Report - Elite Irish police need reforms

Thursday, December 13, 2001

The Associated Press

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Police efforts to prevent and investigate Northern Ireland's deadliest attack were seriously flawed and should provoke wholesale reform of a secretive intelligence unit, an investigator reported Wednesday.

Relatives of the 29 people slain by the Omagh car bomb emerged upset after meeting Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, whose report harshly criticized Special Branch, the elite squad that keeps tabs on Northern Ireland's outlawed paramilitary groups.

After a four-month investigation, O'Loan accused police of "defective leadership, poor judgment and a lack of urgency" in response to the threat from Irish Republican Army dissidents who devastated the town of Omagh with a car bomb on Aug. 15, 1998. In addition to the 29 people killed, the blast wounded over 330.

She said Special Branch didn't react to two warnings and withheld hundreds of intelligence documents from detectives.

But the police commander, Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, said the report's conclusions were "wild and sweeping" and "astoundingly ignorant," and vowed to have them retracted in court.

Flanagan insisted O'Loan had given him no opportunity to rebut her allegations. He said if O'Loan's conclusion were upheld in "a rigorous, fair investigation, I would not only resign, I would go and publicly commit suicide."

But O'Loan, who under Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord has unprecedented powers to scrutinize police behavior, said Flanagan's force had not adequately investigated the Omagh attack.

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