TOAmid the unfathomable pain unleashed by the Omagh bomb, the worst atrocity of the riots, the grieving and wounded found purpose, even comfort, in a joint venture: the search for truth and justice.
Twenty-nine people were killed and hundreds were injured when the Royal IRA detonated a car bomb in the county Tyrone market town on August 15, 1998, four months after the Good Friday agreement allegedly drew a line in the Irish conflict of the North.
Protestant or Catholic, it didn’t matter: all the survivors and relatives of the dead wanted to know how it happened and to see the murderers imprisoned.
Thus began a legal odyssey of inquiries, inquiries, rulings and appeals, a two-decade judicial marathon that demonstrated the dignity and determination of the family members.
But along the way, solidarity broke down. Personality clashes and differences over tactics frayed the shared sense of loss. Truth and justice, once so simple and clear, took different forms.
“At first you felt that you were with those who understood you. We were united by the pain, ”said Claire Monteith, 38, who lost her brother Alan in the attack. “Now it is completely fractured. It’s sad.”
The latest milestone, and source of division, came last week when a Belfast high court judge said security forces had a “real perspective” of preventing the atrocity. Those who brought the case felt vindicated and hope it will lead to a public inquiry to investigate the actions of the Irish and British security forces before and after the attack.
“An investigation would be difficult and embarrassing for both governments, but how does that compare to what we’ve been through? The goal would be to understand what went wrong and learn lessons to mitigate any future tragedies, ”said Michael Gallagher, a prominent activist whose son Aiden was among the dead.
Stanley McCombe said: “This is fantastic news, it is what we have been fighting for for 23 years. My wife was murdered in Omagh. I can’t live without knowing what happened ”.
However, others are ambivalent or opposed to a public inquiry. They are concerned that scrutiny from the police and intelligence services, who infiltrated the Royal IRA and received a warning of an attack, would deflect the blame from the terrorists. Or that an investigation would absorb resources that would be better spent on financial assistance for the injured.
This month’s anniversary will bring family members to the monument on Market Street that marks the site of the car bomb, but even here there is friction.
Kevin Skelton, whose wife, Philomena, was murdered, felt the license plate reference to an “act of terror” was too vague, so two years ago, without authorization, he pasted his own license plate specifying a “terrorist car bomb dissident republican “. Some approve, others don’t. The city council has not eliminated it.
Skelton is also critical of the monument’s design, saying that a mirror that is supposed to reflect sunlight doesn’t work even in sunlight.
After becoming irritated by the leadership of a group of victims, Skelton formed his, Families Moving On, which has an office in the center of the city. It focuses on compensating the injured rather than pressuring the authorities for information about the attack. “Saying it could have been avoided will not bring anyone back. It doesn’t make sense, ”he said.
It also doesn’t make sense to go after Real IRA members through the courts, he said. “The possibility of someone being convicted is out the window. Some families don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. The provision of services for injuries must be the priority. ”
Time has healed some wounds from that terrible day of screaming and flying glass.
The nascent Good Friday agreement survived the massacre, paving the way for the sharing of power between trade unionists and nationalists. Remnants of the Royal IRA and other splinter Republican groups continue to limp with negligible support. Omagh is once again a lively and attractive market town, a place more than an event.
But the crime is unsolved. No one has been convicted, a painful loophole, said Stephen Donnelly, a councilman for the Alliance party. “The atrocity still hangs like a shadow over the city.”
In 2001, the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman criticized the police investigation as seriously flawed. In 2002, a Dublin court convicted a dissident Republican, Colm Murphy, of plotting the bombing, but the conviction was later overturned. In 2003, Michael McKevitt, a leader of the Royal IRA, was found guilty of directing terrorism, but was not charged with Omagh. In 2005, Sean Hoey was found not guilty of the 29 murders, and the judge accused the police witnesses of deception.
In 2009, relatives of some victims won a civil case: McKevitt, Murphy and two other men, Liam Campbell and Seamus Daly, were found responsible for the bomb and ordered to pay 1.6 million pounds in damages. It was a historic trial, but the four suspects remained free and did not pay a penny. McKevitt died of cancer earlier this year. “They are allowed to live their lives and we are left here in confusion and pain,” Monteith said.
When the British government rejected a public inquiry, some relatives carried out a judicial review that led to the court ruling last week that the attack could have been prevented. The judge stopped short of ordering a public inquiry, but urged the British and Irish governments to undertake investigations that respect human rights.
John Fox, a lawyer who represented the families, said he expected the UK government to respond after the full trial was given, possibly in September. Only a full public investigation, such as that of the Manchester Arena bombing, could provide answers, he said.
Sinn Féin Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill said in an interview that she was in favor of a public inquiry. “This family group has had to fight tooth and nail to expose every piece of information. They deserve to have the answers. “
The UK government’s plan to end Trouble-era prosecutions may exclude Omagh, as it happened after the Good Friday deal, but such a proposal was unacceptable, O’Neill said. “If Boris Johnson thinks that the people here will accept this, he is wrong.”
In another twist, this week Irish judges ordered Campbell, one of four men found civilly liable, to be extradited to Lithuania, where he is accused of smuggling weapons to the Royal IRA in 2006 and 2007.
After two decades of legal action and political twists and turns, the Omagh families remain in limbo, no longer a united front, but always woven together by grief.
“I’m lost without him,” said Monteith, who was 15 when her 16-year-old brother Alan died. “My anguish is that I have lived more without him than with him. He was my everything. There were so many times when I needed it. “
Skelton, a former truck driver, remembers the click, click, click of his wife’s tissue. “Even when I was reading a book, I was knitting. I could knit a sweater in two days. “
Gallagher mourns not only for his son Aiden, but also for a brother, Hugh, a soldier killed by the IRA in 1985. “They not only destroyed Hugh’s life, they destroyed his family’s life. It’s another pain we have to endure. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism