Omagh families find justice at last

Ruling against Real IRA is victory for those bereaved from Northern Ireland bombing.

    Angry and frustrated by police failures, the families of the victims decided to go it alone [EPA]

    Northern Ireland has had many days to forget, where death and destruction visited the streets and families were left to mourn. 

    Yet in 30 years of violence, the bombing of Omagh on August 15, 1998, stands as the worst atrocity of what they called ' The Troubles'.

    On a warm summer afternoon, the main street of the pretty market town of Omagh was filled with people.

    Families out shopping, teenagers catching up on the latest gossip, even visitors from Spain experiencing a slice of real rural Ireland.

    The mood changed when the police received a telephone warning that a car bomb had been placed in the town. 

    A recognised code-word was used, but the exact location was a little confused. 

    Police started steering people off the main street and began to check a number of vehicles parked on the sloping street. They had no idea they were guiding people towards their deaths.

    A huge blast tore through the air; there was a massive flash and a few moments of silence. 

    At first, there were alarms, from cars and from shops. Then they came. The screams of pain, of agony and of loss.

    Twenty nine people were killed, and two unborn baby twins died.  More than 200 people were injured.

    Broken promises

    The police promised they'd find the culprit.  The politicians promised justice. But despite extensive investigations no conviction was every secured for the Omagh bombing.

    To borrow a well-worn Northern Ireland phrase, "even the dogs on the street knew who was responsible" but it seemed nothing could be done to get them in court. The evidence simply wasn't there.

    The Real IRA said they did it.  Some say they claimed responsibility. 

    I remember in my early days in Northern Ireland speaking to a woman who'd lost her son when he was gunned down by a group who objected to his religion.

    When I said one group had claimed responsibility. She looked at me with tear stained eyes and asked "Is it an act of responsibility to gun someone down for the church they attend. 

    "They blow someone up because they're different, to hate someone because they say their prayers differently? Is that the act of a responsible person?" 

    She touched a nerve.  I never used the phrase again.

    Groundbreaking writ

    Angry and frustrated by the police failure, the families of the dead and injured decided to go it alone. 

    Michael Gallagher, left, who lost a son in the blast, says he feels the pain every day [AFP]

    They consulted some lawyers, and one early morning eight years ago, solicitor Jason McCue, accompanied by a number of reporters and television cameras, more for safety than publicity, served writs on five of the men they believed planned and carried out the Omagh bombing.

    This was groundbreaking and unique.  It's thought to be the first time anywhere in the world victims had sued named members of an alleged paramilitary organisation.

    The case began in the modern surroundings of the high court in Belfast, a monument to the peace that had visited and stayed in the province since Omagh, its predecessor having been a frequent target itself for the bombers. 

    Over 14 months, the court heard the evidence, pinpointing what was known, what could be proved, what had been said. 

    The advantage the families had was that they were aiming at a lower standard of proof. 

    Not for them the criminal demand of beyond a reasonable doubt. This was a civil case.  All they had to prove was "on the balance of probability" the men were guilty.

    Justice attained

    They arrived together at court in Belfast on Monday morning. 

    United the way they've been since the bombing and it's awful, hurtful aftermath. 

    Justice Declan Morgan read his findings and soon through the words it became clear they had won their long fight for justice.  

    He found four of the five responsible for the attack.

    They are: Michael McKevitt, the leader of the Real IRA currently serving 20 years in prison for directing terrorism; Liam Campbell; Colm Murphy, once charged, convicted and released on appeal from an Irish court for his part in the bombing; and Seamus Daly.

    In front of the court, the families gathered, as sombre and determined as they had been throughout the long fight. 

    From them there was no punching the air, no high five. This was dignified. 

    Michael Gallagher lost a son in the blast.

    He once told me he feels the pain every day.

    He said:  "We have sent out an important message to terrorists and their victims around the world, 'You now have a way of challenging those who've murdered your loved ones'.

    "I think it is a tremendous moral victory for the families."

    Gallagher and the others have sued for damages. They know they might never see a penny. They won't mind. They have the only thing they wanted, and that was justice.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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