Northern Ireland news

Omagh bombing victim's husband 'flabbergasted' by former police ombudsman's claim

Nuala O'Loan claimed the Omagh bomb was preventable. Picture by Hugh Russell

FORMER police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan has been criticised by the husband of an Omagh bomb victim for claiming that the atrocity was preventable.

Kevin Skelton, whose wife Philomena was among those killed when a Real IRA bomb destroyed a swathe of the Co Tyrone town's centre, said he was "flabbergasted" that Baroness O'Loan had chosen the 20th anniversary of the bomb to speak out.

The former police watchdog's remarks sparked a row which cast a shadow over yesterday's commemoration of the 1998 bombing, for which no-one has been convicted.

Baroness O'Loan, who when police ombudsman in 2001 published a report into the RUC operation in the run-up to the atrocity, said: "When I reported on Omagh I said we didn't know whether the bomb could have been prevented.

"It is now my very firm view that the bomb could have been prevented."

Her comments came as relatives of the dead marked 20 years since the August 1998 dissident republican blast which killed 29, including a woman pregnant with twins.

Baroness O'Loan said the various intelligence services could have worked in a more cohesive way.

On August 4 1998, 11 days before the bombing, the RUC received an anonymous telephone call warning that there would be an "unspecified" attack on police in Omagh on August 15, 1998.

Special Branch, which handled intelligence from agents, took only limited action on the information and a threat warning was not sent to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh, the investigation by Baroness O'Loan when she was police ombudsman found.

A RUC review concluded in 2000 that the information should have been passed to the commander.

Baroness O'Loan yesterday told the BBC: "If that had been conveyed to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh he could have just set checkpoints up around the town and the effect of that could have been to drive the bombers to abandon their bomb."

Calling for a public inquiry into the events around the Real IRA bomb, she said the intelligence services were tracking the movements of the car containing the bomb from the Republic.

Yesterday, relatives of the victims gathered at the place on Market Street where the bomb was placed for a short ceremony led by the Omagh Churches Forum.

It was followed by the ringing of a bell 32 times to reflect the 31 lives lost and an additional peal to remember all who have lost their lives through similar atrocities.

In response to Baroness O'Loan's claim that the bombing could have been prevented, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said she risked re-traumatising the families.

He said police were not in a position to stop the bombing and described the fresh claim as "inaccurate, unfair and unreasonable".

"I do not know what has led Baroness O'Loan to a conclusion that differs so much from her remarks of 2001," he said.

"Considerations around a public inquiry into the Omagh bombing are a matter for government."

Baroness O'Loan later responded to Mr Hamilton remarks, standing by her comments.

"It is my understanding of the further information which has emerged, some of which I am not in a position to talk about, but we have seen work by very prominent journalists and we have seen the various inquiries by (Sir Peter) Gibson and people like that," she said.

"And we can see Gibson very carefully choosing his language about the reasonableness of the police actions in disclosing or not disclosing intelligence."

Mr Skelton said the former police ombudsman could have made her claim on another day.

"She could have brought it out any day – why today?" he said.

"The timing couldn't have been worse."

Mr Skelton said no new evidence had emerged to support Baroness O'Loan's claim.

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