Anguish for Omagh victims' families as case against Seamus Daly collapses
A convicted dissident republican who had been accused of murdering 29 people in the Omagh bomb attack has walked free from prison after the prosecution dramatically collapsed.
Co Armagh bricklayer Seamus Daly, 45, spent almost two years in custody on remand charged with the 1998 Real IRA atrocity and a number of other terror offences.
The case against him was dropped before it ever reached trial after inconsistencies were exposed in the evidence of the prosecution's star witness.
Seven years ago, Daly was one of four men successfully sued for bombing the Co Tyrone market town when he was found liable for the attack in a landmark civil case taken by some of the bereaved families.
No-one has ever been convicted of the murders in a criminal court.
Hours after the charges were formally withdrawn at a short hearing in Ballymena Magistrates' Court, Daly was released from Maghaberry high security prison in Co Antrim.
The south Armagh man, who has a previous conviction in the Irish Republic for membership of a dissident republican organisation, declined to make public comment on the case before he was driven away by family members.
His lawyers said there were no current plans to seek compensation for his time behind bars, but that a challenge against the civil case ruling was now being considered.
Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed by the bomb, was in Ballymena courthouse when the decision to drop the case was announced by a barrister for the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service.
"Here we are again after 18 years. Extremely disappointed," he said afterwards.
"We've been let down by the police service, by the PPS, by the criminal justice system.
"And this is probably, or was probably, the last chance for justice.
"Unfortunately now that's not going to be the case. We'll have to re-evaluate and discuss with our legal team what the best way forward is."
Daly has always denied involvement in the bombing which inflicted the greatest loss of life of any terror atrocity in the history of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
The dead came from both sides of the Irish border, England and Spain. One of the victims was pregnant with twins.
The decision by the PPS came before the case had reached the floor of the Crown Court.
A pre-trial hearing commenced in Omagh Magistrates' Court last week to establish whether the evidence in the case was of sufficient strength to warrant such a trial.
That decision to drop the case only two days into the hearing was forced after serious inconsistencies emerged in the evidence of a crucial prosecution witness, Kilkenny builder Denis O'Connor.
Mr O'Connor had claimed Daly had phoned 20 minutes after the attack from a mobile phone police believe was used by the bomber. During the hearing, the witness conceded Daly may actually have called him a week earlier.
Northern Ireland's Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory made the decision to drop the charges.
"I have great sympathy with the families affected by the Omagh bomb and share their disappointment that we are in a position where we are unable to progress this prosecution," he said.
"There is a shared determination by ourselves and police to take forward the prosecution of those responsible if any new evidence to support this becomes available."
As well as the 29 murder counts, Daly, from Kilnasaggart Road, Jonesborough, Co Armagh, had faced charges of causing the August 1998 explosion and possession of a bomb with intent to endanger life or property.
He was further charged with conspiring to cause an explosion and having explosives with intent in connection with a separate dissident republican bomb plot in Lisburn in April of the same year.
All charges have now been dropped.
In 2009, Daly and three others were ordered to pay £1.6 million in damages to the bereaved relatives - money they are still pursuing.
Daly faced a civil retrial after successfully appealing against the original finding, but the second trial delivered the same outcome as the first, with judge Mr Justice John Gillen ruling him responsible for the attack.
In 2007, south Armagh electrician Sean Hoey, who was then 38 and from Jonesborough, was found not guilty of the 29 murders after a marathon trial at Belfast Crown Court.
At the time, trial judge Mr Justice Weir heavily criticised the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, for their handling of the investigation.
Mr Gallagher said he regrettably agreed with the PPS decision in the Daly case.
"This was a difficult case and hinged on the testimony of one individual and that one individual did not seem to be up to meeting the test needed to put someone behind bars," he said.
"For that reason I agree with the decision, regrettably, that happened today.
"There was no other option for the Public Prosecution Service or the judge but to deliver the verdict that we have just heard."
Family and friends who had been campaigning for Daly's release said he had been "interned" for 23 months.
A statement from the Release Seamus Daly group said: "The case against Seamus Daly has been flawed from the beginning. The British Government along with the prosecution proceeded against Seamus with no tangible evidence."
His solicitor, Peter Corrigan, said his client had been held in custody for a considerable period of time for offences which he vehemently denied.
"The defendant has been in custody for two years - the equivalent of a four-year custodial sentence (allowing for 50% remission) - and this was based on a prosecution house of straw in our view," he said.
Mr Corrigan said he would support the call for a public inquiry into the bombing.