A PYRRHIC VICTORY
Christmas Day 2001
If nothing else the report on the Omagh bombing by the ombudsman Nuala O'Loan has temporarily allowed a new word to knock decommissioning from the numero uno spot, to which it has clung with leech-like tenacity for almost a decade. At the top of the charts for now is 'suicide'. Ronnie Flanagan has threatened public hari kari while Ken Maginnis has likened Nuala O'Loan to a suicide bomber. Samuel Pollock of the ombudsman’s office in turn has accused Maginnis of inciting ‘thugs and terrorists. Little novel in that given that Maginnis was once a B-Special and then a major in the UDR. So not only has he incited ‘thugs and terrorists’ but has also worked with and commanded them.
Maginnis has the reputation of being an intemperate bully not given to the tactics of the pacifist movement if he fails to get his own way. His attack on O'Loan was a pathetic attempt to denigrate a report into the activities of his friends in the RUC Special Branch. He had earlier called for her resignation from the Ombudsman’s position when she agreed to conduct an investigation into the Omagh bombing. He was most likely straining at the leash by that time having witnessed O’Loan pursue the RUC in relation to its behaviour when a loyalist mob kicked to death Portadown man Robert Hamill in the centre of the Loyalist town in 1997. Nor could he have been enamoured to her for examining possible RUC involvement in the 1989 killing of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.
But had O'Loan, with the same alleged paucity of professionalism, established a link between members of the Provisional IRA and the Omagh bombers Maginnis would have behaved like a starved dog just unleashed and directed towards the juiciest hind joint ever carved. The ombudsman would have been praised from the very bowels of the manor of Lord Drumglass, as the former UDR capo likes to be known. But, if you were a school headmaster in earlier life with a penchant for bossing others around then every problem looks like a school child and can be dealt with accordingly - a bit of abrasive bullying towards the unruly pupil who confronts the teachers intellectual vanity by submitting an essay the teacher fundamentally disagrees with. Such parsimonious attitudinising is merely more rope for Flanagan with which to consider hanging himself. It serves to persuade people that the Special Branch indeed do have a case to answer over their handling of the Omagh bomb and that Flanagan's leadership of the RUC was at best suspect.
Watching the performances of both Flanagan and O’Loan on television, it was the cop - apart from his seeming momentary urge to become a pilot for Air Al Qaeda - who appeared the more measured of the two. The ombudsman never managed to come across anywhere nearly as assured as the conclusions in her report would allow her to if she were totally confident of her findings. Much of the controversy generated by the report centred on the informer ‘Kevin Fulton’. But his reliability had already been disparaged by Anton McCabe and Frank Connolly in the Sunday Business Post of November the 4th.
Yet, there is little doubt that the Special Branch need to go. But if they are on the way out is it really because O'Loan’s team has presented a set of facts with which those who shall ultimately decide the fate of the Branch - the British Government - would find it morally repugnant to disagree? If this was so the Special Branch should have gone for their behaviour in both the Patrick Finucane case and the Shoot to kill policy. In fact the case can be made that their torture of detainees in 1971 should have seen them on their way to collapse even prior to Stormont in 1972. Because of this there lurks a niggling suspicion that within the overall power ensemble which produced the report the Omagh bombing is being exploited as a means to apply leverage to those most opposed to pulling the policing question back to a more Pattenesque base line. In this sense we are forced to wonder if the real concern is to get to the truth here at all. When she was appointed to her post as independent watchdog for complaints about the police in Northern Ireland, Nuala O'Loan promised not to shirk from sinking her teeth into contentious issues, no matter whose toes she tramped on. If political considerations and the perceived needs of the establishment rather than justice inform her judgement at any point then the new policing dispensation that many are calling for will ultimately please the Ken Maginnises of the world rather than those who were made victims as a result of Special Branch machinations. What a pyrrhic victory that would be.