Appendix: The Government's response to
the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2009-10|
Letter to the Chair of the Committee from the
Prime Minister, 26 March 2010
Thank you for your letter of 17 March.
I am grateful for the work that you and your Committee
have put in to your recent report on the Omagh bombing. But, as
I have previously stated, it remains the Intelligence and Security
Committee which has the statutory responsibility to oversee the
work of the agencies, and which has therefore had access to Sir
Peter's full report. As I have previously assured you, Sir Peter's
report is entirely consistent with the full classified version,
and omits only the sensitive detail of Agency sources, methods
Letter to the Chair of the Committee from the
Secretary of State, 1 April 2010
Further to my letter of 18 March, I am writing in
response to the Committee's report into the Omagh bombing. I
would like to begin by thanking the Committee for its interest
in this matter. We have taken time to consider the recommendations
and were keen to respond prior to the forthcoming dissolution
As I indicated in my recent correspondence, it is
important to emphasise that, as the Committee acknowledged, Sir
Peter Gibson, in his report, stated categorically that 'Any intelligence
derived from interception as might have existed could not have
prevented the bombing'.
I note the Committee's concerns regarding the sharing
of information, particularly by Special Branch. The dissemination
of information within the RUC was fully investigated by the former
Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Dame Nuala O'Loan, in 2001.
Her recommendations and those of subsequent reviews established
by the Policing Board have been implemented.
The report highlights the Committee's disappointment
at not being granted access to Sir Peter Gibson's classified report
however, as both the Prime Minister and I have explained previously,
only the Intelligence and Security Committee may be afforded access
to such information; and, even then, only when they have a demonstrable
need to know. The Committee will wish to note that similar requests
from select committees and their chairs have been resisted in
We have considered the issues raised in the report
and the Government's response to each of the 'Conclusions and
Recommendations' is set out in the attached document. The paragraph
numbers reflect the corresponding paragraphs in the "Conclusions
and Recommendations" section of the Committee's report.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO THE NIAC REPORT: THE OMAGH
BOMBING: SOME REMAINING QUESTIONS
1. The Real IRA and the individuals who carried
out the bombing murdered 29 people and two unborn children. Responsibility
for those deaths is theirs alone. (Paragraph 2)
2. We warmly commend those who have worked so
long to maintain the Omagh Support and Self-Help Group as a source
of information, solace and social support for victims of the bombing.
3. We appreciate that nothing we say can bring
total satisfaction or real comfort to the families of those who
died at Omagh, both those who continue to campaign to keep the
Omagh bombing in the public eye and those who grieve in private.
The Government welcomes the Committee's comments.
The Omagh bombing was a most horrendous tragedy and the Government
deeply regrets the loss of life. Once again, our thoughts turn
to those who suffered as a result of this atrocity. There can
be no doubt that those involved in the Omagh Support and Self
Help Group have worked tirelessly in support of victims of the
bombing and Government commends them for their commitment.
4. Nothing we have seen leads us to challenge
Sir Peter Gibson's conclusion that any available intelligence
could have been used immediately prior to the Omagh bombing to
prevent it. We repeat our bitter disappointment, however, that,
in spite of repeated requests, the Prime Minister has refused
to allow our Chairman to read the full report, even under supervision.
It is thoroughly reprehensible that the Government should seek
to prevent the parliamentary Committee charged with oversight
of the affairs of Northern Ireland such access, and we believe
that the Government's attitude in that respect has done more damage
than good. (Paragraph 15)
A summary of Sir Peter Gibson's report was published,
which is entirely consistent with the full and highly classified
version and it only omits information which is protected on legal
and national security grounds. The Committee have been assured
of this by the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gibson and Dr Kim Howells
(Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee). It is
not possible to grant the Committee access to Sir Peter's classified
report due to legal and national security constraints.
5. While there may be good security reasons for not
disclosing the content of transcripts, we are not persuaded that
confirming or denying their existence should present problems.
We invite the Government to do so. The case for or against the
use of intercept evidence being admissible in UK courts has been
argued for many years. We invite the Government to justify the
argument that the public interest is better served by withholding
such evidence, rather than by using it to bring murderers to justice.
It has long been the practice of successive Governments
to neither confirm nor deny the existence of intelligence material
in any specific case. Furthermore, there is no legal basis upon
which such material, nor its existence, may be made public. The
Government is committed to introducing intercept as evidence if
a way can be found to do so that facilitates bringing cases to
trial and does not jeopardise the continued effective use of intercept
as intelligence. Unfortunately, the work programme which concluded
in December 2009 concluded that the model seen as the best prospect
for introducing intercept as evidence would not be legally viable,
and would worsen rather than enhance our ability to bring the
guilty to justice. As reported in the Home Secretary's Written
Ministerial Statement of 25 March, further work since then has
not been able to find a legally and operationally viable way forward.
6. It is the fact that dissident republicans continue
actively to seek to undermine Northern Ireland's progress towards
peace and normalisation that makes it so important to learn lessons
from the experience of Omagh. (Paragraph 29)
The Government acknowledges the Committee's concerns
regarding the threat posed by dissident republicans.
