Justice for 29 victims of Omagh bomb

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Relatives of the Omagh victims have said they hope today’s verdict in a ground-breaking legal action against five men accused of the bombing will signal the end of a long battle for justice.

Five men and the Real IRA are being sued for up to £14m by families of some of the 29 people who were killed in the 1998 Real IRA atrocity.

The relatives launched the landmark multi-million pound civil action in frustration at the ongoing failure to secure a successful criminal conviction over the attack. Mr Justice Morgan will deliver his judgment in Belfast High Court today.

Michael Gallagher — whose son Aidan was killed in the blast — told the Belfast Telegraph that he hopes the verdict will be the “end of a journey”.

“It was difficult for all of us because you were there in court listening to other families’ trauma and their worst nightmares; their worst experiences and some of those we were hearing for the first time. It was a very emotionally draining experience.”

Omagh relatives hope the long journey ends today

Families of Omagh bomb victims last night said they hope today is “the end of a long journey” as a verdict will be delivered on their multi-million pound eight-year civil action.

A ruling on a landmark case being taken against five men believed to have been behind the 1998 Real IRA explosion will be delivered to Belfast High Court this morning.

Relatives of six people killed — Geraldine Breslin (43), Aiden Gallagher (21), Esther Gibson (36), Anne McComb (45), Alan Radford (16) and Lorraine Wilson (15) — launched the multi-million pound compensation claim marking the first time that victims of terrorism have ever sued the alleged perpetrators.

The families’ legal team headed by Lord Daniel Brennan opened their case last April by describing the bombing as a massacre of the innocents and ended their evidence in March with a declaration that the day of reckoning had arrived for the Real IRA.

Today, Mr Justice Morgan will decide on the months of harrowing evidence presented to his court.

In December 2007, south Armagh electrician Sean Hoey walked free from court after being acquitted of 56 charges in connection with the Omagh bomb — including 29 counts of murder.

Now the devastated families believe this civil action — which began in 2001 — is their last hope for justice. The families were backed in their fundraising efforts by former US president Bill Clinton and ex-Northern Ireland secretaries of state Peter Mandelson and Sir Patrick Mayhew as well as Bob Geldof and former boxing champion Barry McGuigan.

The ground-breaking case, for which they raised about £2m and received an £800,000 government grant, heard heartbreaking accounts from the victims’ relatives, medics who treated the wounded and dying on the day of the bomb, police detectives, MI5 agents, as well as relatives of some of the suspects. On a number of occasions the court moved to Dublin’s Four Courts to take evidence from Garda officers involved in the cross-border police investigation.

However, the chairman of the Omagh Self-Help and Support Group, Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Aiden, said the case was never about the money.

“We are hoping that it will be the end of a particular journey that we started in 2000. But because of our experience of the courts before you are always nervous about the outcome. This was about holding people to account,” he said.

“We are glad that at least we are here because there were times along that journey when it was questionable whether we could continue, whether we had the finance to continue, whether both governments would co-operate in the civil action. But in the end things did come together and we were grateful that both the Garda Siochana, serving and retired, and former members of the RUC and members of the PSNI did come forward and were excellent witnesses along with other expert witnesses. So I think from that point of view things worked for us and allowed us to get where we are today.

“It was difficult for all of us because you were there in court listening to other families’ trauma and their worst nightmares, their worst experiences and some of those we were hearing for the first time. Some of the families had never spoken publicly. It was a very emotionally draining experience.”

The families’ solicitor, Jason McCue, said: “Not only do the families await a verdict which may finally bring to task those they believe responsible for the deaths of their loved ones but one that may set a ground-breaking precedent for future victims of terrorism.

“These civil proceedings were the first in the world to be issued against not only the alleged individual perpetrators of a terrorist atrocity but the terrorist organisation itself, the RIRA.”

Hopefully, we have paved the way for other cases like this

The Omagh bomb civil action should be an inspiration for terror victims throughout the world — no matter what the result, campaigning relatives have claimed.

