Britain to Reopen Probe of '98 N. Ireland Bombing

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 18, 2008

LONDON, Sept. 17 -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday called for a new investigation into the deadliest bombing of the Northern Ireland conflict following a report that British intelligence officials were tapping the phones of the bombers as they delivered the explosives.

Phone calls the men made as they drove a 500-pound bomb into a crowded shopping area in the city of Omagh were intercepted, according to a BBC report Sunday. The report generated questions as to whether British officials could have stopped the attack.

The Real IRA, a dissident group opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process, asserted responsibility for the August 1998 bombing, which killed 29 people and wounded 200. Nearly a dozen children were among the dead. In sectarian violence that led to 3,600 deaths between the late 1960s and the late 1990s, the Omagh bombing was the single worst atrocity.

At the time, the Northern Ireland peace process was at a fragile stage. The Omagh bombing, outraging people on both sides of the conflict, led to intense moral pressure on the Irish Republican Army to shun all violence and cement peace.

But no one has ever been convicted in the bombing.

"A lot of the families have always thought there was something murky about the Omagh bombing" and some questioned what British intelligence services knew at the time, said Peter Shirlow, a law professor at Queen's University in Belfast. "Now these suspicions are impossible for the British government to ignore."

British authorities' long investigation into the attack has drawn wide criticism. In December, a judge acquitted Sean Hoey, an electrician, in the bombing. The judge called the police work "slapdash" and said it was flawed by "deliberate and calculated deception."

Colm Murphy, Hoey's uncle, was convicted in 2002 of conspiring with the bombers. But his conviction was overturned in 2005 when a judge ruled that detectives had lied about the evidence against him.

According to the BBC report, it is not clear if intelligence officers were listening to the bombers as they spoke, or made recordings that were only heard after the bombing.

A British government report last year confirmed old suspicions that in numerous cases, British officials colluded with Protestant paramilitary informers, even murderers, shielding them from prosecution. Some people are asking whether there might have been similar collusion with Catholic informers who were reporting on the Omagh bombers.

The British cabinet office, in announcing Brown's decision, said British Intelligence Service Commissioner Peter Gibson would review all phone intercepts relating to the Omagh bombing.

"Many want the truth to be explored," Shirlow said. "There is a growing sense that survivors don't have answers."

He said the reports about the British government wiretaps add to the "uncertainty" of what happened and "does re-traumatize the families."

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