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20 December 2001 Edition

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Omagh: What does the Special Branch have to hide?

By Laura Friel

  I believe the Special Branch of the RUC, together with other agents of the state, are trying to destroy any possibility of anyone being prosecuted for murdering my wife
 
"I had been hoping it wasn't as bad as I thought. In fact, it was worse."


These are the words of Laurence Rushe, whose wife Libbie died in the Omagh bombing of 1998, commenting on a report into the RUC investigation and the role of the Special Branch before and after the killings, following an investigation by the police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.

"The parallels between my wife's murder and the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 are obvious," Rushe told the media, "I believe the Special Branch of the RUC, together with other agents of the state, are trying to destroy any possibility of anyone being prosecuted for murdering my wife."

But, as survivors and relatives of those who died were coming to terms with O'Loan's revelations, RUC/PSNI Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan was defending the actions of the Special Branch and threatening the Ombudsman with legal action.

The Ombudsman's report had accused the Chief Constable of "defective leadership, poor judgement and a lack of urgency." Flanagan in turn accused O'Loan of "factual inaccuracies", "glaring omissions" and "erroneous conclusions".

Identifying the families as his "utmost concern", Flanagan said he "will go through the Ombudsman's report line by line and deconstruct that report." And Flanagan was ready to put his life on the line - O'Loan's report was neither fair nor rigorous, suggested the Chief Constable: If it proved otherwise "I would not only resign, I would publicly commit suicide."

If Flanagan's words sounded desperate, it's because they were. Here is a man who was not only a key member of the Special Branch for most of his 30 years within the RUC, but one whose rise to the top corresponded with the accumulation of power of the Special Branch over the rest of the RUC.

Desperate he may be, but deserted he isn't. Flanagan enjoys powerful support in the unionist and British establishment. Leading Ulster Unionist and member of the British House of Lords, Ken Maginnis likened Nuala O'Loan to a "suicide bomber" and suggested she had "outlived her usefulness."

Maginnis received a stern reprimand from the Ombudsman's office, accusing him of "a vile and slanderous attack" and of inciting a murderous attack, but remained unrepentant. In reply, Maginnis reiterated his "contempt" for "the superficial way in which the Ombudsman has sought to weave unrelated facts into a fantasy."

Meanwhile, former NIO Secretary of State and leading member of New Labour, Peter Mandelson criticised the Ombudsman for not "concentrating on her core responsibility". "She could prove to be victim of what some see as her own zealotry," said Mandelson.

But, for most people, recent revelations concerning the Omagh bombing have only compounded the infamy of a force already discredited by allegations of collusion and cover up. Last month, the failure and possible collusion of the RUC Special Branch in the killing of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane, and their role in a subsequent cover-up, were highlighted during the ill-fated Stobie trial.

The trial collapsed, but the spotlight on the Special Branch continued after a draft report by the police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, revealed the suspicious actions of the force in relation to another incident - the 1998 bombing in Omagh.

According to the report, the RUC Special Branch received warnings of the pending attack, but, as in the case of the Finucane shooting, it chose to ignore the information and take no action to thwart the bombing.

RUC Superintendent James Baxter, the sub divisional commander in Omagh on the day of the attack, was not made aware of warnings received prior to the bombing until almost two years later.

As in the Finucane case, even with the benefit of hindsight, the RUC Special Branch did not use the information available to them to prosecute arrests. William Stobie, an RUC agent within the UDA, named members of the loyalist gang who carried out the Finucane killing, but they were not arrested.

During the subsequent investigation, in both the Finucane and Omagh case, the RUC Special Branch engaged in a cover up. Vital evidence of the warnings received by Special Branch officers prior to the bombing 'disappeared' from Special Branch computers.

And it would have remained 'disappeared', had it not been retrieved during the Ombudsman's probe into allegations of RUC incompetence in relation to the Omagh investigation. The probe criticises the RUC Special Branch for withholding potentially crucial intelligence from detectives, tasked with investigating the bombing.



THE CASE TO ANSWER


Recent revelations, which leave the Special Branch with a case to answer, include:

A Special Branch agent known only as Kevin Fulton warned his handler that a named dissident was involved in preparing a device three days before the bombing.
Fulton's warning was recorded into the RUC computers, but it later 'disappeared' from the files.
Fulton later taped a conversation, in which his handler confirmed receiving the warning.
After the taped conversation, RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, rang Fulton's Special Branch handler and reproached him for admitting that a warning had been received prior to the attack.
Flanagan had previously stated publicly that there were no tip offs. "Any suggestion of a warning is an outrageous untruth," the Chief Constable had said. On July 30 he claimed suggestions that the RUC received advance warnings were "rubbish", "without foundation" and "irresponsible". "The RUC would not ever ignore intelligence about a bombing in order to protect any Special Branch interests," he said.
A second anonymous warning, which was given to the RUC 11 days before the attack, gave specific details of a planned attack in Omagh on August 15, the day of the bombing.
Information received by Special Branch was never passed to RUC officers on the ground in Omagh.
The information was withheld from detectives investigating the bombing.
A car used in the attack was 'lost' and 'missing' for two years before being 'discovered' in a forensic science car park.
A senior RUC officer, Brian McVicar, who conducted an internal probe, was pressured to change his report, when he criticised the RUC handling of the investigation.
Over 250 recommendations made by McVicar were largely ignored.
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