Belfast Telegraph

Cameron should promise an inquiry into the Omagh bomb

By Alan Murray

If anyone asks did anything good come out of this Parliament, we can at least point to yesterday's biting report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the Omagh bombing.



A small but influential group of MPs has, at last, cut through the red tape and dumped the customary protocol of not questioning 'those who know' in the intelligence services and said "indeed we do need to know".

For years, those bereaved by the Omagh bomb and the media have been fed the line from London and Dublin that the sensitive intelligence material which has been withheld from public view could not have prevented the bombing, or led to the convictions of the bombers.

The man who was asked to steal a car for the bombers - Paddy Dixon - refused to make himself available to the PSNI for interview.

The detective who handled Dixon as a Garda agent was discredited by his own force. And the information held by GCHQ in Cheltenham about the bombers' communications, we were told, was inconclusive and could not have been of great value to detectives investigating the bombing. Of course, the detectives investigating the bombing didn't get sight or sound of what GCHQ had so couldn't really evaluate whether it would have been useful or not in apprehending the bombers.

However, it is surely indisputable that, had the RUC been able to swoop on those who possessed the phones used to 'talk' the bomb into its deadly place in August 1998, evidence would have been seized that would have allowed detectives on both sides of the border to build a watertight case at least against those who talked on the mobiles.

But intelligence-gathering protocol ruled in the immediate hours after the bombing and the vital information that would have led police to the homes of the bombers was never yielded.

As one former senior RUC Special Branch officer told me many years ago: "The material was never ours to do with as we wished, even when we did get some of it. We didn't have ownership of it, it always belonged to GCHQ."

Now Sir Patrick Cormack and his fellow committee members have cut to the core of the issue and suggested that, notwithstanding who 'owns' the tapes, or whether they might betray some intelligence methodology, what they yielded should be made known.

As he said yesterday, there are "so many areas of doubt" still surrounding the Omagh bombing.

Suspicion abounds that the Garda and MI5 did a 'deal' to allow a terrorist operation that became the Omagh bomb to go ahead to preserve the identity, or identities, of Garda agents who had been crucial to preventing Real IRA bombs departing to Britain from the Republic.

Other suspicions about the reasons for the withholding of intelligence information from the RUC investigation will continue to pose questions that the relatives "deserve to have answered", as Sir Patrick said. Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son James died in the horrific attack, yesterday put into plain words what he wants an inquiry to tell him."I want the truth, that's all. I would rather know the truth than nothing at all," he said.

He acknowledges that the intelligence agencies have prevented countless terrorist attacks here and in Britain, but realistically says that human error occurs and misjudgments take place in every area of professional life.

"Human errors occur, I accept that, but the longer this goes on the more suspicious you become.

"I have written letters to the PM's office and it takes four to five months to get a reply and when you do it is dismissive. In the replies, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry is mentioned, but this has nothing to do with Bloody Sunday; it is an intelligence-related set of issues and we need a change of Government policy on Omagh."

That seems improbable before the General Election and there is no guarantee that David Cameron, if he forms the next government, will heed the advice of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and order a short judicial inquiry into the Omagh bombing. But it would be one step those in alliance with his party in Northern Ireland could urge him to take to clear the decks on a festering issue from a previous era - just as Labour did with Bloody Sunday.

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