In a world now inured to car bombs with almost daily accounts of explosions along the arc of instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and perhaps Egypt soon, it may seem hard to pick out a bombing of 15 years ago as something out of the ordinary. Yet the Omagh bomb on August 15th, 1998, was special.
Its motivation was unambiguous: to derail the infant peace process following the signature of the Belfast Agreement only weeks earlier. The single worst atrocity of the Troubles, killing 29 people including the pregnant mother of twins and injuring more than 200, it was hugely to the credit of the people of Northern Ireland that they refused to let the clock be turned back to the dark days. Far from undermining the peace process, the revulsion it provoked seemed to help to bring the communities together.
Not many people emerge with credit from the aftermath of Omagh. The Real IRA, the true villains, have never really recovered though they are still a serious threat. Their belated expressions of regret and their attempt to divert the blame on to the security forces for not decoding the confusing trio of “warnings” cut no ice. The blame for a car bomb can only lie with those who detonated it.
Their then leader, Mickey McKevitt, the former Provisionals’ quartermaster-general, is still in jail after a trial in 2003 in which I unprecedentedly gave up my diplomatic immunity as British ambassador to give evidence against him in Dublin. Although the Real IRA suffered a damaging PR blow, the authorities both sides of the Border never convicted anyone.
No criminal prosecution
The victims' relatives, the Omagh Support Group, have fought bravely, indomitably and with dignity for justice. In 2009, they won £1.6 million in a civil case against four defendants. But no criminal prosecution has been successful and, in 2008, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland admitted he did not expect any more prosecutions.
This dismal conclusion had been foreshadowed in 2001 by a highly critical report on the police handling of the investigation and the events on the day by Nuala O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland. It cited “defective leadership, poor judgment and a lack of urgency”, a charge vehemently denied by the chief constable of the RUC. He published his own 190-page response. None of this was any help to the support group.
It is a terrible indictment of the criminal justice system when it is widely known who the perpetrators of a horrendous criminal act are and yet the State lacks the power if not the will to bring them to justice. Witness intimidation and a local tradition of omertà are partly to blame, but Sinn Féin bears some responsibility for failure to co-operate with the original police investigation. The only effective legal action by governments has been the Republic's introduction of legislation to create the offence of directing terrorism. It was under this law that McKevitt was convicted and sentenced to 20 years.
Bandying names about
Of the few organisations to emerge with credit, one was the BBC. In 2000, John Ware in a professional but controversial (Bertie Ahern condemned it saying that it was not helpful to bandy names about) BBC Panorama programme Who Bombed Omagh? named four prime suspects. On the basis of the programme, the victims' support group launched its civil prosecution. Three of those named have since been held responsible for the bombing in the civil court case.
Then there is the question of whether the attack could have been prevented or disrupted. Material which the families presented to the British and Irish governments over a year ago, so far without response, suggests failings in MI5, the Garda and the FBI. Emails exchanged between FBI informer David Rupert and his MI5 handler which are said to have given warning of the bombing are among the material the families have apparently assembled. The families have now asked for a public cross-Border inquiry.
Faced with a lack of meaningful response from the governments to the report, the families’ demand for a public inquiry (backed by Amnesty International) is eminently reasonable. However, the inquiry must not take as its model the Saville inquiry (12 years and £400 million). The families deserve far better; they have been drip-fed information which has prolonged their agony. Now they need a short inquiry which can lead to successful criminal convictions and a full disclosure of negligent handling of intelligence. It could lead to a sense of closure.
Fifteen years ago, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern made clear no stone would be left unturned in the search for the perpetrators. This hollow promise must be honoured.
Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford, was British ambassador to Ireland from 1999 to 2003