Update: Row erupts between police chief and ex-ombudsman over prevention of Omagh bomb

Update 4.15pm: A row has broken out between Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable and a former police watchdog after she said the Omagh bomb could have been prevented.

Former ombudsman Nuala O’Loan investigated police actions in the lead-up to the bomb and, in a report published in 2001, said she did not know whether the bomb could have been prevented.

However, speaking on Wednesday morning, the 20th anniversary of the blast which killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with unborn twins, Baroness O’Loan said she now believes it could have been stopped.

But Police Service of Northern Ireland chief George Hamilton has insisted officers could not have prevented the blast.

“The former police ombudsman, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, has today alleged it is her firm view that the bombing could have been prevented,” he said.

“I consider this comment to be inaccurate, unfair and unreasonable.

“Police were not in a position to prevent the Omagh bombing.”

He added: “I do not know what has led Baroness O’Loan to a conclusion that differs so much from her remarks of 2001.

“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.

“We know that 78% of the intelligence was not disclosed, we know that there is a body of evidence and intelligence now about the tracking of people, intercepted telephone calls, so there is a lot more.

“It doesn’t come easy to me to say this, I feel profoundly saddened, but I think that if you have a view which is informed by experience of investigation, of systems, then you do have certain duties and I think it was incumbent on me to say this.

“And I think the time is right now when we can look at it.”

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said he did not wish to say more out of respect for grieving families on the 20th anniversary of the Omagh bomb (Brian Lawless/PA)

“Now it just seems to me that we need to learn the lessons of the failings north and south that allowed this bomb to travel up in the way that it did and which allowed it to be planted in the middle of a little market town on a glorious summer afternoon,” she told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme.

“And I think the only way we will do that is through a public inquiry with full powers to compel witnesses and compel evidence, but it won’t work if it’s a UK public inquiry, the story vests in both territories, Northern Ireland and the Republic, and indeed in England.”

Spanish tourist Gonzalo Cavedo, who survived the Omagh blast, stands in front of the car containing the bomb, in an image found by police on a camera among 30 tons of rubble removed from the scene (RUC/PA)

Mr Hamilton said he did not wish to say any more on the matter out of respect for those remembering their loved ones.

“This is a day for remembrance and reflection and, out of the deep respect I have for the grieving families, I do not intend saying anything additional to my comments regarding the Omagh bomb this morning and to which I am addressing in this statement,” he said.

- Press Association

Earlier: Former NI police watchdog calls for public inquiry into Omagh bomb

A former Northern Ireland policing watchdog who investigated the Omagh bombing has said it could have been prevented.

Baroness Nuala O’Loan called for a public inquiry into the worst single atrocity of the North's Troubles and seriously questioned the handling of security force intelligence.

Today, relatives will mark 20 years since the August 1998 dissident republican blast which killed 29, including a woman pregnant with twins.

Baroness O’Loan said: “My view now is that it could have been prevented.”

She said the various intelligence services could have worked in a more cohesive way.

On August 4, 1998, 11 days before the bombing, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) received an anonymous telephone call warning that there would be an “unspecified” terrorist attack on police in Omagh on August 15, 1998.

The force’s 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, an investigation by Baroness O’Loan when she was the North's police ombudsman found.

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

Baroness O’Loan 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.”

She said the UK's intelligence services were tracking the movements of the car containing the bomb from the Republic of Ireland.

“What we do need now is an inquiry, a full public inquiry to find out why this happened and how it could have been prevented.

“I am not yet convinced that the way in which we handle intelligence across the UK is adequate to secure maximum information.”

The massive car bomb ripped through the Co. Tyrone town just months after the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement was supposed to have largely ended violence.

The Real IRA was blamed for the carnage after inaccurate warnings meant police evacuated shoppers towards the bomb site.

Twenty years later, nobody has been convicted of murder and relatives of the dead will gather on the spot this afternoon for a short ceremony led by the Omagh Churches Forum.

It will be 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.

The victims included Protestants and Catholics, tourists from Spain and others on a day trip from the Republic of Ireland.

One of the biggest police manhunts in history unfolded, but criticism of the police investigation led to unfulfilled calls for a public inquiry.

Two people faced prosecution for murder but were not convicted.

The Stormont power-sharing administration remains suspended

Twenty years on, the Stormont power-sharing administration, which was a centrepiece of the Belfast Agreement, is suspended with little sign of its restoration.

Dissident republicans continue to pose a serious threat to life, primarily to members of the security forces in the North.

Today’s commemoration will begin at 2.55pm at the site of the bombing in Market Street.

The bell will stop tolling at 3.10pm, the time the bomb exploded.

The ceremony will feature a song, and then people will be offered a flower petal to scatter into a river or a pond at a nearby memorial garden.

- Press Association

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