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Northern Ireland paid tribute to victims of the region’s worst terror attack on Tuesday as security experts warned that a huge police data leak has handed a “gift” to violent groups still opposed to the peace process.
When dissident republicans detonated a car bomb in Omagh on August 15 1998 it was a terrible reminder that a landmark peace deal four months earlier that ended 30 years of conflict did not guarantee an end to violence.
Speaking on the eve of Tuesday’s anniversary of the Real IRA bomb that killed 29 people, Simon Byrne, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, confirmed that information identifying all officers and staff had fallen into the hands of republican groups.
The force accidentally posted a detailed spreadsheet on the internet last week.
“Obviously it is a coup for [dissident republicans] in the sense that they can . . . spread fear among those officers named on the list,” said Jon Tonge, politics professor at the University of Liverpool.
But he added: “Whether they’re capable of following up . . . with actual bullets rather than bombast is another matter altogether.”
Dissident republicans, whose attacks are sporadic and only occasionally lethal, stuck extracts from the list on a wall in Belfast on Monday.
Experts say such groups pose nothing like the threat represented by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the three-decades-long Troubles.
But the leak gives the most active dissident group, the New IRA, valuable ammunition in its campaign against security forces. The group attempted to murder one of the force’s top detectives this year and killed journalist Lyra McKee in 2019 with a bullet intended for police.
It numbers in the dozens rather than the IRA’s thousands and has only scant access to guns and explosives. But Byrne has described it as “brazen and calculated” and having the capacity to stage surprise attacks.
Richard English, a politics professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and author of Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, called the data leak, and the theft of a smaller database on a laptop a month ago, “a gift to dissidents”.
“They embarrass and undermine confidence in the PSNI,” he said. “It’s not that dissident republicans have suddenly become a major threat to peace. But prospective targeting and attacks are unquestionably now easier.”
Political leaders have resisted calling for Byrne to quit but he faces tough questions over how he can keep officers and staff safe as the Omagh anniversary provided a grim reminder of past violence.
Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son was killed in the blast, told the BBC it was “the first atrocity of peace time” in Northern Ireland. More than 200 were injured and the dead included children and three generations of one family.
In a video message to express London’s “deepest sympathy” on the anniversary, Chris Heaton-Harris, UK Northern Ireland secretary, said the Omagh attack “came at a time when the people of Northern Ireland were looking to a future without the violence that had sadly dominated the previous three decades”.
The IRA had been fighting to reunite Ireland in a conflict that also involved loyalist paramilitaries determined to keep the region in the UK and British security forces. Dissident republicans considered the peace deal a sellout.
But as Tonge noted: “There have been 165 deaths due to the security situation since the Good Friday Agreement. There were 3,665 deaths . . . prior to [it] . . . which reflects the inability of dissident republicans to sustain any sort of campaign of ferocity.”
Police officers and staff remain anxious at the leak, with some telling local media they plan to quit — although none have yet done so, according to Byrne.
“That’s exactly what terrorists want,” said Stephen White, a former assistant chief constable in Northern Ireland. “They want to look as if they’re in charge and we’re all frightened and we’re all running away.”