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Search for the truth may prove to be a lost cause

What can the relatives of the Omagh bomb victims realistically expect from the British and Irish governments in response to their call for a full cross-border judicial inquiry into the atrocity?

The only other similar cross-border probe is the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin which is investigating the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the two most senior RUC officers to be killed in the Troubles, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.

Smithwick has been fermenting for seven years and even now official documents which would be relevant to its deliberations have yet to be provided to its lawyers.

The Republic's justice minister, Alan Shatter, caused furore among unionists when he suggested the public sittings should be wound up by the autumn. Since then, hitherto undiscovered material and corroborating witness evidence has been brought to Judge Smithwick's attention - sensitive material which the authorities on both sides of the border hoped would not surface.

Little, for instance, has been provided by the Northern Ireland Office and only now is the major Customs operation - codenamed Operation Amazing, which Breen and Buchanan were organising police support for and which cost them their lives - being examined.

Why Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs did not provide the details of the nuts and bolts of this operation to Judge Smithwick's team years ago is inexplicable.

Former senior Customs officers were aware of the significance of the operation to target IRA smuggling in the events leading up to the ambush that caused the deaths of the two officers.

'Corporate memory' does not exist within the PSNI, its lawyer told the tribunal and, while the events being probed in Dublin occurred up to 27 years ago, the Omagh bombing is a significant time distance away, too.

Some problems Smithwick has encountered an Omagh Tribunal might not, but only if witnesses were compellable on both sides of the border - regardless of where hearings were held.

Some former RUC witnesses in this jurisdiction have refused to attend Smithwick and could not be coaxed either to Dublin or to a video-link in Belfast.

An Omagh inquiry based in Northern Ireland without a unique cross-border jurisdictional power would face a similar problem in compelling retired Garda witnesses to attend.

And with the Omagh atrocity occurring more than a decade ago, there will be even greater reluctance on the part of police forces to commit to a searching examination of their respective roles in the period leading up to the attack.

At Smithwick, the unmasking of a deceased RUC informant - smuggler John McAnulty - in connection with a 1985 Special Branch report provoked legal fury from counsel for the PSNI, which represents RUC interests in such sensitive matters.

Such public disclosure was both unfortunate and unprecedented, Smithwick pointed out, but lawyers representing other interests retorted that, had the PSNI assisted the tribunal with the disclosure, then McAnulty's name might not have become public knowledge.

And even outside agent issues, there has been antipathy, approaching panic, at the divulging of any methodology used in the intercepting of radio signals, including primitive citizens' band-type sets.

Imagine how much more resolutely evidence touching upon the intelligence-gathering methodology used in 1998 would be protected against the backdrop of ongoing anti-terrorist operations.

Michael Gallagher, whose son, Aidan, was killed by the Omagh bomb, insists it will be difficult for both governments to avoid setting up a process where the truth can be elicited.

He may be proved right, but those with the unseen hands in government business will do their utmost to dissuade the ministers from facilitating the wishes of the Omagh victims.