As a controversial UK government bill to wind down Troubles-related investigations make its through Parliament, a new inquiry has been ordered into the single biggest atrocity of the conflict.
Bereaved families have spent more than a decade campaigning for an inquiry into the Real IRA bomb attack in Omagh, Co Tyrone, that killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins on August 15th, 1998.
Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced in the House of Commons on Thursday afternoon his intention to establish an independent statutory inquiry into the explosion, a development he described as a “significant decision”.
Yet this comes at a time when the UK government is seeking to end all Troubles-related criminal and civil investigations and inquests in order to “draw a line” under the past.
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On Thursday, Mr Heaton-Harris was keen to emphasise the difference between the Omagh attack and the deaths covered by the Legacy Bill.
Because the bombing happened after the signing of the Belfast Agreement in April 1998, the Northern Secretary said it does not fall under the scope of the UK government’s proposed legacy bill – a move that will “close down paths to justice”, according to victims’ groups.
Mr Heaton-Harris told MPs he was setting up the inquiry in response to a 2021 Northern Ireland High Court judgment that directed the UK government to establish some form of investigation into whether intelligence information could have prevented the explosion, and that it was necessary to fulfil the UK’s obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
This has been welcomed by Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Aidan was killed in the bombing and who has campaigned for decades for such an investigation.
Asked this evening if he was satisfied with the announcement and whether such an inquiry will go far enough, Mr Gallagher told the BBC he was “pleased” but added that the “devil will be in the detail”.
“I think it’s an important step forward for people who want to know the truth and want to know exactly what happened. And that can be difficult,” he said.
However, it is also important to emphasise that this is not a full public inquiry into the bombing. Mr Heaton-Harris stopped short of this, and its remit will instead focus on four specific areas: handling and sharing of intelligence, the use of cellphone analysis, whether there was advance knowledge or reasonable means of knowledge of the bomb, and whether disruption operations could or should have been mounted which may have prevented the blast.
This more limited form of inquiry – and the specific linking of it to that court judgement – is also an indication from the UK government that the granting of an inquiry in this case does not mean it will do so for others, such as the murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989, where a campaign for a public inquiry remains ongoing.
[ Omagh bombing: Timeline of families' campaign for justice ]
The bill for the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday eventually ran to about £200m million. Following the publication of its report in June 2010, the then UK prime minister, David Cameron, vowed in the Commons that there would be “no more open-ended and costly inquiries into the past.”
The UK government’s decision today made clear it does not intend to deviate from this, nor from its determination to change the law regarding pre-Belfast Agreement cases – even though questions have been repeatedly raised about the Legacy Bill’s compatibility with the ECHR.
Solicitor Pádraig Ó Muirigh, who represented families of nine innocent people killed by the British Army in Ballymurphy in 1971 during the North’s longest-running inquest, said that while he “doesn’t begrudge the Omagh families at all”, the inquiry seemed to “flow against everything the British government is doing” in relation to legacy cases.
“I find this completely and utterly inconsistent with the approach that they’re taking with other families,” he told The Irish Times.
“I’m surprised, but I shouldn’t be surprised at all with this Tory government and these ministers, as there’s no logic with them. But what happened today flies in the face of everything they’re saying publicly about closing this down.
“Inquests, for me, are the equivalent of an inquiry in terms of disclosure, examination of witnesses and findings. They’re quite powerful tools.
“But as I’m telling families in a few months that they will not be getting an inquest, the UK government is today announcing the start of an independent inquiry.
“I’ve nothing against the Omagh families – but the UK government are treating other families with contempt. On the one hand, they have people over here being given one remedy, but then saying to others: ‘I’m taking yours off you’.”
Mr Gallagher insisted he “absolutely supported” those bereaved families whose cases are affected by the proposed legislation, which he said would “deny justice”.
“I absolutely support the families, as I feel that those families are going to be left behind. And I think it says something about the society that we live in when you deny justice to a section of the community just because it’s convenient to do so. I think it’s horrendous.
“I’m part of a group that has put serious pressure on the British government and, in fact, has been to Europe in the past few days to make their case.”
Mr Gallagher also called on the Irish Government to engage with the process, accusing them of “running away from their responsibilities”.
He said that there was a “huge cross-border element” to the attack, and that the bomb had originated in the Republic. “So the Government in Dublin would also need to talk to the families,” he said.
“Our enemy is not the British Government or the Irish Government and we urge both governments to work together. And today the British Government have put victims first. And we’ve encouraged the Irish Government to do the same.”
Minister for Justice Simon Harris said on Thursday the Government would await to see the details of the UK’s inquiry before announcing what action it would take, but said it is those who carried out the attack who “carry responsibility for the brutal act”.