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Only full public inquiry can give Omagh families answers they've waited 18 years to hear

Secrecy over 1998 massacre only fuels fears of cover-up by intelligence services, says Alban Maginness

Published 21/09/2016

Breda Devine, 20 months
Breda Devine, 20 months
Esther Gibson
Spaniard Gonzalo Cavedo poses with a child on his shoulders beside the car carrying the bomb that seconds later killed 29 people, including the photographer
Elizabeth Rush
Olive Hawkes, aged 60
Julie Hughes, aged 21
Ann McCombe, aged 45
Mary Grimes, aged 65
Aiden Gallagher, aged 21
The bomb attack was the worst ever atrocity of Northern Ireland's decades of violence.
Brian McCrory, left, aged 54
Samantha McFarland, aged 17
Philomena Skelton, aged 39
Jolene Marlow, aged 17
The scene of the Omagh Bomb
Brenda Logue, aged 17
Alan Radford, aged 16
Bryan White, aged 27
Oran Doherty
Lorraine Wilson
Fred White
Veda Short
Geraldine Breslin
Deborah-Ann Cartwright
The scene of devastation in Omagh Town centre where upto 25 people have been killed in this afternoons blast. PACEMAKER BELFAST 15/08/98
Gareth Conway, Omagh bomb victim
James Baker, Omagh bomb victim
Several men have faced charges in connection with the attack, but nobody has ever been convicted of the murders
Cathy and Michael Gallagher, the sister and father of Omagh bomb victim, Aiden Gallagher.
PACEMAKER BFST 03-08-99: Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has a chat with Claire Gallagher, who lost her sight in the Omagh bomb, before yesterday's friendly against Omagh Town in aid of the Omagh Bomb Fund.
The happy couple — Ryan and Claire Bowse on their wedding day last year, nine years after Claire lost her sight due to injuries suffered in the Omagh bombing
The damage caused by the bomb explosion in Market Street, Omagh, 1998
Donna Marie McGillion, who was seriously injured in the Omagh bombing
The secret email which shows intelligence bosses knew that Omagh was a prime target for a terrorist attack weeks before the car bomb that devastated the town
Claire Radford, whose brother Alan was killed in the Omagh bomb, examines a new stained-glass window in the town's library with her daughter Mia. The window was created in memory of the victims of the blast which killed 29 people and unborn twins.
Michael Gallagher whose son Aiden, 21, was killed in the Omagh bomb attack Pic Paul Faith
Michael Gallagher (right), whose son Aiden, 21, was killed in the Omagh bomb attack with Stanley McCombe who lost his wife Ann Pic Paul Faith

Recently, the Lord Chief Justice criticised the failure of our local administration to provide the necessary funding for dealing with inquests related to the Troubles.

With unusual frankness for the highest judge in the land, Sir Declan Morgan spoke directly about helping the families of the deceased find the truth about their loved ones' deaths.

Clearly, he saw the need to help those so directly impacted by the Troubles to find some solace by uncovering the truth about their deaths.

Hopefully, the Executive will listen carefully to his unusual public intervention and provide the necessary funding for the timely processing of these inquests. The time for action has long passed and the playing of party politics should cease.

Similarly, a recent book by Hugh Orde, the former chief constable, and Des Rea, former chair of the Policing Board, entitled Bear In Mind These Dead, has a similar resonance in relation to the greatest outrage of the Troubles - the Omagh bomb in August 1998.

The book is an exhaustive chronicle of the police investigation and the relationship between the Policing Board and the police over this issue.

It provides a point-by-point account of the whole Omagh investigation saga and presents a valuable historical reservoir for current and future researchers.

The book is a compendium of fact and is wonderfully sequenced, but does not attempt to allocate blame.

However, there is no doubt that the search for truth and justice for the Omagh victims' families and survivors has been a difficult and, at times, flawed process from the very outset of the investigation into this despicable crime.

That search for truth and justice continues, and this book reminds all of us of their continuing plight. The Omagh victims' families would argue that the truth has not yet been fully revealed. Central to their plight is the crucial question of whether the Omagh bombing was preventable.

While everyone knows and accepts that the Real IRA was responsible - and publicly admitted responsibility - for this ghastly act of terror, it was two years afterwards that it was claimed by Kevin Fulton, a former British agent in the IRA, that the bombing could have been prevented had the police acted upon information that he had allegedly provided to them.

This led to the subsequent investigation by the Police Ombudsman and a public spat between the then Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, and the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, in respect of the Omagh bomb investigation.

The Ombudsman's report - although it did not fully back Fulton - was, nonetheless, very critical of the police and, naturally, exacerbated the feelings of the Omagh relatives, who felt let down by failings in the police investigation.

It also highlighted the need for full co-operation between the police and the Garda, given the very obvious cross-border nature of the bombing (the bomb was transported from Monaghan across the border and planted in Omagh).

To date, despite the charging of and the initial steps in the prosecution of Seamus Daly, there has been no successful criminal prosecution in Northern Ireland.

There has, of course, been a successful civil action, but that was carried out on a separate standard of legal proof to the proof that is required in a criminal case.

Naturally, given the grievous injustice in this incident, the relatives are rightly frustrated by their failure to achieve justice.

While it is understandable that the authorities cannot force a successful prosecution if there is insufficient evidence available to them, it is grossly unacceptable for the Government to refuse to hold a public inquiry into the Real IRA attack.

Michael Gallagher, father of one of the victims, Aidan Gallagher, has campaigned indefatigably over many years to bring about such an inquiry.

And, in January 2015, the High Court ruled that he had the legal right to challenge the Government's refusal to hold a public inquiry into the bombing.

However, in January 2016, the London Government indicated that they were seeking a Closed Material Procedure in advance of Mr Gallagher's legal challenge.

This is on the basis of that elastic concept "national security", but as soon as you hear that much-abused term, you should immediately wonder: what is the Government seeking to conceal from the ordinary citizen? Why the state secrecy in this most sensitive of cases?

Of course, the whole murky world of intelligence sources and intrigue springs to mind and would naturally fuel the suspicions of ordinary people, like the courageous Michael Gallagher and his Omagh colleagues.

Whatever excuses the Government gives, it is clear that its decision simply reawakens suspicions of an intelligence agency cover-up in this important case.

Surely, it is time to stop letting down the Omagh victims and give them what they deserve - that is the truth.

And the best way of doing that is through a public inquiry.

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