The aftermath

Families of the Omagh bomb victims have backed a graphic new drama about the tragedy. Will it bring them the justice they've been fighting for, asks Daniel Rosenthal. Or will it just re-open old wounds?
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The Independent Online

On a chilly January morning, Michael Gallagher, the mechanic whose son, Aiden, died in the Omagh bombing, is standing behind a disused wing of St Brendan's Hospital, Dublin, about to experience the strangest of double-takes.

On a chilly January morning, Michael Gallagher, the mechanic whose son, Aiden, died in the Omagh bombing, is standing behind a disused wing of St Brendan's Hospital, Dublin, about to experience the strangest of double-takes.

A Volvo estate pulls up and Gallagher watches himself get out of the driver's seat and stride purposefully into a temporary hut whose door bears a home-made label: "Omagh Self Help and Support Group". After a call of "Cut", actor Gerard McSorley re-emerges from the cabin, begins chatting to Gallagher, the man he's portraying, and Omagh, Channel 4's drama-documentary about the bombing, is one scene nearer completion.

The cabin, its interior lined with newspaper cuttings, is a replica of the one in Omagh where Gallagher has spent countless hours as chairman of the Support Group, coming to terms with his grief and pursuing justice for Aiden and the other 30 people - including unborn twins - killed by the 500lb car bomb detonated by the Real IRA on Omagh's Market Street on Saturday 15 August, 1998. Intended to derail the peace process in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, it was the worst single atrocity of the Troubles, targeting a peaceful market town where Catholics and Protestants lived in harmony.

Gallagher's January visit to the Omagh set, accompanied by several other members of the group, was the culmination of more than two years of consultation, research and production by the team responsible for the harrowing Bloody Sunday (2002), and the two films could hardly have closer or more symbolic ties.

"There are two events that frame the Troubles," says Paul Greengrass, writer-director of Bloody Sunday, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and co-writer and producer of Omagh. "One was Bloody Sunday, the moment at which the progress towards conflict became unstoppable, and Omagh, which marked the moment at which everyone knew the conflict had to end. It was important for me, having made the first film, to bookend the conflict with Omagh." When he first approached the Support Group, Greengrass was still editing Bloody Sunday and he enlisted one of its co-producers, Don Mullan, acclaimed author of Eyewitness Bloody Sunday (1997), to liaise with the families. Mullan made his first trip to Omagh and Buncrana (the home town of two young victims of the bomb) in March 2002, knowing that this was an all-or-nothing mission. A drama-documentary about such a devastating and recent event could not go into production without the families' support - a point powerfully illustrated in America just a few weeks ago, when Warner Brothers pulled the plug on Danny (Trainspotting) Boyle's next feature, 3,000 Degrees, about a 1999 warehouse blaze that claimed the lives of six Massachusetts fire-fighters, after the victims' relatives said they would find the film and attendant publicity too traumatic.

After dozens of face-to-face and telephone conversations, Mullan came away with a sense of the immense grief and loss caused by that indiscriminately devastating August afternoon. "The bomb has been called 'a scythe in the hand of an insane reaper'," he says, "because it felled every religion and political persuasion: Presbyterian, Methodist, Mormon, Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland; Ulster Unionist, SDLP, DUP." The families were also deeply angry at the failure of the police to capture and convict the bombers, their rage compounded in December 2001 by the damning report by Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan (played in Omagh by Brenda Fricker) into the RUC's handling of the Omagh investigation. "There is an awful sense of betrayal amongst people who had put their faith in the police," Mullan adds, "especially within the Protestant community."

Mullan summed up his research in a 105-page report that convinced Greengrass and production company Tiger Aspect that there was sufficient understanding and goodwill from the families of Omagh to get the green light; although as script editor Lucy Dyke (Greengrass's researcher on Bloody Sunday) acknowledges, the film was not universally welcomed. "Some relatives felt it was too soon after the bomb," she explains. "Others said 'Good luck, but we don't want to be depicted', so we promised them that they'd not be mentioned. We would focus only on members of the Support Group, who felt that the story had been swept under the carpet for too long by governments and forgotten in the press, too." They also sensed an opportunity to attract valuable publicity to the civil action they had launched against five Real IRA suspects, and, crucially, they had seen Bloody Sunday. "It convinced them that they wanted this film to be made," says Dyke. "They said 'Don't shy away from showing the horror of the blast', but we made it clear that we wouldn't show their loved one dead without their consent. Some of them took a while to grasp that they were going to be played by an actor, because they were so used to documentary crews filming them.

"They wanted us to include the small things, such as a fund-raising football match or the vandalising of their memorial garden, but we told them we had to do the big picture - police and government." Ed Guiney, Omagh's Dublin-based producer, says: "The Omagh families needed to be happy with the way that we've told the story, but Omagh is a piece of drama, so certain details and events have been created. But nothing's been substantially altered."

With the Support Group on side, Greengrass and Guy Hibbert, writer of the BAFTA-winning drama No Child of Mine (1997), initially worked on a script telling the story of the bombing from the viewpoints of three of the Omagh bereaved: an Ulster Protestant, an Ulster Catholic and an Englishman. "We decided that the script didn't seem to work in that form," recalls Dyke. The 100 minutes available were not enough to do justice to all three stories.

