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Omagh bombing investigations leave trail of questions still unanswered

Twenty-third anniversary of bombing that murdered 29 sees renewed calls for inquiry

The large, open-plan, first-floor meeting room of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group looks a little desolate – appropriate perhaps, given everything.

There are tables and chairs scattered at random, and a circular table behind which sits Michael Gallagher, the group's public face and stalwart campaigner for truth and justice. His 21-year-old son Aidan was among the 29 people murdered when, 23 years ago tomorrow, republican terrorists detonated a car bomb they had left on the Tyrone town's busy Market Street.

Two hundred and 32 people were injured, many of them suffering life-changing wounds, such as blindness or loss of limbs. The 29 who died included a woman (16 of the 29 were female) pregnant with twins.

Why has no one been prosecuted? I find that incomprehensible. Two democratic states have failed to find and convict any of the bombers

Despite numerous investigations – by police in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, by the Nally Group, set up by the Irish government, by non-governmental organisations such as Rights Watch (UK) and by journalists – there has not been a single successful prosecution, in any jurisdiction, of anyone responsible for the atrocity.

Because of this, a Belfast high court judge, Mr Justice Mark Horner, last month urged the authorities North and South to hold separate but simultaneous investigations, under the European Convention on Human Rights, saying that a significant amount of evidence, some public, some still held in secret, suggesting there had been a "real prospect of preventing" the bombing.

It is perhaps instructive that his full judgment remains sealed. It is being scrutinised by the British security services, who may yet insist on certain information being blacked out prior to publication.

“Surely the worst atrocity [of the Troubles] is worth investigating,” says Michael Gallagher, who took the judicial review case to Mr Justice Horner.

A similar sentiment is expressed by a former senior detective, with both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who is intimately familiar with the Omagh case. He is one of two former officers who spoke to The Irish Times on condition their names were not published.

“Why has no one been prosecuted?,” he asks. “I find that incomprehensible. Two democratic states have failed to find and convict any of the bombers.”

“An expert examination of all the intelligence in the two jurisdictions might be helpful to all concerned,” said the second former officer who warned, nonetheless, about revisiting events with the benefit of hindsight. “If things were missed, you interpret things as you see them at the time and as best you can.”

Despite there being no successful prosecution, there is an awful lot of information about the atrocity and those allegedly involved.

Splinter group

On August 1st 1998, the so-called Real IRA (RIRA), set off a car bomb in Banbridge, Co Down.

The RIRA is a splinter group of seasoned terrorists who rejected the Provisional IRA ceasefire, declared in July 1997, and its political wing, Sinn Féin’s, acceptance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, reached a year later.

The 500lb Banbridge bomb wounded 33 members of the public and two police officers but no one was killed, although the centre of Banbridge was wrecked.

Several months earlier, the same group planted a 600lb bomb in Lisburn which was defused by the British army on April 30th, and in February 1998 another 500lb car bomb was detonated outside the police station in nearby Moira, Co Down, blowing it to smithereens and injuring 11 people.

Mobile phones were linked to those and other bombings by GCHQ, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, a Cheltenham-based surveillance operation with a global reach, part of the UK’s secret services, along with MI6 and MI5.

Two cars were used in the attack – the bomb car and a second vehicle to scout the route on the way from Monaghan to Omagh

One of the phones connected to the bombings had a number containing the digits 585. On the morning of the Omagh bombing, August 15th 1998, the 585 phone, as Michael Gallagher puts it, “came alive again”.

On August 12th, three days before the bombing, a southern-registered red Vauxhall Cavalier car was stolen in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan.

Gardaí said later that Anthony Joseph Donegan, a labourer from Afton Drive in Dundalk, Co Louth, admitted to them that he had stolen it and drew a locator map. They said that in June 1999 when they arrested him, he said that he had stolen the car to order, for an intermediary, for the Real IRA, whom he named. Despite this confession, he was not prosecuted in the Republic.

However, in 2005, when he appeared before the high court in Belfast after his arrest in Northern Ireland by the PSNI, he repudiated the confession to the gardaí and, in the event, the prosecution did not proceed.

