Omagh analysis: Stalled case suggests end of the line
Setback drains energy and commitment from families in long campaign for justice
The August 15th, 1998, Omagh bombing took the lives of 29 people and a woman heavily pregnant with unborn twin girls. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
Mr Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed in the Real IRA attack close to 18 years ago, knew that the prosecution of 45-year-old Seamus Daly was the “last chance” of a criminal conviction.
But if he cannot have justice, he and others of the Omagh families would dearly love some truth. But in terms of what the families want there is also a big doubt over whether such truth will ever be delivered.
Not all of the Omagh families are of like mind. Some have preferred to try and let the past settle as best it can and get on with their lives.
Those families are making do with the truth that has been established so far. It is known that the Real IRA and some of its dissident associates were behind the August 15th, 1998, bombing that took the lives of 29 people and a woman heavily pregnant with unborn twin girls.
While Daly escaped criminal prosecution legally it has also been found that he was involved in the bombing. In 2009 Daly along with Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell and Colm Murphy were held liable for the attack in a civil court.
The families were awarded £1.6 million in damages although not a penny has been paid. The civil case succeeded because it met the test that on the balance of probabilities that the four were behind the bombing.
But the criminal test that it was beyond reasonable doubt that these men were among the dissidents involved in the bombing has never been fully met. Colm Murphy was convicted but it was subsequently found that Garda notes had been altered and he was released. His nephew Sean Hoey also faced a criminal case but was found not guilty.
The last opportunity for a criminal conviction was against Seamus Daly. He was arrested two years ago when he crossed the Border and was on remand pending a possible trial.
When he finally appeared in Omagh Magistrates Court last week it became clear to the families and other observers that the prospects of a conviction were slim. The judge was to decide if there was enough evidence to bring the case to a Crown Court trial.
The prosecution was banking on the key witness, Denis O’Connor from Kilkenny, who was involved in a tax scam in the construction industry, providing credible evidence that also involved the tracking of mobile phone signals and that this definitively would link Daly to Omagh.
But when at last week’s hearing O’Connor acknowledged confusion over whether that phone call was on August 15th, 1998, the day of the attack, or a week earlier, it became clear that his evidence was inconsistent and therefore close to worthless.
It led to the Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC announcing there was no reasonable prospect of a conviction and deciding to collapse the case against Daly.
Now, there is also the prospect that the civil case, which also involved O’Connor’s evidence, could be appealed by Daly, Murphy, Campbell and McKevitt.
Those Omagh families who were persisting with the case realised last week that O’Connor would not be a star witness. “I have had misgiving for two years since this man was arrested,” said Mr Gallagher. “It all stood up really on the credibility of this man, how he performed in the witness stand under cross-examination. And last week was a complete disaster.”
The families’ reaction therefore was one of disappointment but not surprise. They have suffered many such disappointments over the past 16 years. Most critically they believe that the RUC and later the PSNI, the Garda and intelligence services let them down badly.
In 2001 former Police Ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan published a highly critical report into the police investigation. That was fiercely rejected by the then PSNI chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan.
There have been claims that MI5, the FBI, and GCHQ failed to pass on information that could have prevented the bombing. The bottom line, as far as Mr Gallagher is concerned, is: “The agencies were not co-operating or talking to each other. There was a lack of co-operation between the agencies and Omagh fell down between them.”
While some of the families quit the campaign Mr Gallagher and others like him will not or cannot walk away.
But what can they do? In late 2013 Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers rejected calls for a public cross-Border inquiry into the bombing and has held to that position since then. The families are legally challenging her decision.
The families met Taoiseach Enda Kenny in October after which, according to Mr Gallagher, he promised to meet them within a month of the end of the Daly case.
After the election there has to be uncertainty about when or whether that meeting can take place. And what can it achieve when the British government has firmly ruled out a North-South inquiry?
Mr Gallagher said that this latest setback had sapped some of the will and energy from him and other like-minded Omagh families. But they will press on. “If we can get the public inquiry then I will walk away; I will accept that I have done as much as I possibly can,” said Mr Gallagher.