Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Civil route now opened up for raft of devastating Troubles cases

Some historians and observers of the Troubles have argued that the British State's most potent counter-insurgency weapon during the conflict was money.

It was money, billions of it, that kept the province running – even in the worst years of destruction and disinvestment.

It was money that created a State sector-dominated workforce wholly dependent on the largesse of the UK Treasury.

And it was money, millions no doubt, that was channelled into the pockets of informer-assets in paramilitary groups, giving the security forces the eventual, critical strategic insight into terrorist thinking and tactics.

Following yesterday's decision by Mr Justice Gillen to find Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly civilly liable for the 1998 Omagh bombing, some of those still seeking closure for their loved ones, or even themselves, can only conclude that it may ultimately come down to money to obtain retrospective justice.

The cost of taking their groundbreaking civil action against four men named in court as leading Real IRA figures was not cheap.

The Omagh families had a supportive legal team in the London law firm H20. After the judgment at Belfast High Court, Matthew Jury, the main solicitor for the Omagh plaintiffs, acknowledged that some justice had been achieved for the victims and those left behind.

Lesson number one from this precedent-setting case is that for those seeking to pursue paramilitary groups and their leaders, the civil action route is worth exploring. The Omagh case, however, has taken almost a decade to put together and received substantial financial and political support on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Lesson number two is that, unless you can raise the money and muscle to mount a case, there is little chance of seeing your loved one's killers in court.

There are several high-profile unsolved crimes from the Troubles that may, financial backing permitting, end up as civil actions.

Would, for instance, the family of Jean McConville try to sue senior republicans named as key players in their mother's abduction and murder in a civil court? Could they find the necessary support to piece together such a case against them? Conversely, could the families of people shot dead in controversial circumstances by the Army and police sue retired generals, ex-Chief Constables and even former Cabinet ministers, who, the victims' relatives would contend, bore ultimate responsibility for these deaths?

Cynics might argue that, without criminal convictions, what would be the point of prosecuting a costly, lengthy and complex case that will never end up with anyone going to jail.

Moreover, in the case of this judgment, they might question how the Omagh families and their legal team are going to claim back all of the £1.6m in damages awarded to them in court from Daly and Murphy, as well as Michael McKevitt and Liam Campbell.

McKevitt is still in jail across the border, serving a 20-year sentence for directing acts of terrorism. Murphy lives in the Republic, out of the jurisdiction of Belfast High Court.

For some of the Omagh families, it is paradoxically not about the money. While they needed finance to build their case and bring it to court, some of the Omagh campaigners have used the civil trials as name-and-shame exercises.

In addition, the civil cases have shone new light into this dark episode at the far end of the Troubles, including evidence pointing to lethal intelligence failings by the security forces on both sides of the border.

In a sense, the Omagh civil trial (alongside the earlier Omagh Bomb Report by then Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan) has been their Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The judgment will not blunt the Omagh campaigners' demand for a cross-border public inquiry.

On a wider front, it will undoubtedly prompt other victims' campaign groups to consider civil action for past crimes that have never been resolved in criminal courts.

Indeed, we could soon witness a series of fascinating, potentially devastating civil actions over some of the most notorious murders and massacres of the last 40 years.

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