“Herein begins the litany of cases that started and never went anywhere,” as one of the former RUC officers puts it.

The Real IRA had a modus operandi of using what might be described as ordinary car thieves to steal vehicles for them. One such person was Paddy Dixon, a Dublin-based criminal who ran a car-stealing ring; Donegan operated in the Monaghan/Louth area.

Dixon was an intelligence asset to the gardaí and is believed to have provided intelligence that helped thwart bombs destined for Britain. Some Northern Ireland sources see this as a key factor in what they regard at the very least a desultory Garda response to the Omagh bombing.

“What if one of the agents they are working with is also working with the British and their [the British] imperative is to prevent bombing on the mainland?” asks a retired RUC officer.

Stolen Vauxhall

Police on both sides of the Border believe that up to 14 people were involved in the Omagh bombing – planning it, scoping the site and route, securing all necessary materials, making and delivering the bomb.

The Vauxhall bomb car was stolen around 11pm on August 12th and, at about 5am the following day, August 13th, the Real IRA was told that the vehicle ordered had been obtained. So what happened between 11pm and 5am?

“Six hours are unaccounted for,” remarks the second retired RUC officer. “Did the gardaí have access to it,” he asks, “was a tracker fitted?”

The answer to these questions is unknown. But in the vast mass of rubble of the Omagh bomb that was combed for evidence, officers looked for evidence of a tracker and a small battery found by forensic investigators could not be explained. Could it have been part of the power source for a tracking device?

After the Vauxhall car was stolen, the thief telephoned his boss, the intermediary with the Real IRA for whom the car was stolen. Immediately afterwards, the intermediary, a dissident associated with the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), allegedly made three phone calls to Séamus Daly, a builder in Culloville, a townland straddling the Armagh/Monaghan border.

During the two days between the Vauxhall being stolen and handed over to the Real IRA, the southern registration plates were replaced with fake Northern Ireland ones, and the bomb was fitted into the car.

It was almost identical to 11 previous bombs – some 500lbs of agricultural fertiliser mixed with icing sugar, whose potency was heightened further by being soaked in fuel, packed into tubes laced with high explosive to boost combustibility, and attached to a detonator, a power unit in a lunch box beside the bomb in the boot linked by wire to the front passenger seat.

Two cars were used in the attack – the bomb car and a second vehicle to scout the route on the way from Monaghan to Omagh, and then operate as the getaway after the bomb had been parked on Market Street.

Going to and from Omagh, phone company records of calls routed through telephone masts along the way show two phones being particularly active – the 585 phone and another containing the digits 980.

Both are linked to Colm Murphy, an Armagh-born republican with a string of criminal convictions. They include IRA membership and firearms offences, and gun-running in the United States for the INLA.

Murphy was a landowner and a successful builder. He won contracts to build parts of Dublin's International Financial Services Centre, Dublin City University (DCU) in Glasnevin and the Smurfit business school at University College Dublin. In the 1980s, he paid the equivalent of €120,000 for a pub in Dundalk that in time became a haunt for dissident republicans.

The 585 phone was registered to Murphy himself; the 980 number was registered to one of his employees but had been borrowed by him, the high court in Belfast heard. Murphy was alleged to have given the phones to Séamus Daly, an accusation he and Daly deny.

On the day of the bombing, Daly and a fellow RIRA dissident, Séamus McKenna, were supposed to be bricklaying for Murphy at DCU but didn’t turn up for work.

As revealed by a BBC TV Panorama programme in 2000, both phones were active on August 15th, 1998, calls pinging off phone signal relay masts – one located just south of Castleblayney, another near Aughnacloy, and yet another in Omagh. There were four calls in all, each consistent with the scout car communicating with the bomb car travelling behind it, both of them en route to the Tyrone town.

Inaccurate warnings

The bomb went off at 3.10 in the afternoon. Three inaccurate and imprecise warnings (relayed from phone boxes later scanned for forensic evidence, without success) made matters worse as people were directed towards, and not away, from the blast.

