Three neighbours were killed by an IRA bomb in Londonderry after police failed to warn people of their fears of a device in the immediate area at the time, a report claims.
Eugene Dalton, 54 and Sheila Lewis, 68, were blown up in the booby trap explosion at a gable end, top floor flat in the city's Creggan district in August 1988. Gerard Curran, 57, died seven months after being pulled from the rubble.
They had gone to check the whereabouts of a man who had been living in the property. It later emerged he and a 15-year-old boy, who had run away from a care home in Belfast, had been kidnapped six days earlier by the IRA and then released unharmed after the bomb went off.
Police were unaware they had been taken away, but an investigation by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire has confirmed the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had sufficient information and intelligence that some sort of device had been left in the vicinity of the flat - but did not alert anybody about the threat even though the area was declared out of bounds to officers after a car used in a gun attack was abandoned and burned out nearby five days previously.
He said responsibility for the deaths rested with the people who planted the bomb. But he also claimed that not only did the police fail to protect the victims, the subsequent criminal investigation into the three murders was flawed, inadequate and incomplete.
Dr Maguire's report said the police failed to finish comprehensive house to house inquiries, follow up on forensic work as well as preserve and manage investigation documentation. There was little or no communication with the families, leaving them bewildered and frustrated, he said. A number of suspects were arrested, but no one has ever been charged with the murders. The IRA later apologised, admitting they left a booby trap in the flat in a bid to kill members of an Army search team.
The victims went to the flat because they were concerned for their 32-year-old neighbour. Mr Dalton climbed through a kitchen window, and just as he was about to open the front door to Mrs Lewis and Mr Curran, the bomb went off, collapsing the roof and wrecking three external doors. All three were Catholics.
Mr Dalton's family made a number of complaints to the Ombudsman's office in February 2005, and in his 67-page report, Dr Maguire said he found no evidence to support a suggestion that police failed to do anything in order to protect an informer. But he was highly critical of the RUC failure to take the necessary steps to mitigate the threat by disruption activity and to warn the local community.
The focus of the police effort, he said, appeared to have been the protection of officers because of fears of an attempt by the IRA to lure them into the area. Dr Maguire said: "It is my conclusion that the police failed in their duty to protect the victims by allowing an explosive device to remain in a location that presented a real and immediate risk to life and further - that they failed to mitigate that threat or to advise the local community, or its leaders of probable terrorist activity in the area."
Dr Maguire said: "The investigation of historical matters presents unique challenges. Several people who may have been able to provide witness evidence to this investigation, including former police officers, are now deceased. A number of retired police officers identified by this investigation as likely to have knowledge that would assist the investigation declined to co-operate. I cannot compel retired officers to assist with an investigation."