Northern Irish Politics

The New Tragedy of the Omagh Bomb

“The barrier of time has not served to disguise the enormity of this crime, the wickedness of its perpetrators and the grief of those who must bear its consequences. Even fifteen years on, nothing can dilute the pulsing horror of what happened.”

These words were the chilling recollection of the Omagh bomb delivered by Mr Justice Gillen on Wednesday in Belfast’s High Court.

It was a busy Saturday afternoon in the small, rural town of Omagh on August 15th 1998. The streets were bustling with both shoppers and tourists trying to make the most of a rare spell of good weather. The forecast for the future of the country was similarly positive. Northern Ireland appeared to be moving away from the violence which had threatened to tear it apart for some thirty years. The Provisional IRA had declared a new ceasefire which had held for over a year, and, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, had pledged to decommission all of their weapons. It seemed as though some significant measure of peace was finally to extinguish this most brutal of conflicts.

It was against this backdrop that a 500lb car bomb ripped through one of Omagh’s busiest streets, killing 29 and injuring over 200. Amongst those killed were a Spanish child who was in Ireland to learn English, as well as a thirty year old woman pregnant with twins. It was the single worst atrocity of the Troubles. No-one has ever been criminally convicted for the bombing, which serves only to elevate the importance of the civil trials regarding the bombing. It was at such a trial in June, 2009 that four of the five men charged were found to be liable for £1.6 million pounds in damages payable to the victims of the Omagh bomb and their families.

Although Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly were all found to be liable, Murphy and Daly successfully appealed the decision, prompting a retrial in January of this year.

After reserving judgment at the retrial, Mr Justice Gillen, who presided over the case announced his verdict that both men were to be held liable for the tragedy.

Daly, a bricklayer from Cullaville, Co Monaghan and Murphy, a builder and publican from Dundalk, Co Louth will now be held responsible for the £1.6 million in damages awarded to the families of the victims in June of 2009. It was today announced that both men have signalled their intention to appeal the decision.

Although the verdict was seen as a positive outcome for the victims and their families, few are left feeling satisfied that justice has been served. Michael Gallagher, whose 21 year old son Aidan was one such victim, was steadfast in his commitment to bringing criminal proceedings.

“We have not given up on a criminal conviction – that is what we wanted in the first place. Sadly it was left up to the families to get a result and to hold people to account for this crime” he said.

It is in this final remark that we come truly to the crux of this trial. As a civil trial, there was never a possibility that punishment or justice would be meted out. Nor was there ever truly the prospect of recovering even a fraction of the £1.6 million in compensation from these four men, all of whom have received legal aid. The true purpose of this trial for the families is best summarised by their solicitor, Matthew Jury.

“Everyone now knows the names of some of those men who are responsible.”

The tragedy of the Omagh bomb is undoubtedly one of the darkest days in an already bleak history of the Troubles. It is a tragedy amplified by the victims and their families’ need to settle for this pale imitation of justice, meted out not by criminal court, nor public inquiry, but by a civil court.

The millions of pounds of public money spent in this civil case was not spent in vain, but it is not enough. Much has been said about vast sums spent on the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and others like it, however, the benefit of the discovery of the truth and the catharsis it brings is priceless, particularly in a post conflict society. We must then look upon this civil case as a failure. It has failed to provide the justice these victims and their families so desperately desire, just as it has failed to bring retribution to those responsible.

When we look at such failings, it is a reminder to us all that we are yet not washed clean of our recent, bloody history. How are we as a society to maintain our burgeoning peace, if we cannot make peace with the past?

As I write this, news comes over the radio of a car bomb found near a police station in a small, rural town in County Fermanagh.

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