The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, given the appalling consequences wreaked by the Omagh bombing, I can well understand the noble Lord's motivation in calling for an inquiry. I am, however, less clear on the merits of such an inquiry, given that police investigations are continuing, not just in this jurisdiction but also in the Republic of Ireland. A public inquiry would inevitably cut across those investigations and could prejudice subsequent court proceedings in either jurisdiction.
Although there have been no prosecutions in Northern Ireland to date, it cannot be inferred that none will follow in the future. In the Republic of Ireland, one man has been charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and membership of an illegal organisation in relation to the Omagh bombing. A public inquiry would call on witnesses who may subsequently be required to give evidence at criminal proceedings. That would raise difficult issues of disclosure, admissibility and conflicting evidence. The position is further complicated since by no means all of the important suspects, and possibly witnesses, live in Northern Ireland.
For those reasons, the Government do not intend to set up a public inquiry. A very public and harrowing inquest into the Omagh bombing has just been concluded on 5th October. The people, and especially the victims and bereaved of Omagh, deserve justice. The best means of securing that justice is to allow the police investigations and any court proceedings to run their full course.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that reply. But is it not somewhat curious that he should cite the danger of jeopardising court proceedings when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland himself supported the BBC broadcast which--I put it to him--strongly prejudiced court proceedings in any event?
Is the noble and learned Lord aware that everyone would agree with the sentiment uttered by the Prime Minister's wife that anyone who has had a child murdered is entitled to know who did that and, if not, why it is not possible to know that?
The Government quite rightly set up an inquiry into the failure to bring prosecutions for the murder of Stephen Lawrence. They also, as a sop to Sinn Fein/IRA, set up a second inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Those events happened so very long ago it is doubtful whether people could usefully add anything to what has already been investigated. If the Government wish this matter to be taken seriously and wish people to believe that they want the murderers to be brought to justice, why can we not have an inquiry into those much more recent events?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, because, as I have said, what is required here is the criminal process to take its course. A public inquiry could well prejudice the criminal process. That is not what we wish. We urge all political parties to encourage their communities to come forward with as much information as possible to assist the criminal process.
I do not want to comment at all on the content of the "Panorama" programme because I do not want to prejudice any criminal investigations. But I should say that the matter was brought before the courts, which considered that that programme would not prejudice any subsequent criminal trial.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that there is not the remotest relationship between the Omagh bombing and the Lawrence inquiry in London? It is quite absurd to suggest that there is any parallel.
Lord Laird: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Northern Ireland and on this side of the water, there is a view that the Government of the Irish Republic are not helping to the degree that they should in seeking those who are to be blamed for that dreadful atrocity? That is because they do not wish to offend extreme republicans. Will he tell us whether, in his view, the Dublin Government have used the full panoply of legislation which has been introduced specifically to deal with that type of crime?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the suggestion that the Irish Government have allowed political considerations to interfere with the investigation has been refuted strongly in the Republic of Ireland. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform said in the Dail that:
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the Government believe that the Garda and the RUC are co-operating in an extremely full investigation. That should be allowed to continue in order to bring the perpetrators to justice in a way which will produce a sensible result in court.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, has not the noble and learned Lord read that Mr Martin McGuinness has admitted to an American newspaper that he knows who the killers are but refuses to disclose their identity? Is that not a truly shocking state of affairs and does that not render him quite unfit to be a member of a government?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not know of the specific newspaper article to which the noble Lord referred. However, I repeat what I said in answer to an earlier supplementary question. We urge anyone with information about the Omagh atrocity to come forward and assist the police investigation.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that there have been at least four arrests in the Republic of Ireland? Will he also confirm that the police in Northern Ireland will do their utmost to protect any potential witnesses?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I can certainly confirm the second part of the noble Lord's question. On the first part, there have been a number of arrests, but I do not want to comment any further on the investigation process.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, as the Real IRA has claimed responsibility for that outrage, was it entirely appropriate last week that its members were allowed to hold a funeral in west Belfast clad in combat gear, wearing masks and armed? Moreover, a fusillade of gunfire was fired over the coffin in the streets and no police action was taken. Who instructs the police to let those matters go by?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not in a position to comment on the operational arrangements in relation to the matter to which the noble Lord refers. As to the Real IRA's involvement in the Omagh atrocity, I simply refer to the observations of the coroner at the end of the inquest: