“The sadness is of course that we know who committed this crime.”
Ronnie Flanagan, Chief Constable, Royal Ulster Constabulary
The Real IRA (RIRA) claim responsibility 72 hours after the bombing and issue an apology for the civilian casualties. They claim the intended targets were ‘commercial’ and are justified as ‘part of the on-going war against the Brits.’
Many believe the founder of the RIRA is fifty year old Michael McKevitt. He sets it up as a splinter group in November 1997 after Sinn Fein enter into talks with the British Government over the Good Friday Agreement. He is not from Northern Ireland but his wife is. She’s the sister of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker. (Bobby Sands was the IRA prisoner, and elected British MP, who starved himself to death at the age of 27. He died attempting to make the British government recognise him and other convicted terrorists not as criminals, but as political prisoners).
Back at the blast area, forensics teams meticulously examine eight tonnes of rubble. It’s the largest ever murder investigation in Northern Ireland history. Nearly 80 suspects are questioned, 2,000 people interviewed and 3,000 statements taken. The investigation establishes the detonator was housed in a child’s lunch box and that the timer used was similar to other ones used by the RIRA. The car is identified as having been stolen in the Republic of Ireland and later, it had its numbers plates replaced with false Northern Ireland ones.
Six million phone records are searched. This establishes that mobile phones were used by a scout car to make sure the bomb carrying car had a clear path. One report suggests young children are brought along in the scout car to deflect attention from the security forces. Using triangulation, Special Branch is able to plot the route of the bombers via their mobile phones. The bombers drove up from the Irish Republic and crossed the border to Omagh on the day of the bombing.
The warning phone calls are traced to phone-boxes in South Armagh, a stronghold for the IRA, also known as bandit country. The caller’s voice is identified as having a ‘thick northern country accent’ and sounding like he was 50-55 years old. The phone boxes used are sealed and are lifted off by helicopter for forensic analysis.
The police appeal to the public and new legislation and offences, such as ‘directing terrorism’ are introduced to make it easier to arrest terrorist suspects.
On 22 September 1998, the RUC and Gardai (the Irish police) arrest twelve men in connection with the bombing. They’re arrested under existing laws rather than using the new Omagh initiated legislation. All are released without charge because of a lack of evidence. On 22 February 1999, seven suspects are questioned. And three days later, Colm Murphy is charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and with membership of the RIRA. Now 48, Murphy has been involved in fighting the British since he was a teenager. Recently, however, his main activities appear to be as a builder and a pub owner in Dundalk, a town close to the Northern Ireland border.
On 9 October 2000, the BBC’s Panorama programme alleges the police have other prime suspects. It names suspected RIRA leader, Michael McKevitt and also suspected RIRA member Liam Campbell. Liam, a farmer, lost his brother in 1975 when explosives he was preparing to use against the British blew up. Liam’s brother Michael is also an IRA member. The BBC programme also names Seamus Daly. Seamus, the youngest of the suspects, is an unemployed republican in his late twenties from County Monaghan, in Ireland.
It’s suspected the police leak the information to the BBC because their evidence is too circumstantial to be used in court. But the programme also alleges that GCHQ, the government’s communications monitoring agency, has the capacity to listen to mobile phone calls and so could have been aware of the bombers mobile phone calls, monitored them, and possibly prevented the attack.
There’s growing criticism of the investigation from all quarters. Many feel there are two separate investigations, one by the RUC, north of the border, and one by the Gardai, south of it. And both are being denied vital information by the intelligence services.
And in July 2001, an undercover agent who has infiltrated the IRA for the British army, codenamed, Kevin Fulton, alleges he passed on the possibility of a bomb being prepared:
“There’s something big going down because they’re mixing at night.”
He claims he informed his special branch handlers of where and who was preparing the bomb three days before Omagh (though Kevin doesn’t name Omagh as the intended target.)
In August 2001 Nuala O’Loan, the police ombudsman is brought in to investigate these and other claims of incompetence and cover up. As she herself admits, her presence receives mixed results:
"While we got co-operation from some officers, we didn’t get co-operation from others”
The following years would be as much about investigating the investigators as putting on trial the actual suspects.