Michael Gallagher: 'The boil will never be lanced until truth about Omagh is told'
Joanne Sweeney talks to the victims campaigner whose son Aidan was killed in the Real IRA bomb atrocity.
Q. How hopeful are you of getting justice for the Omagh victims?
A. Obviously we support the PSNI and the Garda in their efforts and it is important that people who were responsible for the Omagh bombing are brought to justice.
Q. What do you and your group (Omagh Support and Self Help) need to happen?
A. We need to see the people responsible brought before the courts and be convicted on good, strong evidence and get lengthy sentences. That's the least that's owed to the victims. We took a landmark civil action. Its purpose was to try and neutralise the terrorists, to let them know that we weren't just going after their freedom, but their property, the roof over their head. It has been a long and lengthy process since 2009 and we did get a judgment against four individuals and the judgment has been upheld several times.
Q. So has anything been seized yet or paid by those individuals?
A. Not yet, but we will continue to pursue those people that the judgment was made against because if it was just words, or it was as just a hollow judgment, then the law needs to be seen to be done. That's actually happening in Dublin now.
Q. Were you and those who were injured or lost loved ones let down after the bomb?
A. I think we were all very naive. It proved to be a more complicated attack than people first thought. There's a lot of issues around Omagh, particularly around what intelligence was known prior to Omagh. We don't have the whole picture at the moment but we do know that there were significant failings both before and after the bomb. That's borne out by the fact that not one person has been charged with murder for Omagh and served a day in jail for that.
Q. What hopes do you have that a cross-border public inquiry will gain the truth and perhaps an official apology in the way that the Bloody Sunday inquiry did?
A. It's obvious 17 years on, despite the efforts of the PSNI, that there is going to be very little chance of all of those people involved in the Omagh bombing serving time. Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan at the time said that there were 16-to-20 people involved in this bombing.
The people who carried out the bombing didn't live locally. The perpetrators planned and prepared and delivered this bomb from the Republic and spent less than 40 minutes in Northern Ireland. So 80% of the evidential opportunities lay with the Republic, so the police here were always going to be playing catch-up.
Q. Who are you most angry with?
A. The people who have a lot of the truth about Omagh are the British and Irish governments. We don't want to expose their methods. We support the Government, we support the intelligence services, but we need to know the truth.
The terrorists involved are the ones responsible for this crime and we will never shift this burden onto the authorities. But the authorities have a different kind of responsibility.
Q. Tell us more about the judicial review victory over Government disclosure?
A. In 2013, we won the right to challenge the Government's refusal to disclose certain security information. It has been ruled that the Government does not have to show us the information but to one of six specially appointed QCs in Northern Ireland. We will learn in November whether they think that Government was right to withhold the information.
Q. Do the families you represent want truth, justice or both?
A. I think any sane person would say that they want justice; it's the key cornerstone of democracy. In the rest of the UK we have seen other horrific events where convictions were quickly achieved. We had 11 children murdered in Omagh and upwards of 20 mothers. We can't understand why Omagh is unique. Omagh happened not during the Troubles but in peacetime. It was the first atrocity of peacetime. We can't understand how Omagh, at every level, has been failed by the criminal justice system.
Q. Do you think that there is an orchestrated attempt not to have convictions succeed?
A. I'm not a conspiracy theorist but I don't think anyone would blame me for having a conspiracy theory when you look at all the facts around Omagh. For example, in the Sean Hoey trial (Mr Hoey was found not guilty of the 29 murders in December, 2007), there was an expert on the defence side who proved afterwards not to be an expert on low copy DNA.
There was a statistician and voice analyst who gave very strong and compelling evidence at the preliminary hearing but were not used in the main hearing. There was so much that went wrong that shouldn't have.
And if I was a conspiracy theorist, there's enough there to suggest that the Government never really wanted to convict anyone for Omagh. But I'm trying very hard to keep an open mind.
Q. How hurt would you and other victims/survivors be if it transpires there has been a governmental cover-up?
A. It would give me great joy if there is a public inquiry and as a result of that it showed that the Garda Siochana and the PSNI did everything in their power to bring those responsible to justice; that there was no way that the Omagh bomb that could have been prevented, and that the only people who were responsible and failed the people of Omagh were the criminals that carried out the attack. That's would be the best possible result for me.
Q. How likely is it that the cross-border public inquiry will be held?
A. We are under no illusion. This is a very difficult thing to achieve but if there is a will, it can be achieved. This boil will never be lanced until the truth is told.
Q. How likely is it that should anyone be convicted that they would only serve two years as it happened after the Good Friday Agreement?
A. We were given assurances by Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State at the time, that the people who carried on this terrorist campaign after the Good Friday Agreement would not get the same benefits as those who ceased. So there is no reason to believe otherwise, unless governments have already made secret deals. We wouldn't want people to be given amnesty.
Q. Do you think Sinn Fein should be allowed to remain in power following the recent murders of Jock Davidson and Kevin McGuigan?
A. It's been a very difficult road for those people who are pure democrats over the last 40 years to keep their sanity while people were murdering all around them and in the end got a lot of benefits from those murders.