Instead, the focus shifted onto Gallagher, who, on 15 August, 1998, was working on a car with Aiden, then 21, when his son left to go shopping in town with a friend, and became the second victim of terrorism in the Gallagher family. Michael's younger brother, a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, had been shot dead by the IRA in 1984, a victim of the Provisionals' policy of murdering Catholics who joined the army (Omagh skilfully withholds audience knowledge of the earlier death until its mid-point, when Gallagher reveals it during a fruitless meeting with Gerry Adams).

As the script neared completion, Greengrass reluctantly decided that he would not direct Omagh as originally planned, tempted away by $100m-plus action sequel The Bourne Supremacy. His replacement was Pete Travis, responsible for last year's Henry VIII, starring Ray Winstone, and he has emulated the vérité style so powerfully deployed by Greengrass in Bloody Sunday. Most of Omagh looks more like fly-on-the-wall documentary than drama, but as Travis has said: "You can't approach this film in any other way. You want to tell a truthful story, so it's all hand-held cameras, no lights, no artifice of any kind."

When I visited the Dublin set in January, Travis and Guiney, whose credits include Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, were into the home-straight of the six-week, £2.5m shoot, having completed the most expensive and elaborate sequence: the recreation of the bomb's aftermath, filmed in Navan, a market town north-west of Dublin.

"Filming in Omagh was always out of the question for obvious reasons of sensitivity," says Guiney. "When we approached the Navan town council and the traders they were grand about our coming in, even though they were going to lose a lot of business, because we virtually had to shut the main street for two of the 16 days that we were there preparing and shooting either side of Christmas. They supported us because they said it was a story worth telling." In Navan, production designer David Wilson's task was to dress and then distress the shop fronts to match Omagh's, and replicate what he calls the "iconic" newspaper photographs of the bomb damage, with emergency personnel surrounded by debris in the foreground and the Omagh courthouse in the background, at the top of the Market Street slope.

"When you're designing a factually-based drama there's a lot more pressure on you than with fiction, but you still have to use your imagination," says Wilson, who recreated the interior of the Maze prison for Some Mother's Son (1996), about the IRA hunger strikes. "It's a question of how close you can go to reality while also moving away from it, so that when they see Omagh nobody will scream about inaccuracy or about our having been over-graphic." Omagh's recreation of the post-bomb chaos has blood-stained, bewildered shoppers crying for help, one man who's lost a leg and another carrying a lifeless child.

These shots provide the most shocking moments in a film whose admirable restraint is unlikely to stop it from reawakening the controversy over the Omagh investigation. Lorcan Cranitch's cameo as Sir Ronnie Flanagan, insufferably smug and evasive as he meets the Support Group, does nothing for the former RUC Chief Constable's reputation. Running through the script almost like a refrain is the families' belief that politicians in Belfast, Dublin and Westminster did not want the hunt for the bombers to succeed because an Omagh bomb trial would disrupt their post-Good Friday plans. As Michael Gallagher tells a TV reporter in one scene: "Everyone wants us to walk away, go quietly. So that they can go on with their peace process."

McSorley's low-key performance - he's at the centre of almost every post-bomb scene - carries Omagh. One of Ireland's best and busiest screen actors, he's now completed a hat-trick of real-life roles: first in Bloody Sunday as Chief Supt Frank Lagan, the only Catholic in the RUC in 1972, then as vicious Dublin crime baron John Gilligan, terrorising Cate Blanchett's investigative journalist in Veronica Guerin; and now Gallagher, whom we see finding great inner strength even as his obsessive campaigning threatens his relationship with his family.

"I've treated all three men the same way from a technical point of view," McSorley says. "But playing Michael is a graver responsibility to me because of the weight of his and his family's calamity and suffering." Actor and character are physically very different: Gallagher a bear-like figure with glasses and thick white hair; McSorley bald and perhaps six inches shorter. He rejected wearing a wig and glasses to create even an approximate resemblance, "because I can portray the psychological life of the character without that external stuff." He was born in Omagh, where his father ran a bicycle shop and Gallagher believes the actor's roots are an obvious plus. "Gerard has a direct physical connection to the town and brings a deeper passion to it than someone unconnected would, and that will have a bearing on his performance."

In January, Gallagher anticipated that Omagh would be "a very, very difficult film for us to watch, and some will choose not to. That'll be their coping mechanism. This is a story about a great tragedy and I like to think that in the midst of evil, ordinary people who wouldn't normally come together have done so, in the search for truth and justice. There will be a message from the film that there's hope in the despair." On 23 April, he faced the cameras yet again, this time outside the High Court in Belfast after a preliminary hearing of the families' civil action against the Real IRA, at which the judge said that the full case would open on 17 January 2005. "After a three-year battle," he told reporters, "we are on the way to trial. We promised our loved ones and supporters that we would not falter in pursuing this matter to the end. Now the end is clearly in our sights." He'd said something similar, though more personal, perched on a worn sofa in a St Brendan's corridor. "I'm very hopeful that the civil case will come to a positive conclusion and the end of that will be a long and deep breath for me. My life's been parked since August 1998 and I want to take control of it again."

Last Sunday evening, the Gallaghers and other Omagh families gathered at the Movie House cinema on Belfast's Dublin Road for Omagh's world premiere, fulfilling the producers' promise that they would be the film's first audience. Though one can only imagine each relative's complex responses to seeing a dramatised version of the events that changed their lives, it's reasonable to assume they would all have shared this hope: that Northern Ireland's future holds no atrocity that could enable Greengrass, McSorley and co to turn their two-part account of the Troubles into a trilogy. *

'Omagh' will be shown on Channel 4 on 27 May