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Omagh Bombing

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

In the town of Omagh on 15 August 1998, a criminal terrorist group known as the Real IRA (RIRA) detonated a 500 lb bomb in a car, after issuing warnings which were clearly misleading and resulted in compounding the number of deaths. RIRA murdered 29 men, women and children and two unborn babies.

To date, despite the efforts of then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and now Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Garda Siochana, only one person has been convicted on a charge of conspiracy to cause an explosion. This conviction was overturned on appeal in the Dublin Court of Criminal Appeal.

The Government understand that because no one has yet been brought to justice for this heinous crime the pain and grief continues to compound for those who suffered so much.

The events around 15 August 1998 have rightly been the subject of media coverage and understandably continue to generate interest.

On 15 September 2008 the BBC broadcast an edition of the Panorama programme, written and presented by John Ware, entitled “Omagh—What the Police Were Never Told”. John Ware had also written an article published in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 September alleging, inter alia, that at the relevant time, vital intercept evidence had not been passed promptly enough to the police and thereby might have prevented the bombing or subsequently assist the investigating officers to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In view of the seriousness of the issues raised, the Prime Minister on 17 September asked Sir Peter Gibson, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, to “review any intercepted intelligence material available to the security and intelligence agencies in relation to the Omagh bombing and how this intelligence was shared”. In his review, Sir Peter examined the role of GCHQ in gathering and handling intercept intelligence at the material time. He also investigated what intercept was shared with the RUC.

In preparing his report, Sir Peter drew on a range of highly sensitive and highly classified material made available to him by those agencies involved in the production of intercept intelligence.

Some of this material is inevitably subject to legal constraints. Its publication would disclose information about how our security and intelligence agencies currently function and thereby compromise current operations aimed at ensuring the protection of our national security.

Nonetheless, the Government believe it is right and appropriate to publish as much of the findings of the review as possible.

I have therefore placed in the Library of the House a copy of a document setting out in considerable detail Sir Peter’s conclusions. It is also my intention today to make the full, classified report available to Members of the Intelligence and Security Committee for their scrutiny.

At the time of the Omagh bombing the action taken by GCHQ on any interception was governed by procedures agreed between GCHQ and RUC Special Branch. Those procedures were documented in written guidance for the relevant GCHQ team. Specifically, intercepts relating to phone numbers designated by Special Branch as being highest priority were monitored live. GCHQ carried out the tasks it was asked to carry out by Special Branch.

Throughout 1998, including on 15 August, GCHQ ensured intelligence from any interception that might have been relevant to those operations being conducted by Special Branch was made promptly available to them. This included “near real time” provision of information; that is, almost immediately after a call had been listened to itself in near real time. This was in accordance with the pre-agreed criteria.

Any formal intelligence reports were issued within hours of interception in broad accordance with procedures agreed between GCHQ and Special Branch.

Sir Peter concludes he is satisfied that in the days surrounding 15 August, and on the day itself, to the extent that any relevant intelligence derived from interception existed, this was shared with RUC HQ and Special Branch promptly and fully; and done so with the latter by procedures agreed with Special Branch South. He also concludes that there was nothing to suggest either a bomb attack was going to take place on 15 August or the town of Omagh was the target of any such bomb attack.

Sir Peter found no evidence to support the allegations of the Panorama programme that, in the run-up to 15 August, the Garda had warned the police of a likely attack. Crucially, any intelligence derived from interception as might have existed would not have prevented the bombing.

The programme also suggested that the cars involved in the bombing could have been tracked and their journey monitored on a screen.

Sir Peter is also satisfied that in 1998, on the basis of evidence from an independent expert witness from a mobile communications provider, it was neither possible to track mobile phones in real time nor visualise the location and movement of mobile phones in the way shown in the Panorama programme.

Assertions in the programme that live monitoring on the day would have shown what was going to happen are incorrect and unsupported by any evidence.

It was also implied in the Panorama programme that GCHQ did not pass on intercepted intelligence to RUC CID to help the enquiry. This is not supported by the facts.

Further to this, there were arrangements in place at that time which allowed for RUC Special Branch to make requests in respect of further dissemination of any GCHQ material. The records confirm that no such request was made.

The handling of intelligence material by the then Special Branch and their relationship to other investigative arms of the police has been the subject of a number of previous reviews and reports. As the Chief Constable has indicated in a letter sent to me yesterday, a copy of which I have also placed in the Library of the House, in line with the recommendations made by the police ombudsman in her December 2001 report on the bombing, and the subsequent Crompton report, serious and organised crime investigation, including terrorist crime investigation and the intelligence branch were grouped together within one department, crime operations, under a single assistant chief constable.

Special Branch no longer exists, having been replaced by a branch with service-wide responsibility for all intelligence from volume crime to the most serious crime.

A dissemination policy today determines how intelligence is shared for the purposes of a criminal investigation; early investigative expertise is sought in cases of serious crime; and the Police Service of Northern Ireland resources these areas to operate at the highest national standards in respect of handling intelligence and the investigation of serious and organised crime.

The Government share with the British and Irish public the deep regret that those responsible have neither faced justice nor been punished for their wicked crimes. And while it remains right that the police and other agencies charged with protecting the public from terrorism are accountable for their conduct and subject to scrutiny, we must never forget the bomb was the deliberate work of RIRA and we all have a continuing duty to do all we can to bring these criminals to justice.