‘Real prospect’ Omagh bombing could have been prevented, judge finds

Judgment in Belfast is delivered in challenge against UK refusal to hold public inquiry into 1998 atrocity

RUC officers at the aftermath of the Omagh bombing in 1998. Photograph: Frank Miller

RUC officers at the aftermath of the Omagh bombing in 1998. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

A judge has found “plausible arguments” there was a “real prospect” of preventing the 1998 Omagh bombing and has recommended the UK and Irish governments carry out investigations into the atrocity.

Delivering judgment in a legal challenge against the UK government’s refusal to hold a public inquiry, Mr Justice Horner said a human-rights compliant investigation was needed to examine whether a more “proactive” security approach against dissident republican terrorists in the lead-up to the Real IRA bombing may have thwarted it.

The bombing in August 1998 killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins. It was the worst single atrocity of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Eight years ago, Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed in the blast, began the judicial review against the UK government’s refusal to order a public inquiry into security failings prior to the bombing.

Some of the personal effects recovered from the rubble of the Omagh bomb. File photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Some of the personal effects recovered from the rubble of the Omagh bomb. File photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Delivering the long-awaiting judgment in Belfast High Court, Mr Justice Horner said: “I am satisfied that certain grounds when considered separately or together give rise to plausible allegations that there was a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing.

“These grounds involve, inter alia, the consideration of terrorist activity on both sides of the border by prominent dissident terrorist republicans leading up to the Omagh bomb.

“I am therefore satisfied that the threshold under Article 2 ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) to require the investigation of those allegations has been reached.”

Judge Horner said he was not going to order that the investigation take the form of a public inquiry, explaining he did not want to be “prescriptive”.

A body of one of the 21 dead is removed from the scene of the bombing in Omagh, Co Tyrone
A body of one of the 21 dead is removed from the scene of the bombing in Omagh, Co Tyrone

He also said he did not have the powers to order the authorities in the Republic to act, but he expressed hope the Government would take a decision to order one.

“Any investigation will have to look specifically at the issue of whether a more proactive campaign of disruption, especially if co-ordinated north and south of the border, had a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing, and whether, without the benefit of hindsight, the potential advantages of taking a much more aggressive approach towards the suspected terrorists outweighed the potential disadvantages inherent in such an approach,” the judge said.

‘Vindicated’

In a brief hearing, Mr Justice Horner only read the conclusion of his judgment to Belfast High Court on Friday.

He explained he was unable to read the full open judgment setting out his reasoning because the person whose job it was to check the document to ensure it did not contain sensitive material was self-isolating with Covid-19.

Mr Michael Gallagher, Chairman of the Omagh Victims Support Group. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Mr Michael Gallagher, Chairman of the Omagh Victims Support Group. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Mr Gallagher described the ruling as “absolutely amazing”.

“We feel vindicated, this has been a great day for the families,” he said.

“We just hope that both the British and Irish governments, as the judge has recommended, will look at these issues and move them forward very quickly.”

He added: “We knew from, really, over 20 years, that this was a preventable atrocity, but it’s one thing for me to say it, it’s an entirely different thing for a senior High Court judge to.

“I just felt sadness on one side and relief on the other that, you know, we got it right and people have looked at this and believed us.”

The aftermath of the Omagh bombing in Co Tyrone. File photograph: PA
The aftermath of the Omagh bombing in Co Tyrone. File photograph: PA

Mr Gallagher said a public inquiry was the only form of investigation that could answer the questions around Omagh. “We hope today is the beginning of the end, not the end,” he said.

“This is a huge step forward for justice and for the Omagh families.”

The UK government said it would take time to consider the judgment. The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said the Government would examine all the options and would do what is “necessary” to uphold citizens’ rights.

Mr Gallagher took his action against former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers after she declined to order a public inquiry.

Former Northern Ireland secretary of State for the UK Theresa Villiers. File photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Former Northern Ireland secretary of State for the UK Theresa Villiers. File photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Ms Villiers argued an investigation by former police ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire was the best way to address any outstanding issues.

In the legal case, Mr Gallagher claimed that intelligence from British security agents and Royal Ulster Constabulary officers could have been drawn together to prevent the dissident republican bombing.

Limited action

On August 4th, 1998, 11 days before the bombing, the RUC received an anonymous telephone call warning there would be an “unspecified” terrorist attack on police in Omagh on August 15th.

The force’s Special Branch, which handled intelligence from agents, took limited action on the information and a threat warning was not sent to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh, an investigation by former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan found.

An RUC review concluded in 2000 that the information should have been passed to the commander.

Responding to the judgment, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said: ““We recognise that today the court has set out that there are ‘plausible allegations that there was a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing’ and that more should be done to investigate this.

“The UK Government will take time to consider the judge’s statement and all its recommendations carefully as we wait for the full judgment to be published.”

Responding to the judgment, the Taoiseach said the Government would do what is “necessary” following the ruling.

“We will analyse that judgment and we will do what is necessary in terms of the citizens on the island of Ireland,” he told reporters.

“I always stand ready to have an open book in terms of any atrocity that was committed which had a cross-Border dimension to it in terms of following through in any way we can through the provision of information or indeed to vindicating the rights of people and citizens.

“So, a very open book in terms of how we proceed with this now, but we’ve got to examine the options that are available to us in respect of the conclusions.” – PA