The dead included nine children: three from Buncrana in Donegal, who were accompanied by a Spanish boy and a teacher from Spain. Three generations of one local family were wiped out – a 65-year-old grandmother, her daughter, aged 30 and pregnant, and her 18-month-old granddaughter. Twenty-one people died where they fell, eight more on the way to, or in, hospital.

By 3.30pm, the scout/getaway car, with its bombers and surveillance accomplices, had crossed back across the Border and was in Monaghan.

Apart from phone calls between the two cars travelling to Omagh, others were made from the scout car travelling on the way back.

A mobile in the vicinity of Newry, Co Down, from where the of the last warnings had been given from a telephone box, also received a text message. The mobile that received the text was allegedly registered to Oliver Traynor, a Dundalk-based dissident republican named in 1998 in the British House of Commons as an Omagh suspect and identified in a Belfast court case in 2016 as a fuel launderer and bomb-maker.

Police in Northern Ireland believe that Traynor's phone had been lent at the time to his neighbour, Liam Campbell, the RIRA's alleged "officer commanding". The phone was also linked to other RIRA terrorist activity in Newry and Lisburn by at least 50 calls made to and from it during incidents.

Traynor told gardaí that his phone held by Campbell had gone “missing” and he knew nothing about it which was odd because, as revealed by Panorama, another phone owned by Traynor was communicating with the “missing” phone during its alleged absence. Traynor denied any involvement in the Omagh bombing.

Another call made from the scout car on its the way back from Omagh was to a family member of one of the men who was living in south Armagh.

In 2004, the PSNI 'set in motion' as one source put it, 'some actions close to the Border with the Republic' suggestive of a surveillance operation

Yet another call was made, on the Colm Murphy phone, allegedly lent earlier to Séamus Daly. This was a call apparently to a businessman in the Republic, during which the caller asked about a tax-clearance certificate –“So, he’s just planted a bomb and now he’s talking about tax evasion”, as a former detective familiar with the incident put it.

The person to whom Daly allegedly spoke told gardaí he did not want to give evidence in court against Daly but did so later, at an unsuccessful prosecution against him in Belfast.

Another call was allegedly made to Joseph Fee, a dissident republican then in Dundalk. Immediately after this call, Fee allegedly telephoned the Garda station at Hackballscross in Co Monaghan.

Fee, named in the House of Commons as a leader of the dissident IRA, was involved in buying guns in Croatia where, extraordinarily, he worked on a short-term contract for the Irish government in 1996 and 1997. In 2004, Fee was jailed for 10 years because of his links to a bomb-making factory in Co Louth.

Why would he have made that call to Hackballscross, one of the retired RUC detectives asks.

There are other questions.

Despite the enormous size and compelling urgency of the Omagh bombing investigation, it took the Omagh investigation team nine months to identify the telephone call from the returning scout car to a family member of one of the alleged bombers. But British intelligence agencies had that information on the day of the bombing.

Why was such crucial intelligence not shared at the time, asks the retired officer.

Released without charge

Not long after the bombing, gardaí arrested Séamus Daly and another man. Gardaí entered an outbuilding on land adjoining theirs and, according to Northern sources, found a bomb-making factory and equipment, including a grinder, icing sugar, fertiliser, gloves and masks.

But both men were released without charge.

“What happened,” asks the retired detective. “That could have been the place where the Omagh bomb was made.”

Four years later, when Northern police were reinvestigating the bombing after strong criticism of the unsuccessful initial investigation – “a failure of leadership... poor judgment and a lack of urgency” according to the Northern Ireland police ombudsman’s report – they asked the gardaí for access to the outbuilding evidence to test it for DNA. They were interested particularly in the gloves and masks.

“Guess what?” says the retired detective, “[They told us the evidence was] ‘Missing, lost, can’t be produced.’ This is why you need an inquiry in the South. How do you lose or destroy exhibits from a bomb factory after the murder of 29 people?”

Asked about this allegation the Garda did not address it when it issued a general statement reaffirming its commitment to investigating the circumstances surrounding the Omagh bombing.

