26 February 2006

Focus: Four months before a car blew up in Omagh, the gardai and MI5 were told it would be there. Why did they do nothing?

Sunday Times

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe security services’ determination to protect informers cost innocent lives, and has shocked the victims’ relatives

Liam Clarke
26 February 2006

Sam Kinkaid, Northern Ireland’s most senior police detective, read carefully from a typed sheet to the group of bereaved relatives gathered around the boardroom of Omagh library last Wednesday.

“I was sitting directly opposite, looking him in the eye, and I could hardly believe it,” said Michael Gallagher, whose son Aidan was one of 29 people (including a woman pregnant with twins) murdered in the August 1998 Real IRA bombing. Kinkaid was saying that gardai and MI5 had withheld intelligence from two informers.

One of the sources was Dave Rupert, an American trucker who infiltrated the Real and Continuity IRAs for MI5 and the FBI. The second source was Paddy Dixon, a crooked motor dealer who supplied stolen cars to terrorists and kept the gardai informed.

Kinkaid, an assistant chief constable, retires tomorrow. In his final months of service he has delivered a series of shocks to the political system. It was he who pinned the Northern Bank robbery on the Provisional IRA; he who revealed to the Northern Ireland policing board that IRA decommissioning was incomplete. Sinn Fein branded him an old-style securocrat, but this time it is the security establishment, north and south, that will be embarrassed by his claims.

Yet this is no solo run. Peter Sheridan, Kinkaid’s successor as assistant chief constable, sat beside him in Omagh library last week, nodding in agreement. So did Superintendent Norman Baxter, who heads the Omagh investigation on a day-to-day basis, and Colin Monteith, his No 2. All three agreed that MI5 had known five months in advance of a plot to bomb either Omagh or Londonderry with a Vauxhall Cavalier car, and knew that one of the suspects lived in Omagh.

They passed on details of the plot to gardai, but never told the RUC, as the Northern Ireland police force was then known. Meanwhile, the gardai knew from Dixon that a car had been stolen for an attack on Northern Ireland, but had not intervened for fear of blowing his cover.

The result, as Sheridan told the grieving relatives, was that both Omagh and Derry were on a low state of alert when the bombers struck in August, using a Vauxhall Cavalier. An anonymous telephone warning on August 4 saying a gun and rocket attack on Omagh was planned for August 15 was discounted as a crank call by Special Branch. Even after the attack, the gardai and MI5 withheld the information.

Stanley McComb, whose wife Ann died in the bombing, said: “We are trying to get on with our lives and something like that brings it all back and it makes us frustrated, mad . . .

“We want to meet Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, and Michael McDowell, the Irish justice minister, and we want straight answers.”

THE evidence behind Kinkaid’s claims comes from two main sources: e-mails sent by Rupert to his MI5 handlers while he worked in Ireland between 1996 and 2001, and notes kept by John White, a garda detective who handled Dixon under the direction of Detective Chief Superintendent Dermot Jennings.

Rupert, from upstate New York, had moved to Chicago, where he was mixing with the hardline Irish Freedom Committee (IFC) when an FBI agent, Ed Buckley, recruited him in about 1995.

Rupert’s business was failing, so his motive for co-operating with the FBI was at first financial. According to Lou Stephens, a financial investigator who formerly headed Irish operations in the FBI, Rupert had been “heavily financed and probably defaulted”.

Rupert headed for Bundoran, Co Donegal, where he befriended Joe O’Neill, a veteran republican who owned a pub in the town. Later Rupert rented a bar of his own, the Drowse Inn, in Leitrim, which he loaned to the Continuity IRA for meetings. It is thought the premises were bugged.

Working under MI5 direction, but without the knowledge of the gardai, Rupert presented himself as a wealthy American who could bring money and guns from across the Atlantic to the dissidents. He insinuated himself into the confidence of Michael McKevitt, the Provisional IRA’s former quartermaster general in charge of weaponry. McKevitt was attempting to set up a new IRA to supplant the Provisionals, who were on ceasefire. The fast-talking Rupert seemed heaven-sent and McKevitt appointed him head of the Real IRA in America.

In 2003 Rupert gave evidence against McKevitt on charges of directing terrorism and some, but not all, of the e-mails he sent to his MI5 handlers were revealed in court in a heavily edited form. One e-mail from Rupert to his handlers claimed Jennings had said gardai “did not care what happened in the north, only what happened in the 26 counties”. Jennings denied this.

