Belfast Telegraph

Families pledge Omagh case fight

Campaigning families of Omagh bomb victims are preparing for a courtroom showdown with the British government after it rejected their demand for a public inquiry into the Real IRA attack.

Relatives challenged the UK authorities to "stop hiding from the truth" over alleged intelligence and investigative failings they claim allowed the bombers to perpetrate the 1998 atrocity, and get away with it.

They made a defiant pledge to take judicial review proceedings against Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers after she ruled out a probe.

Ms Villiers said she did not believe there were sufficient grounds to justify a state-commissioned independent inquiry.

The dissident republican attack which killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, and injured hundreds more was one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland troubles and inflicted the greatest loss of life in a single terrorist incident.

With the bomb having been allegedly transported to the Co Tyrone town from the Republic of Ireland, bereaved families have called for a cross-border inquiry involving both the London and Dublin governments.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny tonight said his Government was still considering a report the families had compiled on the alleged state failures north and south.

Stanley McCombe, whose wife Ann, 45, was killed, said the anger he felt at the British Government's decision would drive him onward as the families proceeded with legal action.

"If they want to try and hide the truth about Omagh, they can," he said.

"But we'll flush them out at the end of the day. There are no hiding places. It's a democratic country and people have to know the truth."

Mr McCombe vowed never to give up on the campaign. "I will not leave it until the day I die," he said.

Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Aiden was among the victims of the August 1998 blast, added: "We'll do our talking in court."

But not all the Omagh bomb families want an inquiry, with some claiming the exercise would re-traumatise the bereaved.

Kevin Skelton, whose wife Philomena, 39, was killed, said: "I am making my position quite clear and I would have other families behind me in that, who are not interested in a public inquiry because they don't think it's going to achieve anything."

Omagh was bombed just months after politicians in Northern Ireland signed the historic Good Friday peace accord that led to power-sharing at Stormont.

While no-one has been criminally convicted of the crime, four republicans were found liable for the atrocity in a landmark civil case taken by some of the bereaved relatives and ordered to pay £1.6 million compensation.

Last month, families pressing for the inquiry, many of whom belong to the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, outlined details of an independent report they commissioned into alleged intelligence mistakes in the lead-up to the atrocity and gaffes in the subsequent criminal investigations.

They had handed the document to the authorities in London and Dublin a year previously and complained vociferously at the length of time the respective governments had taken to respond.

Ms Villiers said ruling out an inquiry was not an easy decision to make and all views were carefully considered.

She said a current investigation into elements of the incident by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman was the best way to proceed.

"I do not believe that there are sufficient grounds to justify a further review or inquiry above and beyond those that have already taken place or are ongoing," she said.

Ms Villiers added: "The fact remains that the Real IRA carried out the bombing in Omagh on August 15 1998, murdering 29 people and injuring many more.

"Responsibility is theirs alone. I sincerely hope that the ongoing police investigation will bring to justice those responsible for this brutal crime."

Ms Villiers acknowledged that families had contrasting views on an inquiry, with some believing it would cause them considerable trauma.

She said all the views were weighed against other factors, including the series of previous inquiries into the Omagh bomb and the current investigation by ombudsman.

Both Mr Gallagher and Mr McCombe questioned the rationale of the Government's claims that an inquiry would cause trauma to some of the bereaved.

"Of course we recognise that people move forward at different levels but does that mean to say that because there are some of us who want justice and truth that we should be denied that because others don't?" said Mr Gallagher.

Mr McCombe added: "The way I look at it is: why should anyone else deny me the truth about why my wife was murdered?"

Expressing concern at the length and cost of the public inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings by British Army soldiers in Londonderry in 1972, the Government had previously made clear its resistance to holding further such probes into Troubles incidents in Northern Ireland.

Mr McCombe said the experiences of the Saville Inquiry in Derry, which cost more than 200 million euro and ran for more than 10 years, did not have to be repeated.

"If everyone co-operates, then there is no problem," he said.

"The only reason people won't co-operate is because they don't want the truth to be known."

He added: "Why should anyone in Government, why should they have the right to keep the truth from me and my family?"

Mr Gallagher said a public inquiry was needed because previous probes had been unable to compel people to give evidence.

Former Northern Ireland police ombudsman Dame Nuala O'Loan, who while in office carried out her own investigation into the bombing, and former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner and counter terrorism chief Bob Quick have publicly backed the call for an inquiry.

Amnesty International has also added its voice to demands for a full independent probe.

But a number of the families are not in favour.

Mr Skelton said his children were of the view that their mother should be allowed to rest in peace.

"But I am not standing in the way of anybody, of the other families going for what they believe in, I have never done that," he said.

"We know the answers. I know there were dirty deeds done round Omagh and the Government, whether there is a public inquiry or not, they are going to bury them, and they have the power to do that."

Mr Kenny said the Irish Government was still examining the claims made in the families' report.