Lead plaintiff Mark Breslin, whose wife of just two-and-a-half years was killed in the 1998 atrocity, hopes the £14m civil suit will pave the way for other victims seeking retribution.

And although he acknowledges the journey towards justice has been long, frustrating and at times seemingly impossible, the father-of-one said the struggle had been worthwhile.

“The civil action came when it appeared the criminal side wasn’t advancing as quickly as I thought it would. This was an opportunity to, I suppose at least, try and get as much information about what happened and also pursue those that perpetrated the bomb.

“I thought it was going to take longer. I realised it was a complex case and I knew it would take years and years rather than just a few years. I knew that personal finance would be a problem and that at any time, whatever I have , could be lost.

“But people were willing to stand by us and the public helped to raise the funds. We got quite a lot of support and later on through campaigning the government came on board.

“Actions like this, it’s not only for us and there is an opportunity for others to do the same. Although there are no other actions being taken at the minute hopefully we will have helped pave the way.”

Meanwhile, Godfrey Wilson, whose 16-year-old daughter Lorraine was killed when the 500lb car bomb ripped through Omagh, said he felt compelled to join the civil action.

“I had to do something. I just felt I couldn’t let Lorraine’s death go without justice. What kind of a father would I be, if I just sat back and did nothing.”

During the trial it emerged just how Lorraine’s death had impacted the Wilson family — two of her siblings tried to take their own lives and her mother, Ann, was described as a “shell of a woman” never likely to recover from her depression.

To fund the ground-breaking civil suit the families fundraised almost £2m before being awarded special status legal grant by the government.

Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Aiden also died in the blast, believes it has been money well spent.

“If we are successful in suing the Real IRA as an organisation I think that would be a tremendous victory not just for the Omagh families but for other families at home and around the world who have suffered from terrorism because it would give them an instrument to use in courts — whether it be America, Spain, Israel, Colombia or Iraq or wherever terrorists operate.

“I think if it works out that our legal team are successful it would be, in one sense, a very fitting legacy for the people that died that it will in some ways act as a deterrent to people that finance, support or carry out acts of terrorism,” Mr Gallagher said.

“What we have given the taxpayer is good value for money because we have created new law and created a precedence.”

The year-long battle that took its own toll

After eight years in pursuing and contesting a civil action, judgment day has been a long time coming for bereaved families of the 1998 Omagh bomb tragedy, writes Lesley-Anne Henry

The civil action began in Belfast more than a year ago. And the arduous, costly journey to reach Belfast High Court has taken its toll on some of the original 22 plaintiffs. Members of three families dropped out before the unprecedented trial could begin but relatives of six people killed continued the struggle clinging to the hope that someone would be held to account.

Grieving relations of Geraldine Breslin (43), Aiden Gallagher (21), Esther Gibson (36), Anne McComb (45), Alan Radford (16) and Lorraine Wilson (15) are suing five men and the Real IRA for an estimated £14m worth of damages.

To help fund their case the families raised £2m and were supported by the former US president Bill Clinton, ex-Northern Ireland Secretaries of State Peter Mandelson and Sir Patrick Mayhew, as well as celebrities Bob Geldof and former boxing champion Barry McGuigan.

After almost eight years in the planning, the civil trial eventually began last April, three months after south Armagh electrician Sean Hoey was acquitted of all charges connected to Omagh including 29 counts of murder. The case had been scheduled to last just eight weeks but it took almost a year to wade through the volumes of paperwork and hear from scores of witnesses who walked through the doors of Queen’s Bench No 2.

Among those who took the stand were medics who treated the hundreds of victims, serving and retired police officers, some who had been at the scene and others who had investigated the attack, as well as relatives of some suspects quizzed in the days after the bombing. A senior MI5 officer was also questioned about claims that the Government’s intelligence services had been secretly recording mobile telephone conversations between the bombers and those in the following scout car.

