Claim police could have prevented Omagh atrocity 'bizarre and traumatising' for victims and officers, says Chief Constable George Hamilton
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton has accused a former Police Ombudsman of "traumatising" the Omagh bombing families on the 20th anniversary over her "bizarre" claims.
He said that while he held Baroness O'Loan in high regard he questioned the timing of her comments saying there was no new information and the former Ombudsman should consider her original report.
In an interview with the BBC, the former Police Ombudsman said she had changed her opinion from a report she published in 2001 and now "firmly believed" police could have prevented the attack. She said police checkpoint could have forced the bombers to abandon their operation.
She said there was new information, but she was not in a position to discuss the specifics.
"It does not come easy to say this... but I think if you have a view which is informed by your experience of what is informed by investigation of systems and how systems develop then you do have certain duties and I think it was incumbent on me to say this," she said.
Explaining her decision to speak out on the day of the 20th anniversary, she said there were calls for lessons to be learned after the atrocity, but that that had not happened and there needed to be a cross-border inquiry. She said she stood by her comments after the chief constable's response.
The PSNI Chief Constable rejected the claim.
"I have to protect the integrity of the organisation," he told the BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show.
"We have had many failings, we have apologised where it is appropriate but I am not going to stand back for one minute and allow someone to suggest that this organisation - the members of which go out every day to protect their community - through tardiness or laziness or some other reason could have prevented the Omagh bombing.
"If we could have prevented that bombing, of course we would have done."
The information available then is the same information available now.
Twenty-nine men, woman and children - including a mother pregnant with unborn twins - were killed in the Real IRA attack which devastated the Tyrone town on August 15, 1998.
Families and those who were at the scene in the immediate aftermath of the attack are to gather in the town just after 3pm to mark the 20th anniversary. They say it will be the final time they will publicly commemorate the event and remember those lost.
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In her role as Police Ombudsman Mrs O'Loan published a 150 page report into the RUC's handling of the bomb in 2001. The report was highly critical of the police and said that two warnings in the days before the bombing had not been passed to the RUC from the intelligence services. It was also critical of the internal police review that followed.
"It is 18 years since the report she published and when she was in the office of the ombudsman and had access to all the material she came to a different conclusion," Mr Hamilton added.
"At the crux of this issue is this change in position. What she is saying is that 20 years ago she could not know based on the information available. The information available then is the same information available now."
I can not let the former ombudsman comments pass today without defending integrity of the police officers.
Mr Hamilton pointed to a 2008 report commissioned by the then Prime Minister by Sir Peter Gibson the intelligence services commissioner - and which had information from GCHQ, the security services and considered intelligence which existed. That report found that there was "nothing to suggest" a bomb attack was to take place on August 15 or that Omagh was a target.
"The parts of the ombudsman report that were critical of the police for around the dissemination of intelligence for example in the immediate days following to allow the investigation to gain momentum quickly. All that criticism was uncomfortable reading for policing but I accept all of that.
"I apologise to the families for those shortcomings in the investigation.
"But that is very different from saying police were sitting on information and didn't exploit and didn't join it up that could have prevented it.
"We have had this examined infinitum by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabularies, by Sir Peter Gibson, by Nuala O'Loan herself when she held office of ombudsman and I find it bizarre that 20 years on when our thoughts should be with the families and trying to support them that assertion like this based on no new information is being brought into the public domain.
"Today should be one about sympathy and empathy with those families and not about traumatising them further by saying it could have been prevented."
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Mr Hamilton asked what the new information was that Nuala O'Loan had that had brought her to the conclusion when she had all the information available to her when she was Police Ombudsman.
"It would be different if we had new information.. an 'oh dear moment' - that is not the case. The former ombudsman is still dealing with the same information than when she completed her report.
"And the Prime Minister published a report - which is quite remarkable - which said the intelligence material could not have been prevented the bombing.
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"I can not let the former ombudsman comments pass today without defending integrity of the police officers who did every thing they could on the day.
"And certainly if anyone in the police service had of known there was a bomb going to Omagh we would have done everything we could do to prevent the atrocuity.
"Those word are difficult to hear ... she needs to go back to what she wrote."
Belfast Telegraph Digital