Police draw fire in N. Ireland

A new report criticizing police handling of the Omagh bombing case triggers calls for an inquiry.

Policing - a key piece of "unfinished business" in the Northern Ireland peace process - is at the top of the political agenda here.

A devastating critique of police handling of the 1998 Omagh bombing case was issued last week. Also on Wednesday, a former police informer, who had claimed police failed to prevent the murder of a prominent Catholic lawyer 12 years ago, was slain.

The report and the slaying come just as Northern Ireland struggles to fully carry out the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. The accords call for reforming the police force, including the semiautonomous Special Branch, which concentrates on information-gathering about illegal paramilitary groups, both Protestant and Catholic. This branch's conduct is at the center of the controversies over the Omagh bombing and the latest slaying.

The Omagh attack killed 31 people, the highest death toll in a single bombing in Northern Ireland, and the police promised "no stone would be left unturned" to convict the bombers. The dissident Catholic paramilitary group known as the "Real IRA," which split from the mainstream Irish Republican Army when its political wing, Sinn Fein, endorsed the Good Friday accord, claimed responsibility.

Last week, Northern Ireland's independent Police Ombudsman reported a litany of missed leads in the case, amounting to "flawed leadership" at the highest level in the Northern Ireland Police Service. The report raised the possibility that the bombing could have been averted if two warnings had been passed on by Special Branch officers to local police in Omagh. The report added that police failures have seriously hurt chances of ever finding the perpetrators.

The ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, has come under heavy police and some political criticism for her report. Supported by some of Omagh's bereaved families and the injured, who are demanding a public inquiry, Mrs. O'Loan is standing by the conclusions of her investigators, who include former senior British police officers.

The report's publication came within hours of the killing of a former police informer, William Stobie, who had claimed publicly that his police "handlers" had failed to prevent the murder of a Catholic civil rights attorney 12 years ago. Mr. Stobie, a self-confessed Protestant paramilitary and police informer had said he had warned police that the lawyer, Pat Finucane, was to be murdered in 1989.

Stobie was the only person charged in the Finucane case. Acquitted two weeks ago, he would have been a key witness in any inquiry into the lawyer's murder. Catholics are demanding a public inquiry, while Protestants defend the police record on both handling informers and the Omagh bombing.

The row comes at a critical point in the transformation of the police department from the old, predominantly Protestant and quasi-paramilitary "Royal Ulster Constabulary" into the new, community-focused "Northern Ireland Police Service."

Michael Brogden, a professor in criminal justice at Queens University, Belfast, says the Special Branch must be the focus of change. Mr. Brogden says the branch operates as a "force within a force" which, over the years, has fostered an unhealthy culture where virtually any criminal is regarded as a potential informer and given indemnity from prosecution, so long as he agrees to supply information.

"Most senior-ranking police officers have passed through Special Branch and have adopted its operational lead," he says. "Because of the mystique developed over many years, Special Branch has developed an arrogant belief that all other crime prevention and detection work comes secondary to its fight against paramilitary violence."

Special Branch still operates under guidelines that say, in effect, that no arrest can be made in Northern Ireland without its agreement. If it believes the suspect can provide information, the branch can give immunity from arrest.

Professor Brice Dickson, chief commissioner with the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland, rejects this principle: "To sacrifice the life of the victim of that person for the potential of saving the lives of other, as yet unidentified people, is a calculated risk that doesn't deserve to be made."

Protestants, however, are resisting many police reforms, which they say undermine the effort to combat paramilitary violence. Their political representatives in the Ulster Unionist Party, who have a majority on the Police Board, which was formed to hold law enforcers publicly accountable, are expected to reject the ombudsman's recommendations in the Omagh report.

A group calling itself the "Red Hand Defenders" has claimed responsibility for Stobie's killing. The Red Hand Defenders is a cover name for the illegal loyalist Ulster Defence Association, a group Stobie once belonged to and informed on to the police.

A year after the Finucane murder, Stobie claimed to have, while he was a paid police informer, supplied the gun used to murder the lawyer.

Finucane had been a thorn in the side of the police and legal establishment by successfully using the process of judicial review to obtain information about a disputed police "shoot to kill" campaign against suspected IRA members.

The Finucane family says it believes a conspiracy to murder him involved not only loyalist paramilitaries and the police, but also British military intelligence agents and probably senior London politicians. In response to these claims, the British government has ordered the appointment of an independent judge to assess the evidence and evaluate whether an inquiry is merited - a move the Finucane family calls a cynical delaying ploy.

Stobie had told journalists that he warned his Special Branch handlers twice before the murder that a major target was about to be shot by the UDA. He said he also told them where the murder weapon was the day after the shooting. He said that the police did nothing to prevent the attack and mounted a surveillance operation after the shooting to watch the guns being moved, with no attempt to make arrests.

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