7. We are disturbed by the suggestion that arrests
could have been made quickly, and forensic evidence obtained,
had there been an earlier exchange of information. We are particularly
concerned by the suggestion that the names of individuals who
owned telephones, thought to have been used in the bombing, were
known to the intelligence services or the police. We seek a definitive
statement from the police of whether such names were known. If
they were, we seek an explanation of why no action was taken to
arrest or question the owners of those telephones. (Paragraph
This is an operational matter for the PSNI and this
recommendation has been passed to them for their consideration.
8. The desire for a speedy report on intelligence
relating to the Omagh bombing leaves crucial questions that remain
to be answered about the investigation of the mass murder that
occurred that day. (Paragraph 45)
The remit of Sir Peter's investigation was to assess
the availability of any intercept intelligence and the manner
in which it was shared. From the published summary of Sir Peter's
report it is clear that there are no unanswered questions in respect
of this line of inquiry.
9. We urge the Secretary of State to revise his
view that this issue has "had its inquiry" and to institute
an immediate investigation into whether, and, if so, why, this
intelligence was withheld. (Paragraph 47)
The Police Ombudsman's investigation and Sir Peter
Gibson's review have had access to all the available information
including any relevant intelligence. Between them they have addressed
the issues and determined, to the extent it is possible to do
so, what happened. There is no basis to believe that any new inquiry,
working from the same material, would reach any different conclusions.
10. Further inquiry on the Omagh bombing is required
not because inquiries naturally lead to further inquiries, as
the Secretary of State puts it, but because one substantial question
outlined in this Report remains unanswered: what public interest
justification there can be, if any, for the withholding of intelligence,
information or evidence from the team of detectives who investigated
the Omagh bombing. (Paragraph 48)
We do not believe that a further inquiry would provide
anything beyond what the Police Ombudsman's investigation and
Sir Peter Gibson's report have established.
11. It is unclear to us precisely what Sir Peter
Gibson did investigate. His terms of reference state that he
was asked to investigate how intelligence was shared. He did
not investigate Special Branch's caution in not sharing relevant
intelligence, however. We seek an explanation of why Sir Peter's
published terms of reference did not stretch as far as appeared
when his review was announced. We find all this obfuscation very
frustrating. (Paragraph 53)
12. Whatever Sir Peter's reasons for not investigating
why Special Branch acted cautiously and the soundness of its reasons
for doing so, we believe that further investigation is required
into what Special Branch gave to the investigation team, when
it was given, and what information was withheld and why. We believe
that the public interest would be served by revealing to the greatest
possible extent why information that might have led to arrests
in a mass murder case was not used. (Paragraph 56)
The terms of Sir Peter's investigation are clearly
set out in the published summary of his report. The
Committee will know from reading this published summary that the
terms of Sir Peter's investigations were to look into the availability
of any intercept intelligence and how it was used and shared.
This was in response to allegations made that vital intercept
intelligence had not been passed to the police promptly to prevent
the bombing or to assist police in their investigations.
Therefore, the remit of Sir Peter's investigation was not to assess
the use made of all sources of intelligence, which can be wide
and varied, but to focus only on the allegations made about the
use of intercept intelligence.
The dissemination of information by Special Branch
was fully investigated by the former Police Ombudsman for Northern
Ireland, Dame Nuala O'Loan, in 2001. Her recommendations and
those of subsequent reviews by the Policing Board have been implemented.
13. In an inquiry as important as Sir Peter Gibson's
into the uses of intelligence relating to Omagh, it is of considerable
regret that he was unable to interview all the witnesses whom
he considered relevant. This underlines the limitations and,
therefore, the unsatisfactory nature of his inquiry and subsequent
report. (Paragraph 57)
A number of witnesses were not interviewed by Sir
Peter Gibson because Mr John Ware would not reveal the sources
of his information. However, this is not a credible basis on
which to suggest that Sir Peter Gibson's investigation was in
anyway deficient. Sir Peter had access to witnesses and highly
classified information which were not available to Mr John Ware
and therefore Sir Peter was able to reach more informed conclusions.
14. We are glad that the PSNI has recognised that
lessons needed to be learned with regard to practices for the
storing and sharing of information, not just in relation to Omagh,
but in the general treatment of intelligence and forensic evidence.
We welcome the assurance of the Northern Ireland Office that
relevant intelligence would today be more likely to reach detectives
investigating a crime than appears to have been the case at Omagh.
The Government welcomes the Committee's positive
comments in relation to the changes that have been implemented
in this respect.
15. We fully appreciate that security considerations
require Sir Peter's full report to be restricted. We remain of
the view that our Chairman should be enabled, on our behalf, to
satisfy himself that the contents of the full report conflict
in no way with the published summary of Sir Peter's review. (Paragraph
16. We would again strongly urge the Prime Minister
to allow our Chairman, even at this late stage, to read Sir Peter's
full report. (Paragraph 66)
The Prime Minister and Dr Kim Howells (Chairman of
the Intelligence Security Committee) have assured Sir Patrick
Cormack that the classified version of the report is entirely
consistent with the published summary. Sir Patrick has also
been given a private briefing on the contents of the report by
officials. As stated previously, legal and national security
constraints prevent further disclosure of the report.
17. Meanwhile, we must reluctantly accept that the
full review is being withheld from the House of Commons Committee
for which it is material evidence. We must therefore request
that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is allowed
access to the full report, revisit Sir Peter's conclusions in
the light of the questions raised by this Report. We also urge
the ISC to make its findings on these matters as public as is
possible. (Paragraph 67)
This is a matter for the Intelligence and Security
Committee. They will respond to the Committee separately.
18. We trust that the Omagh victims will be given
every possible assistance by the Government, the police and other
relevant agencies as they seek to pursue the compensation awarded
by the High Court against four individuals and the Real IRA.
We seek a statement from the NIO of what action would be taken
to provide such assistance, and we urge that such a statement
be made before the end of the present Parliament. (Paragraph
As with all proceedings falling within the scope
of the legal aid scheme, in the first instance, the issue of funding
for the enforcement of the High Court judgment in respect of the
Omagh Civil Action is a matter for the Northern Ireland Legal
Services Commission. It would only become a matter for the Government
should the Commission decide to refer it to the Lord Chancellor
(or, upon devolution, the Minister for Justice).
Where the Commission request an authorisation for
funding, subject to the relevant criteria, Ministers may grant
such an authorisation. Ministers cannot issue directions to the
Commission to fund individual cases.
19. It is a matter of deep regret that no one
has been convicted of causing the worst terrorist outrage in Northern
Ireland's history and that no one in authority holds out any realistic
possibility that those who committed the atrocity will pay the
penalty for it. Whatever the reasons may be, the criminal justice
system has in this case badly failed the victims of the bombing.
The Government shares the Committee's regret that
no-one has been made amenable for the bombing.
20. We recommend that the Northern Ireland Office
undertake consultation on how the victims of terrorist atrocities
might be legally aided, financially or otherwise, in bringing
civil actions where the criminal justice system has not brought
the perpetrators to book. We recognise that substantial safeguards
would be required to prevent the misuse of public money in this
respect, but believe that the action raised by some of the Omagh
families has highlighted an avenue largely made unavailable to
victims of terrorism on account of the prohibitive costs involved.
In Northern Ireland, the legacy of the past remains
one of the greatest challenges still to be faced. It is important
that we consider a range of ways to help Northern Ireland society
come to terms with the past, so that the people of Northern Ireland
can build a shared future.
That shared future must include dealing with the
needs of the victims of the Troubles, who have suffered so much.
I know that the success of the Omagh civil action was of great
importance to the Omagh families. Of course, there are many different
requirements and views amongst victims and their families; for
some, civil actions may be a valuable way to resolve their needs,
but that will not be the case for others.
The current legal aid arrangements would allow the
funding of civil actions in the circumstances described in wholly
exceptional cases, for which formal guidance has been issued by
the Lord Chancellor to the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission.
21. There is a compelling case for some further inquiry
into what did or did not occur in relation to Omagh, but whether
a full-scale public inquiry is the proper route for that is less
clear. We have recommended at paragraph 56 that further investigation
be undertaken into how intelligence provided to Special Branch
in August 1998 was used. We will defer any final judgment on
the need for a public inquiry, until after we receive and study
the Government's response to this Report. (Paragraph 81)
The Government acknowledges the Committee's concerns.
Both the Prime Minister and I have indicated previously that
we intend to await the publication of Lord Saville's Report into
Bloody Sunday and the outcome of the work on the Consultative
Group on the Past before making any decision in relation to a
22. We see some potential in the suggestion that
the victims of Omagh - the relatives of those who died and were
injured - might benefit from close engagement with any Legacy
Commission if one eventually emerges from the Consultative Group
process. (Paragraph 85)
The proposal for a Legacy Commission is contained
in the report of the Consultative Group on the Past. The Government
will consider this recommendation alongside the Consultative Group's
23. We believe that this Report, covering as it does
the most appalling crime committed in the history of Northern
Ireland, is in many ways the single most important Report that
the Committee has produced during this Parliament. We urge the
Government to respond fully and unequivocally to our recommendations
before this Parliament comes to an end. (Paragraph 86)
24. Nevertheless, we are conscious that the Committee
will not have an opportunity to discuss matters furthers after
Dissolution. We would therefore urge our successor Committee
to do so with whoever holds the office of Secretary of State for
Northern Ireland in the next Parliament, and we would also urge
that as and when policing and criminal justice issues are devolved
those who hold appropriate office in the Northern Ireland Executive
do likewise. (Paragraph 87)
The Government acknowledges the Committee's comments.
25. Far too many questions remain unanswered.
The criminal justice system has failed to bring to justice those
responsible for the Omagh bombing. The least that those who were
bereaved or injured have the right to expect are answers to those
questions. (Paragraph 88)
The Government recognises the suffering endured by
the bereaved and injured and deeply regrets that those responsible
for the Omagh bombing have not been brought to justice. The investigation
into the Omagh bomb remains open. However, as the previous Chief
Constable, Sir Hugh Orde stated, for there to be a breakthrough,
those with knowledge of those responsible would need to come forward
with that information.