In 2004, the PSNI “set in motion” as one source put it, “some actions close to the Border with the Republic” suggestive of a surveillance operation. The net result was that the police learned of a regular rendezvous taking place just inside Northern Ireland between Séamus Daly and another person.

To arrest him, the PSNI would need operational support from the Garda.

“On a Friday, we contacted the guards and explained matters,” said one of the retired Northern police officers. “We were going to arrest him the following Friday but on the Wednesday before we could, he’s arrested – by the guards.”

Daly was charged with membership of an illegal organisation, the Real IRA, to which he admitted and, in March 2004, was jailed for 3½ years.

“That could have been done at any time,” maintains the retired officer, “but the effect [of doing it when it was done] was that it put Daly out of our reach.”

However, 10 years later, in April 2014, Daly was arrested again, this time in Newry, and was charged with the Omagh bombing. The evidence against him was telephone records, specifically a call made just after the bombing to a Denis O’Connor.

But giving evidence at a preliminary hearing in 2016, O’Connor gave contradictory testimony, conceding that the call might have taken place on another day. Because of this, the case collapsed.

In 2007, an electrician, Sean Hoey – who had faced 56 charges, including construction of the Omagh bomb's power-timer units and 29 counts of murder – was acquitted on all charges after a Northern Ireland judge rejected forensic evidence and said police witnesses had lied. Hoey had spent four years behind bars awaiting trial.

A subsequent investigation by the office of the North’s police ombudsman established that the officers had not, in fact, lied. Rather, the judge had misinterpreted evidence.

Successfully sued

In 2008, relatives of the Omagh victims successfully sued four people in the Northern Ireland civil courts, alleging they bore responsibility for the atrocity. They were Michael McKevitt, a former arms buyer for the Provisional IRA, lately become chief of staff of the Real IRA; Colm Murphy; Séamus Daly; and Liam Campbell.

Mr Justice Declan Morgan found the evidence against the men “overwhelming” and ruled against McKevitt, Murphy, Daly and Campbell and in favour of the families. He ordered the four to pay the victims £1.6 million in compensatory damages. None has.

A fifth man, Séamus McKenna, was cleared because the evidence against him, which came from his estranged wife, was deemed unreliable. However, in 2004 he was jailed for six years by the Special Criminal Court after being linked to Joe Fee's bomb-making operation in Louth.

McKenna died after a fall from scaffolding in 2013. He is believed to have driven the car bomb to Omagh and became a chronic alcoholic after the atrocity. Daly and Murphy attended his funeral.

Michael McKevitt was jailed for 20 years in 2003 for directing terrorism. He died in 2021.

Murphy was convicted in 2002 of supplying the phones used by the bombers and received a 14-year prison sentence at the Special Criminal Court. The sentence was quashed, however, after two Garda detectives admitted eight years later they had rewritten their interrogation notes to smooth out conflicts.

In February 2010 he was cleared after a retrial when Garda evidence was ruled inadmissible.

For more than 2 years, Liam Campbell has been battling extradition to Lithuania where he is wanted for an alleged gun-buying plot on behalf of the Real IRA in 2006 and 2007. On July 28th, the Court of Appeal upheld a High Court order confirming his extradition.

In 2011, a booby-trap bomb was attached to Paddy Dixon's front door in Navan, Co Meath. Gardaí reckon it was put there by disgruntled Real IRA associates who regard him as a traitor. It failed to kill him.

Tomorrow, the Omagh families will gather at the town’s Memorial Garden to remember those they loved and lost. They will lay a wreath, grieve, pray and comfort each other.

“It’s important to be together,” says Michael Gallagher.

Asked to comment, the Garda Síochána gave the following statement to The Irish Times: "An Garda Síochána does not make detailed public comment on open investigations.

“An Garda Síochána reaffirms its commitment to investigating the circumstances surrounding the Omagh bombing in 1998 and will pursue any new or credible evidence that might be brought forward that could advance the investigation.

“An Garda Síochána continues to appeal to any person, who now with the passage of time or changed circumstances has any information they can now provide in respect of this terrorist attack to contact any Garda station or the Garda Confidential Line 1800-66611 and their information will be treated in confidence.”

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