But it would be a complete disaster to alienate a large section of the community and those voices need to be heard. We need to send a strong message to Sinn Fein and those in the republican community that is not what democracy is about - revenge, hatred, bigotry - these are things have caused us tremendous pain.
Q. Why do you think Omagh was targeted?
A. That's the question that I absolutely could not answer. All any of us can do is speculate. Only those who carried out the bombing know why.
Q. Tell us about your son Aidan?
A Aidan was our only son and grew up with the two girls, Sharon and Cat. He was very much a boy and into everything mechanical as I was always involved with vehicles. He mixed well and had Catholic and Protestant friends. He loved music and going out at the weekend like any other 21-year-old lad. He had no interest in politics or the Troubles.
Q. How did you know that Aidan was one of those who had died?
A. Aidan had gone into town to buy a new pair of jeans with his friend as he was heading out that night. He took one of our cars and I had told him where best to park. I was under a car working on it when I heard this almighty explosion that day. Before he left the house he told us 'I'll not be long' and that was the last time I saw Aidan. I went home and Cat had just arrived and she had just had come back from the town where she bought salad from the Salad Bowl which turned out to be basically where the car bomb was.
Q. You were lucky then not to have lost two children that day?
A. Indeed. Cat had just arrived in before the explosion. Both Patsy (his wife) and Cat were starting to get worried by the time I got back so we turned on the TV. We saw the newsflashes about the bomb in the town centre and that there were casualties. I went to the hospital and there was no news. But then I went to the car park where I told Aidan to park and the car was still there. It was hours after the bomb so I then knew something was seriously wrong. Even if Aidan was injured, he would have made sure that we got some word he was ok. Eventually I went to the leisure centre where I spent hours and then to the Lisanelly Army barracks where a temporary mortuary was. My brother James joined me and identified Aidan.
When I went home, I had to tell Patsy and Cat that Aidan wouldn't be coming home. That was hard. It was a nightmare. Sometimes when I look back I wondered how we survived - but we did.
Q. How did the Omagh Self Help support group start?
A. The families just started to meet and come together in people's kitchens in the October or November afterwards. And slowly it was formed. Here I am 17 years later.
Q. You had to immerse yourself in the tragedy?
A. Yes I did and that caused some tension within the family as not everybody felt the same way. Every day we talk about him but sadly there are some families who can't even mention the name of their loved one.
Q. What do you think Aidan would have been like today?
A. Aidan's friend who was with him in town, and who was injured himself, is married now with two children. We would like to think that Aidan would have been just the same. We found out later that Aidan was planning to meet a girl that night. She was a lovely girl called Emma. Just over a year ago Patsy and I went to her funeral. It was hard. It was really hard. Her mother told me, 'my daughter really loved your son'.
Q. How come after 17 years you are still the spokesperson for the Omagh bombing families?
A. I'm not and it's important to explain that. I'm only the spokesperson for those families who are members of the Omagh Self Help Group.
We have a membership of 220 people but not all have been affected by the Omagh bomb. Some members have been affected by various incidents during the Troubles.
Q. Will you keep the campaign going for justice until you die?
A. Well, that's what I wouldn't like to do. I would just like the Government to come out and give that inquiry and then I could pick up my life from the August 14, 1998, and do the things I want to do and not just be known as the father of Aidan Gallagher who died in the Omagh bomb. You lose your own identity in all of this and who you are. It doesn't just affect you but everyone around you.
Q. How hard is it to keep the campaign going?
A. If Aidan hadn't have died, I never would have got involved in the politics of victimhood and never been part of this group. I was actually a very shy person before the bomb. If anyone had pointed a camera at me, I would have ran in the opposite direction. Even yet, I find that difficult.
After he died, I felt there was no sense to it and there was no sense on going on.
I tried to move on but I was always drawn back to what had happened. In the end I just made Omagh part of my life. That was my coping mechanism and probably the only way I could deal with it.
Other people could only by leaving it behind.
Q. Was there any dissent within the group?
A. There was actually a split in the group. Some, not many, left and set up their own group. While we campaigned for a public inquiry, some members of that group wrote to the Secretary of State that they didn't want one. There will always people who will have different views.
Q. What about the rest of the Omagh community?
A. There can be some resentment expressed from time to time. Recently, I was collecting money one weekend for one of three street collections we do each year. One woman rolled down her car window and shouted out to me "did you not get enough from the Omagh bomb".
Q. Does that hurt?
A. That's quite difficult to deal with but that's only one of a tiny number of people who may think like that. We did not divide politically or religiously afterwards and we supported each other and support each other today.
Q. Have you ever used the counselling services provided by the Omagh Self Help Group?
A. Yes, in this very room I have. I haven't had counselling for a long number of years but I've recently started back to it.
Q. Have you healed?
A. I will start to deal with all of this whenever the Government will give us that public inquiry and the truth. Difficult as the truth is to handle, I think it would be better than the torture of uncertainty and the unknown that we are all going through at the moment.
Q. Can you forgive the people behind the Omagh bombing?
A. No. I can't as I believe that the only person who can forgive for the murder of Aidan is Aidan himself. I don't believe I have the right to forgive those people. I'm not a very religious person, but I'll park that, and let God do with that. But I feel it's my responsibility to make sure that they face justice in this life.