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Ruth Dudley Edwards: If we can't get justice for Omagh bombing, then let us get the truth

Most observers agree that the families of the Omagh bomb victims will not now receive justice in court. But could a QC-led review still get the answers they crave, asks Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 02/03/2016

Gonzalo Cavedo steps on to the street for what he thought was just another holiday snap, in front of the bomb car parked in Market Street, Omagh, prior to the blast
Gonzalo Cavedo steps on to the street for what he thought was just another holiday snap, in front of the bomb car parked in Market Street, Omagh, prior to the blast

When they're not insultingly telling us that there should be no hierarchy of Troubles victims, apologists for paramilitaries are urging us to stop going on about the past and to move on.

Their effrontery knows no bounds for - particularly in the case of republicans - they never miss an opportunity to celebrate the deeds of their own assassins, or to demand justice for the victims they care about.

I'm well-used to being heavily criticised for reminding people about things that have happened in the past that the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - and, indeed, Billy Hutchinson and Jackie McDonald - would prefer were forgotten about.

It's scary to realise how many young people have no qualms at all about voting for Sinn Fein since they haven't a clue about the cruelty of the IRA campaign and the suffering it caused to tens of thousands of people.

But, as far as I'm concerned, the very least we owe victims of violence is to tell their stories.

We also owe it to young people who might be seduced by romantic notions to tell them the grim reality of the desolation caused by bombs and guns.

Of all the terrible stories of the Troubles, there is none worse than that of the Omagh bombing, because of its timing, circumstances, the nature of the victims, the failure to bring the perpetrators to criminal justice because of problems that included the absence of political will to pursue the killers, several perpetrators being in the Republic, incompetence, security services that stuck to protocols that stymied the police and so on.

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Again and again the bereaved have been let down - yet several of them have displayed relentless courage and obduracy in refusing to shut up and go away.

Yesterday there was another crushing disappointment when the Public Prosecution Service confirmed that - because of doubts about the testimony of a key witness - it was withdrawing all charges against Seamus Daly, of Co Armagh, who had been accused of the murder of 29 people in Omagh, "explosive offences and on matters connected to a Real IRA car bomb plot in Lisburn on April 3, 1998".

Police officers and firefighters inspecting the damage caused by a Real IRA bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh, which killed 29 people
Police officers and firefighters inspecting the damage caused by a Real IRA bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh, which killed 29 people
The devastation caused by the Omagh bomb
An RUC officer walks past the mangled wreckage of children's buggies at the scene of the Omagh explosion

I have felt very involved with this dreadful event since the afternoon it happened, August 15, 1998, when a good friend who lived near Omagh rang to tell me that his wife and two children had missed death by seconds.

Like millions of other horrified people, I spent much of the rest of the weekend watching unfold on television the details of how a small country town was devastated by a 500lb bomb on a sunny Saturday afternoon less than three months after the people of Ireland had ratified the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement and, thus, as the world thought, brought peace to Northern Ireland.

More than 3,000 people died during the Troubles in a squalid sectarian war initiated by hardline Irish republicans who wanted to bomb Northern Ireland into a united Ireland.

The Provisional IRA had lost and settled for power-sharing, but there were still in existence the tiny splinter groups of Real and Continuity IRAs, and the INLA.

As far as they were concerned, the Provisionals had sold out and they would continue down the same violent path that had achieved nothing except the copper-fastening of partition in the psyches of most Irish people.

The INLA stole cars and the Real IRA turned them into bombs that were usually delivered by the Continuity IRA.

Seamus Daly, who was released yesterday after the case against him collapsed
Seamus Daly, who was released yesterday after the case against him collapsed

Earlier bombs had killed no one, so had been largely ignored in the post-Agreement euphoria.

This time, because of a botched warning, 31 people would die in the name of united Ireland: two unborn twins; two babies; three schoolgirls; four schoolboys; six students; four housewives; three shop assistants; a dispatch clerk; a shopkeeper; a crane driver; a mechanic; a horticulturist, a teacher and a retired accounts clerk.

It was the worst atrocity of the Troubles.

It touched the world, not least because of the very ordinariness of the victims, the feeling that this could have been a small town anywhere, and the articulacy and determination of several of the bereaved, particularly Victor Barker, the English solicitor whose 12-year-old son James had been murdered, and Michael Gallagher, a mechanic from Omagh, and father of dead 21-year-old Aiden.

The gunman who had murdered Michael Gallagher's brother Hugh in 1984 had got away with it.

Mr Gallagher was determined that this time he would do everything in his power to ensure that those responsible for killing Aiden would be brought to justice.

I would spend the next 11 years closely involved with this story, as a journalist, an anti-terrorist campaigner, an amateur fundraiser, a friend and, finally, the chronicler of those victims, who - despairing of satisfaction from the criminal justice system - decided to take a civil case against the bombers.

Along the way they became accomplished, formidable campaigners and acquired an unlikely collection of helpers, who included Barry McGuigan, Bob Geldof, Conservative peer Lord Salisbury, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, who helped them raise £1.2m, and Peter Mandelson, one-time Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who persuaded Tony Blair to allow them unprecedented legal aid.

They had a famous victory, in June 2009, when, after years of legal frustrations, four of the five men they had sued were found responsible.

They wrere Liam Campbell, Michael McKevitt, Colm Murphy and Daly.

But they kept hoping that the men would be found guilty in a criminal court.

It won't happen now: it's the end of this particular road.

Some of the families hope for a public inquiry.

There is no chance of them getting it.

What they might have a chance of getting - and what might answer some of the troubling questions - is a review along the lines of that excellently carried out by Sir Desmond de Silva QC into the death of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.

Even if people can't get justice, it helps to get truth.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing And The Families' Pursuit Of Justice was published in 2009

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