The Guardian, Saturday January 19, 2002

Omagh police in bomb papers scandal

Rosie Cowan and Nick Hopkins

Detectives investigating the Omagh bombing "recreated" or manufactured 357 important documents, possibly including witness statements, which were either lost or inadvertently destroyed during the first 18 months of the inquiry, it emerged yesterday.
An internal review by a senior officer in the RUC, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland, highlighted the extraordinary practice as one of the serious deficiencies of the investigation into an atrocity that killed 29 people.

The report by Chief Superintendent Brian McVicker was handed to the chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, but its details were kept secret.

Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Adrian was killed in the blast three years ago, was horrified by the disclosures. He said: "We trusted them with the investigation. This is unbelievable."

The revelations add substance to the criticism of the Omagh murder investigation made by the Northern Ireland police ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, who published her report before Christmas.

Mrs O'Loan was highly critical of both special branch handling of two warnings made before the Real IRA car bomb and of the police investigation, but her findings were not accepted by the force.

Sir Ronnie is set to give a robust rebuttal of Mrs O'Loan's report to the policing board and to relatives of the dead when he meets them in the Co Tyrone town next Thursday.

But the previously undisclosed details of recreated documents, not included in Mrs O'Loan's report but pointed out by one of Sir Ronnie's own senior officers almost two years ago, could undermine his argument.

Mr McVicker started his review of the bomb investigation in March 2000, and reported to the chief constable later in the year that there were serious deficiencies that required urgent attention.

It is understood that the senior and deputy senior officer on the murder team strenuously resisted an overseeing inquiry but undertook their own scrutiny, which found that some key wit ness statements had not been followed up and some documents thought to relate to these had been retrospectively created.

Mr McVicker has refused to make any comment to the Guardian. But it is understood his report confirmed these findings, indicating that 357 documents regarding the investigation could not be considered originals. It is unclear how many were created to replace documents that had been inadvertently lost and how many had never existed. Some of the documents in question are believed to concern information from potentially important witnesses about sightings of the car the bomb was in.

A spokesman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland said yesterday: "The matters surrounding the bombing, its investigation and the ombudsman's report will be fully addressed in the police service's response on January 24."

Mrs O'Loan, who castigated Sir Ronnie for poor leadership, highlighted other aspects of Mr McVicker's report, including the fact that the inquiry team was cut by 42% two months after the bomb, and virtually shelved in February 2000 but reactivated in August 2001, around the time she launched her inquiry.

She also found that most of Mr McVicker's 250 conclusions, including a recommendation that the inquiry get an urgent injection of resources, were ignored.