Belfast Telegraph

William Matchett: If Nuala O'Loan has new evidence she should share it with the PSNI, if not she should apologise to Special Branch officers

Author, academic and ex-Special Branch officer Dr William Matchett says former Police Ombudsman must reveal how she reached what he sees as wrong conclusion.

The scene of devastation in Omagh
The scene of devastation in Omagh
Nuala O’Loan in her role as Police Ombudsman

A sensational newspaper headline in July 2001 read ‘I told cops about Omagh’. It screamed the atrocity could have been prevented. The story presented the prospect of a Special Branch informer in the middle of the attack that they allowed to go ahead.

Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan (now Baroness O’Loan) decided to investigate. As it was, the headline was fantasy. Special Branch had no ‘informer’ in the Real IRA team that committed the attack. It left the Ombudsman in a predicament. She had little to say. Enter the August 4 information snippet. The most damning conclusion — “not possible to say” if the attack was preventable — was attached to it.

Today, she concludes that it was preventable. This hinges on the August 4 information and, to a lesser degree, vague references to new intelligence. Let me deal with both.

According to her, an anonymous call to police on August 4 is “profoundly important”. This warned of a gun and rocket attack against police officers in Omagh on August 15. In her eyes, the information was of such clarity (which it was not) that it should have resulted in the local police ring-fencing Omagh thereby forcing the terrorists to abandon their bomb. In her opinion, the local police commander would have done this, had he been told.

If the information related to a bomb attack in the town centre, yes, this is an appropriate operational response. But this was not the case. The threat was of a gun and rocket attack against police officers. Here, the appropriate response is not static checkpoints. As a Special Branch officer I regularly briefed local police commanders on a variety of terrorist threats. There is no universal response, like flooding an area with static vehicle checkpoints.

For a rocket and gun attack against police officers, standard procedure was to keep them mobile in vehicles or inside the barracks. The aim — deny terrorists their target. For a police commander to place his or her people at static checkpoints, in the full knowledge that any one of them was liable to a gun and rocket attack, would have been grossly negligent.

I have run this as a tabletop exercise with senior police officers overseas and none have done what the Baroness recommends. They have practical experience of counter-terrorism policing and excellent knowledge in this area, and are investigators who have to distinguish facts from rumour.

‘Gun and rocket attack against police officers’ does not translate to ‘car bomb in Omagh town centre’ and any hypothesis that the bombing was preventable is incorrect. 

If we accept the August 4 information is wrongly interpreted and would not have triggered the operational response suggested, what of new information? Here, the former Ombudsman inferred that since her report, she had been privy to other intelligence she cannot reveal that, clearly, has contributed to influencing her change of mind.

Not only is it vague and utterly reliant on her opinion, it is contradicted by three other investigations that examined the incident in far greater depth than the Ombudsman.

Their position is epitomised in the response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that scrutinised Judge Gibson’s report, where he was absolutely clear that the Omagh bomb could not have been prevented by the better use of any of the intelligence that might have existed at the time.

I do not understand how Baroness O’Loan can contradict the Chief Constable, Judge Gibson and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, assuming she has the same intelligence as the others, to the point that she interprets the available evidence to the contrary.

If she has new intelligence I urge her to share it with the PSNI or Police Ombudsman. If not, apologise to the Special Branch officers she has publicly defamed.

In the book, Shadows, a former colleague wrote: “The Special Branch officer based at Omagh who analysed the information, scant as it was, had a personal interest in ensuring there was no attack on August 15, 1998. On the day of the bombing, his wife was attending a wedding just 150 yards from the epicentre of the explosion. If there was some grand conspiracy, with this Special Branch officer prepared to let a bomb go through (one assumes to protect informers in the Real IRA) then are you honestly telling me that he was prepared to sacrifice his wife in the process?”

Special Branch did its utmost to protect life and was not the evil menace Provo lies portray.

Baroness O’Loan admitted that she wrote her 2001 report “fairly rapidly”.

It singled out some Special Branch officers for severe criticism, especially over the August 4 information.

Her conclusions were arrived at without interviewing some of these officers and the Ombudsman criticised them and intelligence practices.

The recent line by Baroness O’Loan: “Had necessary action been taken by senior officers in Special Branch,” the Omagh bombing would have been prevented seems aimed at the officers her Office investigated. I find this  tragic and disheartening.

The Omagh bomb report caused untold mental trauma for the Omagh families.

What we got on Wednesday was a sensationalist headline, again.

Dr William Matchett is author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA and Adjunct Fellow at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for conflict prevention, Maynooth University

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