"The Government are in possession of the report from the families and the minister for justice (Alan Shatter) is considering that," he said.

Mr Kenny stressed he was prepared to meet and listen to concerns raised by Troubles' victims, and not just those from Omagh.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said: "We are hugely conscious of the continuing suffering of the families following the horrific bomb that was let off in Omagh."

He added: "Both jurisdictions will continue to pursue those who were responsible for the Omagh bomb, to bring them to justice."

UK shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker said he hoped the Police Ombudsman probe could provide the families with further answers.

"I await the outcome of that investigation and hope it can help bring the families closer to the truth and justice they rightly demand and expect," he said.

Former Northern Ireland police ombudsman Dame Nuala O'Loan, who while in office carried out her own investigation into the bombing, and former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner and counter terrorism chief Bob Quick have publicly backed the call for an inquiry.

Amnesty International has also added its voice to demands for a full independent probe.

Noting the length and cost of the public inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings by British Army soldiers in Londonderry in 1972, the Government had previously made clear its resistance to holding further such probes into Troubles incidents in Northern Ireland.

Mr McCombe said the experiences of the Saville Inquiry in Derry, which cost around £200 million and ran for more than 10 years, did not have to be repeated.

"It doesn't have to be a Bloody Sunday inquiry, it doesn't have to be that," he insisted.

"If everyone co-operates then there is no problem.

"The only reason people won't co-operate is because they don't want the truth to be known."

He added: "Why should anyone in Government, why should they have the right to keep the truth from me and my family?"

Mr Gallagher said a public inquiry was needed because previous probes had been unable to compel people to give evidence.

"That's why we have called for a public inquiry so that people who want to give evidence, such as former senior investigating officers and others, can come before the court and give their evidence without any repercussions," he said.

Mr McCombe said he would never give up on the campaign.

"I will not leave it until the day I die," he said.

Kevin Skelton, whose wife Philomena was among the victims, is one of the Omagh relatives opposed to a public inquiry.

He said his children were of the view that their mother should be allowed to rest in peace.

"I have made my position quite clear, it's not my decision, it's my children's decision and I have to back them," he said.

"But I am not standing in the way of anybody, of the other families going for what they believe in, I have never done that.

"But I am making my position quite clear and I would have other families behind me in that, who are not interested in a public inquiry because they don't think it's going to achieve anything."

He told the BBC: "We know the answers. I know there were dirty deeds done round Omagh and the Government, whether there is a public inquiry or not, they are going to bury them, and they have the power to do that."

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker said he hoped the Police Ombudsman probe could provide the families with further answers.

"I have the utmost sympathy for the families of those who lost their lives in the Omagh bombing," he said.

"I have visited the town several times and met those bereaved and injured as a result of what happened on that terrible day.

"The Omagh bomb was a dreadful, awful act of indiscriminate murder. The distinction between it and other atrocities is that it happened after the Good Friday Agreement. I do not believe therefore we can look at it as part of dealing with the past and the legacy of the Troubles.

"I have read the most recent report commissioned by the Omagh families. It makes shocking and disturbing allegations about the failure of security forces and intelligence services on both sides of the border.

"The Secretary of State has read and considered the evidence available to her, including those of previous inquiries and investigations. She will have had access to confidential and classified information that I am not privy to.

"There is an ongoing inquiry by the Police Ombudsman which I hope can provide further information and address some of the serious concerns raised. I await the outcome of that investigation and hope it can help bring the families closer to the truth and justice they rightly demand and expect."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Government was still examining the claims made in the families' report.

"The Government are in possession of the report from the families and the minister for justice (Alan Shatter) is considering that," Mr Kenny said.

Mr Kenny stressed he was prepared to meet and listen to concerns raised by Troubles' victims, and not just those from Omagh.

"I met with some of the families of the Omagh bomb quite some time ago, and the Government and the minister for justice has possession of the report conducted by the families and people on their behalf," he said.

"I met with members of the families, survivors and those who were involved in difficulties in east Fermanagh. On Armistice Day, both the Tanaiste and I were in Enniskillen and in Belfast. I met with members of the victims of the Enniskillen bomb there.

"I hope to have the opportunity to meet with the members of some of the families (of Omagh) in due course."

The Republic of Ireland's deputy prime minister Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said: "We are hugely conscious of the continuing suffering of the families following the horrific bomb that was let off in Omagh.

"The minister for justice has the report that was prepared by the support and self-help group and he is still considering that report.

"I have seen the statement that the secretary of state has made this morning. I will be meeting with her in the near future and will have a formal discussion with her about it.

"We also have to bear in mind that the Omagh bomb was planted by terrorist organisations which are still active, which we still have to deal with, which is the subject of intention from the security police forces in this state and in Northern Ireland.

"Both jurisdictions will continue to pursue those who were responsible for the Omagh bomb, to bring them to justice."

He added: "We're certainly willing to listen and talk to victims."

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