 people and two unborn babies and injured at least 220 others.  If history is toxic in Northern Ireland then what happened that Saturday afternoon in the small town of Omagh contributes to that problem of the toxicity of the past that shapes the present and determines the future.  If Dealing with Past in Northern Ireland needs to move forward on the basis of justice based upon truth and accountability then the role of the state in the Omagh bombing needs to be explained.

The Omagh bomb was (thankfully) excluded from the remit of the now shamed Historical Enquiries Team; it was also excluded from the remit of the Consultative Group on the Past.  However, that does not exempt the state, whose role is central in the narrative of the Omagh tragedy as the first significant atrocity of the fragile peace (the political motive of which was to destabilise the peace process), from explaining its role before and after the bombing of Omagh.  As the final report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) published at end of the previous political  administration tells us in its title “The Omagh Bombing: Some Remaining Questions” (see: http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmniaf/374/374.pdf), there are some very significant remaining questions addressed to the state.  The answers to these questions are needed.

There are four sovereign states involved in the questions remaining about the Omagh bombing.

The first is the government of the UK on whose territory the Omagh bomb occurred and whose  police force conducted the initial investigation (the Royal Ulster Constabulary), and whose independent investigator (The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland) pursued further lines of questioning, and whose security and intelligence services including the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and ther Security service (MI5) were central in monitoring intelligence being obtained in relation to the planned Omagh bombing and other targets, and whose senior law officer in relation to the intelligence community (Sir Peter Gibson) was commissioned to produce a report as yet to be seen, even by a House of Common Select Committee, remaining secret despite the fact the UK intelligence community were exonerated (see: http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2009/07/report-the-omagh-bombing-access-to-intelligence/).  The executive, at the level of the then Prime Minister, considered this non-report too sensitive to disclose even to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee (NIAC), a parliamentary committee charged with the oversight of the affairs of Northern Ireland.

The second state in this matrix of responsibility is the government of the Republic of Ireland (ROI) on whose territory the Omagh bomb was planned and whose police force  (Garda Síochána na hÉireann) worked with the RUC in the initial and subsequent investigations, the same Irish police force that had monitored the movements of those implicated in the Omagh bomb, those who then faced civil action in the courts of Northern Ireland and were found liable in civil law for the torts of trespass against the person (battery) and conspiracy to trespass.  Those who were implicated in the Omagh bomb were in Northern Ireland for a very short time. The government of the Republic of Ireland subsequently held its own independent investigation in to the Omagh bomb attack (the Nally Review).  It also prosecuted a number of those  implicated in the Omagh bomb attack. Criminal responsibility for the Omagh bomb attack has not been established in either jurisdiction.

The third is the government of the USA, whose citizen (David Rupert) was living in the Republic of Ireland and who was a paid informer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and had penetrated the leadership of dissident Republican groups including the Real IRA, the embryonic splinter groupm who claimed joint responsibility for the Omagh bomb attack with the Continuity IRA.  David Rupert was also briefing the UK’s domestic secret service (MI5) in addition to the security section of the Garda.  The US response to the Omagh bomb attack included a visit to the town by President Bill Clinton, whose political administration had done much to broker the peace.

The fourth is the government of Spain who lost two of its citizens in the attack.

Those responsible for the Omagh bomb attack are known; they have been found liable in civil law. As noted, the criminal processes of the prosecuting jurisdictions (the UK and the ROI) has not been able to establish criminal responsibility and the primary reasons for this have been the failings in the cross-border policing investigation specifically in relation to the sharing of mobile telephone communication intelligence gathered through state interception and monitoring, the use of informers and the handling of DNA evidence.

The families of the victims and the survivors of the Omagh bomb attack have been continually let down by governments and politicians.  The UK government initially promised that “no stone would be left unturned in the investigation” and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam assured the families “you will want for nothing”.  In September 2002 it was revealed that Tony Blair had refused to meet the families of the victims and in February 2004 the families called Bertie Ahern’s offer of only “five or ten minutes of his time” an “insult” after trying to arrange a meeting for over five years.  Whatever the political motivations were for this, whether they were the product of a fear that successful prosecutions would destabilise the peace process or that a full review would unearth too many unwanted truths, the attitude of some political figures towards the families of the victims and the injured has made things worse.

So what is required now?  In some quarters there are continual demands for what would be an unprecedented cross-border public inquiry, or a UK based public inquiry with full international co-operation of the relevant states specifically in relation to disclosure of evidence and the compelling of witnesses.  That is one possibility.  There are those in Omagh who wish not to be so involved in continuing activities, and those wishes, as NIAC noted in 2010, should be respected.

As the experience in Northern Ireland as a post-conflict society in transition toward peace has demonstrated, remembering, remembrance, forgetting and forgiving are very complex emotions.  There are those who may not want to forgive but who may want to forget.  As the work of the Consultative Group on the Past demonstrated there are many approaches to the Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland and its Report deserved greater consideration than it received when first presented to the UK government and the people of Northern Ireland, including the people of Omagh. In this anniversary year perhaps it is time to revisit these ideas in a spirit of political maturity infused with the urgency demanded of the need for justice delivered through and truth and accountability.

One thing is required at this time of remembering the Omagh bomb 1998: an investigation into some form to prevent a reoccurrence and this means an examination of internal procedures and protocols about intelligence gathering and sharing between domestic agencies (for example GCHQ and RUC) and international agencies (for example between Garda and RUC). Unless these inquiries are undertaken and explained and lines of accountability established, including at a political level, and there is oversight for such operations as the monitoring of counter-terrorist activities and explanations when there is failure, then the legacy of the Omagh bomb attack will remain a toxic stain on the public authorities of the state(s) to explain failures to protect the innocent or to sacrifice the innocent for some unexplained good, such as political expediency.