Belfast Telegraph

Omagh bomb: Families of victims vow to take British government to court after ruling out public inquiry

Families of Omagh bomb victims have vowed to take the British government to court after branding its decision to rule out a public inquiry into the attack as a feeble bid to hide from the truth.

Relatives made the defiant pledge to take judicial review proceedings after Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said she did not believe there were sufficient grounds to justify a state commissioned independent probe into the 1998 Real IRA bombing.

The dissident republican attack, which killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, and injured more than 200, was one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland troubles and inflicted the greatest loss of life in a single terrorist incident.

The event is dogged in controversy with long standing allegations that intelligence and investigative failures by authorities on both sides of the border allowed the bombers to both carry out the crime and get away with it.

Stanley McCombe, whose wife Ann was killed, said the anger he felt at the 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."

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

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 who belong to the Omagh Support and Self Help Group outlined details of an independent report they commissioned into alleged intelligence failings in the lead up to the atrocity and with 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.

Mr Gallagher said he was "disappointed but not surprised" that ultimately the British Government had now come back with a negative response.

"I think it's important to note that this is a Government who are actually holding other governments to account over human rights abuses," he said.

"Last week they wanted permissions from Parliament to go to war, or to launch attacks on Syria. Over a year ago we gave this Government a report which showed that state agencies had failed and 31 people (including the unborn twins) had died and 250 were injured unnecessarily."

Ms Villiers said it 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.

"I believe that the ongoing investigation by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is the best way to address any outstanding issues relating to the police investigation into the Omagh attack.

"The fact remains that the Real IRA carried out the bombing in Omagh on 15 August 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.

"I have met representatives of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, as have a number of my predecessors as Secretary of State. I have offered to meet them again to explain my decision further if they wish."

Ms Villiers' statement said representations received by her showed there was support for an inquiry among a number of survivors and families of those killed in the attack, but others felt that a further inquiry would cause them considerable trauma.

All these views were weighed against other factors, including the series of previous inquiries into the Omagh bomb and the current investigation by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, it added.

Not all the Omagh families are involved in the campaign for an inquiry.

But 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.

"The Omagh bomb could have been prevented and yet we have the weakest of excuses this morning from the Secretary of State such as some of the families are against a public inquiry because they would be traumatised," said Mr Gallagher.

"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."

Mr McCombe added: "But when you get the news it makes you angry, it makes you angry the feeble excuse that Theresa Villiers and her die-hard associates came up with, that it would be very harrowing on other members of the families.

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

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."

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