It is remarkable that so notorious an act, which must have been the work of many men, should have thrown up only one suspect in ten years. Much attention will be paid to the quality of the investigation by the then Royal Ulster Constabulary and its successor the PSNI.
Whilst it may well be that the enquiry, especially as regards the collection and recording of forensic samples, shows slapdash work by a police force that ought by 1998 to have been highly experienced in the drills of evidence taking such as this required, one ought to think for a moment at the role that is played by politicians and the media in these event. I speak here of the enormous pressure which these people apply to the police to get a result – any result – and clear the case up.
In those circumstances the pressure to work quickly leads to mistakes being made when the best thing would be to allow them all the time in the world to do the job. It might also be worth reminding people of the scene in Omagh. Whilst these were professional people doing their level best to do a proper job, one must reflect that this was a crime scene without precedent in the UK, even in the long history of such IRA atrocities.
It was a place where 29 people were killed and 220 were injured. Many of these must have been known to the local Officers dealing with the case and the scene itself must have been highly distressing even to hardened professionals. It would be unsurprising if mistakes were not made in those circumstances.
There will be those who blame the lawyers, on the usual grounds that these are easy targets. Remember that lawyers are not themselves scientists, any more than Judges are or Jurors are. That is why we have expert witnesses who are there to do the tests and then explain them to the court. If you are presented with an expert and his or her credentials are in order, then, unless you come across some very obvious flaw, you will, in preparing the case, place your trust and reliance in the expert and found your case on them. It is not open to you to second guess them nor is it for you, except in a blatant case, to decide that the expert has got it wrong.
What is incumbent upon you to do is a belt-and-braces check on all the chain of custody evidence and make sure that is in apple pie order. Even in a straightforward murder case that can involve hour and hours of painstaking work following exhibits back and forth from police to forensic science lab custody and back again so that you can one day stand up in court and say that Exhibit 123 is one and the same as the item recovered and tested. I can imagine that in the Omagh case the sheer number of exhibits must have made that a near-impossible task if one factors in the potential for mistakes at ground level.
So one has considerable sympathy for Orlando Pownall QC, a contemporary of mine at school and the Bar, who is known as a good operator. This was a case which must have been of the highest difficulty to prosecute and which had many chances of going pear-shaped for reasons entirely beyond the control of the lawyers. That this was the result seems to be strongly hinted at in the Learned Judge’s findings which point to a police cock-up of monumental proportions.
But are not the real villains of the piece the two men who could provide the information leading to convictions with a couple of well-placed telephone calls? I think here of the Sinn Fein-IRA leaders Adams and McGuiness who, if they had truly and in their hearts become democrats who have genuinely rejected the ‘armed struggle’, could tip the wink now and bring the perpetrators to justice in two shakes of a donkey’s tale.
Whilst they might say this was the work of something called the “Real IRA” and therefore nothing to do with them, few put much credence in that distinction. Nor does such a distinction preclude them from knowing, probably from the very next day, who it was who had carried out this crime.It is upon their conscience that his case ought to weigh heavily. Sadly these terrorist leaders don’t do ‘conscience’, not even now they have achieved some degree of respectability.
But then they remain hostile to the existence of Northern Ireland and to the British state and their attitude to the victims of Sinn Fein-IRA crimes dating back to 1969 is and always has been one of contempt. We should not expect them to change the habits and hatreds of a lifetime.