However FBI agent David Rupert, who is currently in a witness protection programme after appearing as a key prosecution witness in the criminal trial of Michael McKevitt in Dublin in 2000, was forbidden from attending the civil action but more than 900 emails between the spy and his handlers were submitted as evidence.

Former IRA informant Sean O’Callaghan was also denied the chance to take the stand for the prosecution.

In some of the most moving moments of the lengthy case those who lost relatives gave graphic accounts of how the explosion had torn their lives apart. And a leading psychiatrist gave a number of the plaintiffs a bleak prognosis with none likely to make a full recovery. Dr Nicholas Cooling, who assessed all of those involved in the civil suit, also described the counselling provided in the wake of the bomb as inadequate.

On a number of occasions the whole trial was transferred to the Republic where presiding judge Sir Declan Morgan heard evidence from garda officers involved in the cross border investigation.

The families’ legal team, headed by Lord Daniel Brennan, also included top London solicitor Jason McCue who is pursuing a legal action against Colonel Gadaffi on grounds that he supplied weapons to the IRA.

In bringing people to account the families hoped their lawyers would seize the opportunity to release into the public domain as much information about the defendants as possible.

Michael McKevitt, currently serving 20 years in Portlaoise prison, Liam Campbell, wanted in Lithuania on weapons charges, Colm Murphy, Seamus Daly and Seamus McKenna all deny any liability.

Campbell, who is currently on remand in Northern Ireland after being arrested under a European extradition warrant last month, is the only defendant not to recognise the action and has no legal representation. It is understood McKevitt, whose barrister travelled from Dublin for the hearing, was kept up-to-date with proceedings using a video link-up between the Belfast court and his prison cell in Co Dublin.

On its website, the Omagh Self Help and Support Group said the outcome of today’s trial would have repercussions for terrorists across the globe.

The statement read: “The outcome of this case could have an enormous impact for victims of terrorism at home and around the world.

“Whilst we don’t wish to prejudge the outcome of the trial, it will be the end of a long struggle by the families to bring this case to court and whatever the outcome we wish to thank our law team for their dedication and everyone who supported and contributed to make this possible.”

Ten years of twists

August 15, 1998: At 3.10pm a 500lb car bomb explodes in Market Street, Omagh, killing 29 people — including a woman heavily pregnant with twins — and injuring 220 others.

September 1, 1998 : Gerry Adams says the republican war is over.

September 7, 2000: Inquest into the bombing begins.

October 10, 2000: The BBC broadcasts the names of four men it claims are connected with the Omagh bombing.

August 11, 2001: Relatives of nine families begin a landmark civil action against five men they believed were responsible for the massacre. The Real IRA terror group which claimed responsibility for the bombing is also named as a defendant.

January 22, 2002: Colm Murphy convicted at a special non-jury Criminal Court in Dublin of conspiracy to cause an explosion.

August 6, 2003: Michael McKevitt is the first person ever convicted in the Republic of directing terrorism.

August 8, 2003: Victims' families are given £800,000 by the government to pursue their civil action.

January 21, 2005: Colm Murphy’s conviction overturned on appeal.

December 20, 2007: Sean Hoey acquitted of all 56 charges in connection with the Omagh bomb.

April 7, 2008: Civil action trial against Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, Seamus McKenna and Seamus Daly begins at Belfast High Court.

May 12, 2008: Omagh civil action makes legal history by travelling to the Republic to hear evidence.

August 15, 2008: 10th anniversary of Omagh bombing.

September 15, 2008: Panorama claims the Government’s communications body GCHQ had been secretly recording telephone conversations between the bomb and scout cars en route to Omagh.

February 11, 2009: Families of Omagh bomb victims meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown to discuss revelations in a Panorama programme.

March 26, 2009: Omagh civil action draws to a close.

June 8, 2009: Mr Justice Morgan delivers verdict in ground-breaking civil trial.

Taken from the Belfast Telegraph