Ten years, eight months and 24 days after the worst terrorist atrocity in Northern Ireland’s history, a judge finally said who is to blame for the act of mass murder that was the Omagh bombing.
At Belfast High Court yesterday, Justice Declan Morgan awarded record damages totalling £1.6m to the relatives of six people who died in the Real IRA atrocity.
The judge found four men, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Seamus Daly and Colm Murphy, responsible for the planning, production, planting and detonation of the 500lb car bomb that ripped through the Co Tyrone town, killing 29 people — including unborn twins — on August 15, 1998.
And in a legal first anywhere in the world, he also ruled that the Real IRA dissident republican terror group was liable.
A case against south Armagh construction labourer Seamus McKenna was dismissed.
Campaigning relatives of Geraldine Breslin (43), Aiden Gallagher (21), Esther Gibson (36), Anne McCombe (45), Alan Radford (16) and Lorraine Wilson (15) launched the unprecedented civil action after criminal proceedings failed to bring anyone to account.
To fund the ground-breaking civil action, the bereaved families raised £1.2m and were awarded a special status legal aid grant of almost £800,000 by the British Government. Trial in the case opened last March and concluded in April of this year.
Yesterday saw the plaintiffs granted compensation of between £80,000 and £350,000. But none are likely to see much of that money.
Addressing the packed courtroom, Mr Justice Morgan said there was “compelling evidence” against four of the defendants and described it as “inexplicable” that none had taken the stand.
Michael McKevitt, who is currently serving a sentence for directing terrorism in Portlaoise prison, was described as an RIRA leader with responsibility for procurement.
The judge said: “Michael McKevitt held and has always held a significant leadership role within the Real IRA, which is reflected by the fact that he was certainly its leader in August 1999.”
He said there was “cogent evidence” that Liam Campbell had been a member of the RIRA Army Council and held an important leadership position within the ter ror group. Phone evidence showed he had directed the attack on Omagh.
The court was also told that Colm Murphy had been an “active member” of the Continuity IRA, which carried out the attack along with the RIRA and had lent his mobile phone to the bombers “knowing full well the nature of the attack which was going to be conducted.”
Seamus Daly, said to have been an RIRA footsoldier, was linked to the explosion by phone records.
Speaking outside the court, victims’ spokesman Michael Gallagher said: “It was better than we could ever have expected. I think we have sent a message to terrorists that from now on you don’t only need to worry about the authorities; the families of those victims will come after you. The message to victims around the world is that we have created a precedent and those other people who have been victims of terrorism can use this vehicle. The message to governments is if you do not do it, we will do it.
“My message to the four men found liable for Omagh is ‘you think you were clever enough to cover up your tracks and get away with it. But you didn’t figure on people like us standing up and using all the resources of the law’.
“What we have done is within the law, what the Real IRA did was outside the law and we have proven that if the criminal justice system is not capable of delivering some justice at least civil law is. That’s a very strong message we can send around the world.
“This was not about the money. But we will pursue the money. We will punish those people in every way that we can. That’s the only way that we can do it. We will make sure, if we can, that terrorism is not a profitable business to be in.”
Men found liable for attack
The four men found liable at Belfast High Court for the 1998 Omagh bombing are:
Originally from Blackrock, County Louth, the 59-year-old is serving a 20-year jail term in Portlaoise prison for organising Real IRA terrorism.
A former quartermaster in the Provisional IRA, he set up the splinter terror group in 1997 after falling out with the mainstream movement over its involvement in the peace process.
The judge, Mr Justice Morgan, said he had been actively involved in buying terrorist materials from as far back as 1986.
He was found guilty in 2003 in Dublin's Special Criminal Court for directing terrorism.
The offence was created by the state in response to the Omagh outrage.
He lost an appeal against his conviction last year.
The 46-year-old farmer from Upper Faughart, Dundalk, is in custody in Northern Ireland facing a bid to extradite him to Lithuania on arms smuggling charges.
He was jailed in the Republic of Ireland in 2004 for membership of the Real IRA.
According to Mr Justice Morgan, he was a member of the army council of the dissident group at the time of Omagh. He initially directed lawyers to defend him in the civil action but then instructed them to withdraw from proceedings.
He was arrested in Co Armagh last month having crossed the border from the Republic of Ireland, where extradition proceedings to bring him to Lithuania are already under way.
The authorities in the Baltic state are seeking him in connection with a foiled plot to bring arms and explosives into Ireland two years ago to support the Real IRA's campaign.
The 56-year-old builder and publican from Dundalk was found guilty of conspiring to cause the Omagh bombing in Dublin's Special Criminal Court in 2002.
His conviction was subsequently quashed and he is awaiting retrial.
Mr Justice Morgan said he was satisfied he was an active member of another republican splinter group - the Continuity IRA - at the time of Omagh.
He said the attack was a joint enterprise between CIRA and RIRA members.
The judge described him as a dedicated terrorist who has been an active participant in carrying out terror attacks over a long period.
The 34-year-old builder from Cullaville, County Monaghan was described during the civil case as a Real IRA foot soldier.
He was sentenced to three and a half years in jail in the Republic in 2004 after admitting membership of the proscribed organisation.
The judge said he was satisfied Daly was in possession of one of the two phones that, trace records indicate, were used by the occupants of the bomb car and the getaway car on the day of the attack.
The judge said the fact Daly had provided no answer to the evidence presented before the court further supported the case against him.
Earlier this month he was admitted to hospital after being beaten up by a number of men in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan.
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.
Omagh bomb victims
Here is a list of the 29 people who died in the Omagh bombing:
James Barker, 12, Buncrana, Co Donegal. Originally from Surrey, England.
Fernando Blasco Baselga, 12, from Madrid, Spain.
Geraldine Breslin, 43, Omagh.
Deborah-Ann Cartwright, 20, Omagh.
Gareth Conway, 18, Carrickmore, Co Tyrone.
Breda Devine, 20 months, Donemana, Co Tyrone.
Oran Doherty, 8, Buncrana, Co Donegal.
Aiden Gallagher, 21, Omagh.
Esther Gibson, 36, Beragh, Co Tyrone.
Mary Grimes, 65, Beragh, Co Tyrone.
Olive Hawkes, 60, Omagh.
Julia Hughes, 21, Omagh.
Brenda Logue, 17, Omagh.
Ann McCombe, 45, Omagh.
Brian McCrory, 54, Omagh.
Samantha McFarland, 17, Omagh.
Sean McGrath, 61, Omagh.
Sean McLoughlin, 12, Buncrana, Co Donegal.
Jolene Marlow, 17, Omagh.
Avril Monaghan, 30, Augher, Co Tyrone (pregnant with twins).
Maura Monaghan, 18 months, Augher, Co Tyrone.
Alan Radford, 16, Omagh, Co Tyrone.
Rocio Abad Ramos, 23, Madrid, Spain.
Elizabeth Rush, 57, Omagh.
Veda Short, 46, Omagh.
Philomena Skelton, 39, Drumquin, Co Tyrone.
Fred White, 60, Omagh.
Bryan White, 27, Omagh.
Lorraine Wilson, 15, Omagh.
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