On April 11, 1998, Rupert told his handlers that republican dissidents were planning to bomb “Derry or Omagh” and that he had taken part in a scouting operation. MI5 informed the gardai and three suspects were arrested, including a man from Omagh, but later released.

In a later e-mail, MI5 confirmed that the terrorist plot had only been delayed. It wrote to Rupert: “We disrupted the intention to use the car bomb, but maybe not for long . . . Mr (Tony) Blair owes you a beer.”

Amazingly, this information was never passed to the PSNI. Nor was it given to Nuala O’Loan, the Northern Ireland police ombudsman, when she conducted an investigation into the intelligence background to the Omagh bombing. Neither was it made available to Mike Tonge, now chief constable of Gwent, who conducted an independent inquiry on behalf of the Northern Ireland policing board. Senior security sources say that Tonge’s team specifically asked MI5 if it had any relevant intelligence and were told that it had none.

Rupert’s role was not disclosed to the gardai until 2000, when the e-mails were handed over for the purpose of prosecuting McKevitt. Jennings was therefore not in a position to cross-reference them with the intelligence he was receiving from Dixon through White.

Dixon had allowed the gardai to bug a number of vehicles he had stolen for the Real IRA. On March 21, 1998, a bomb was seized in Dundalk and two terrorists arrested with 1,200lb of explosives in one of Dixon’s cars. A few days later, a red BMW 318 stolen by Dixon’s gang and filled with explosives was caught at Dun Laoghaire, where it was being put aboard a ferry en route to London.

On May 19, Dixon received IR£10,000 after two 500lb car bombs were stopped by the gardai near the border and two terrorist suspects arrested.

A British security source said: “The pattern seemed to be that if the gardai could make a seizure in the republic they did so, but they were not so good at passing on information to the British authorities.”

The problem was that each garda success increased the chances that the Real IRA would make the link with Dixon. The PSNI told the Omagh families that, based on White’s testimony, four bombs were let go through by gardai to protect Dixon’s cover. The first was a mortar attack on Moira RUC station in February 1998 in which several police officers and civilians were injured. The second vehicle, a Fiat Punto stolen in Hartstown, was used in an unsuccessful rocket attack in Beleek in May. On May 13, a vehicle containing home-made explosives was, according to White, let through and later found burnt out.

The last one was the Omagh bomb, contained in a maroon Vauxhall Cavalier, precisely the type of vehicle Rupert had warned was likely to be used in Omagh or Derry. This time Dixon did not steal the vehicle. The Real IRA asked him to, but at the last moment said it had found one elsewhere.

White says a senior garda officer told him: “I think we will let this one go through.” The garda’s reasoning was that Dixon was under suspicion and being tested by the Real IRA. The gardai have denied that White met this officer in a bar in Castleknock, but the PSNI suspect he did because White has supplied them with expense forms signed by the senior officer, showing he had been in the bar that day.

According to White, after the bombing the senior officer told him not to write a report on the incident. To avoid suspicion, Dixon was arrested but warned not to make any statement or reveal his role.

In 2002, Dixon was resettled in Britain under a false identity with the help of MI5. On January 10, 2002, three days before Dixon entered a witness protection programme, he had a last meeting with White and, according to a tape-recording of the conversation now in the hands of the PSNI, he predicted: “They (the Real IRA) had got a car and (gardai) . . . knew it was moving within 24 hours at that stage. The Omagh investigation is going to blow up in their faces.”

HUGH ORDE, the PSNI chief constable, will shortly write to Tony Blair, the prime minister, and Noel Conroy, the garda commissioner, outlining the findings of his force’s inquiry. He is likely to say that the PSNI wants to interview Dixon as a matter of urgency.

For the Irish authorities, the matter is closed. A tribunal headed by Dermot Nally has found White’s allegations to be baseless. But its detailed findings were never made public. That tribunal never interviewed Dixon, Baxter or Kinkaid, who wrote three times offering his assistance.

MI5 also considers the matter to be at an end. Last night a Home Office source said: “There is nothing to substantiate the allegation that there was accurate intelligence about any plot against Omagh.” Asked about the resettlement of Dixon he said: “We don’t normally comment on the actions of the security service and we won’t in this case.”

The Omagh families are not prepared to accept that the case is closed.

It was the worst atrocity of the Troubles, and the most stunning because Northern Ireland was thought to be at peace. The notion that it could have been prevented seems certain to haunt the police and security services in Ireland and Britain for years to come.

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