Why Omagh bombers have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide
European Court decision paves way for relatives of the murdered to seize the dissident terrorists' assets, writes Sean O'Driscoll
The gate swings open and I walk to the door of Ireland's most notorious terrorist. Mickey McKevitt, the convicted leader of the Real IRA, lives in a pretty, two-storey house in the cosy Louth village of Blackrock, just a five-minute walk from the beach.
The door opens. A young woman comes out. "Yes?"
"Hello, I'm a journalist. I'm wondering if Mickey would talk to me. It's about the case, the assets case..." Before I can finish the sentence she interrupts: "We're sitting down to dinner. It's not a good time."
"Would he do a respectful interview some other time?"
"Absolutely no way," she says.
There is an awkward pause and we stare at each other. I shrug my shoulders. "Well, I tried," I say.
"Yeah, you tried," she says. "And let me tell you something - you're a brave man."
More than 18 years after Ireland's worst terrorist attack - and seven years after the Omagh families became the first terrorist victims in history to sue their bombers - not a single penny of the £1.6m award has been collected.
Last week the European Court of Human Rights rejected a request by McKevitt and his former right-hand man Liam Campbell to throw out the Omagh civil verdict, effectively ending the bombers' decade-long attempt to defeat the case. Now, the legal focus is on seizing their property.
"Whatever assets McKevitt has are deeply hidden," said a Garda source. "But he was always in it for the ego and romance; he was never a money man - not like (Colm) Murphy and (Liam) Campbell."
McKevitt's traceable assets may be limited - in the days after the Omagh bomb his wife Bernadette, sister of Bobby Sands, was very publicly run out of the Dundalk shopping centre where she and her husband owned a print and gift shop. Crowds cheered. It was a people's uprising in the very heartland of republicanism.
McKevitt was released from prison a few months ago after serving most of his 20-year sentence for directing terrorism. Now in poor health, he takes walks along the beach in Blackrock with his wife, a shadow of his former persona as head of one of Europe's most vicious terrorist groups.
The real focus for the Omagh families is Murphy, a Continuity IRA leader, and Campbell, a Real IRA leader. Both are extremely wealthy, charismatic men, who used their positions as paramilitary chiefs to build their own business empires - construction and property for Murphy, smuggling for Campbell.
After they spent years refusing to answer questions about their assets the pair were forced to appear before the High Court in Dublin last October or face prison time for contempt of court.
For those following the Omagh case it was a pivotal moment - the two millionaire bombers would finally have to divulge their assets.
Murphy, though, had seemingly fallen on hard times, his construction fortune consumed by his ex-wife in their bitter divorce battle.
"My ex-wife cleaned me out," he told the court. He has nothing left, he repeatedly pleaded.
His construction business "got f***** up" after his name was linked to the Omagh bomb, he claimed, and his wife decided to leave him.
In the witness box Murphy was loud, defiant and belligerent, repeating over and over again that his ex-wife Anne had his property. "Are people living in cuckoo land?" he said when asked if he had any property left.
When asked specific questions about specific property he owned in Louth, he replied dismissively that the barrister should put the questions to his ex-wife, who now owned the property.
I drove to Murphy's former pub, The Emerald, to commiserate with him about the loss of his property empire. I was surprised when I arrived at the bar to see Murphy and now ex-wife Anne laughing and joking together.
He was sitting at the end of the bar with comrades; she was dropping pints up to them and placing her hand on his shoulder as they exchanged banter with friends. What could account for this near-miraculous reunion between Murphy and his ex-wife? Instead of running to their divorce lawyers, should Brad and Angelina spend a few nights in The Emerald Bar in Dundalk, learning from the true masters of romance?
I didn't have much time to spend with Dundalk's own love guru because I wanted to get to visit the workplace of Campbell, the former second-in-command of the Real IRA.
In the High Court in Dublin last October Campbell was weaving a story of poverty to match that of Murphy.
He was unemployed for many years, he told the court, and was on the dole in the 1980s. His only assets were a half-share in the family bungalow in Upper Faughart, outside Dundalk, and in the 3.5-acre site beside the house.
He claimed to know nothing of six properties he allegedly owns in Castlebar, Co Mayo, and Athone, Co Westmeath, and which are reputedly fronted by close associates.
A barrister for the Omagh families told the court that they believed Campbell would move quickly to have the six properties transferred to other owners unless the court ordered their seizure.
Campbell's tale of poverty is somewhat undermined by the fact that, in 2003, he was ordered by the Republic's Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) to pay €872,483 in illegal earnings from smuggling following a year-long investigation into his finances.
When CAB officers raided a cowshed at the back of his house they found not cattle, but 96 bottles of smuggled Champagne.
Using a network provided by the Provisional IRA and later the Real IRA, Campbell operated one of the largest smuggling operations in the country, importing vast quantities of cigarettes and alcohol from eastern Europe and distributing them quickly on both sides of the border.
His brother Michael admitted all this while on trial in Lithuania on terrorism charges. Michael claimed he and Liam were professional cigarette smugglers, not terrorists. Michael is due to be retried in Lithuania - apparently the Lithuanian authorities believe that "smuggler" and "terrorist" are not mutually exclusive terms.
Liam Campbell claims to have no interest in several businesses in the Louth area, including Town Glass, a glass company located in an industrial estate outside Dundalk and owned by Seamus McGrane, a Real IRA leader who is currently in prison awaiting trial on dissident terrorism charges.
Throughout his smuggling years Campbell was ostensibly an employee of Town Glass and the phone he allegedly used to communicate with the bombers on the day of the Omagh atrocity was registered to the company.
After leaving The Emerald Bar I visited Town Glass, but there was no one there, as it had just finished trading for the day and the shutters were down. There was no sign of Liam Campbell, double-glazing expert.
The fourth man found liable for the Omagh bombing, Seamus Daly, has also pleaded innocence and poverty. Until recently, however, he had the lease on one of the more prominent pubs in the centre of Dundalk. When I walked in a live version of The Wolfe Tones' Celtic Symphony was blasting out on the sound system, with its familiar chorus: "Ooh ah, up the 'RA, Ooh ah up the 'RA."
In the corner there was a large poster tribute to the 200th anniversary of Tone's 1798 United Irishmen rebellion: '1798-1998' it read. I sat staring at it, wondering if Daly was crass enough not to realise 1998 was the year of the Omagh bombing.
Michael Gallagher, chair of the Omagh Support and Self-Help Group, said at the weekend that the successful 2009 lawsuit against the bombers would be "a hollow victory" unless the families seized the assets of McKevitt, Campbell, Murphy and Daly.
"We have a judgment against them that is recognised on both sides of the border. If they move assets around to other people to avoid that judgment, it's still recoverable," he said.
"We're not going to back down at this point. They'll find that there's nowhere to hide."
Sean O'Driscoll is a human rights lawyer and journalist