Relatives are braced to relive Omagh terror at inquest

 

Two years after a "Real IRA" bomb devastated their lives, the relatives of the Omagh victims are bracing themselves for a detailed and lengthy inquest which will further test their fortitude and resolve.

Yesterday was just the preliminary hearing in Omagh courthouse, a couple of hundred yards from the scene of the explosion on August 15th, 1998. The inquest proper begins on Wednesday next, and could run for up to five weeks.

"That's when the real difficult time begins," said Michael Gallagher, whose son Adrian (21) was killed in the explosion. A total of 154 witnesses are scheduled to give evidence. There will be post-mortem details, eyewitness accounts of the harrowing scenes, reports from police officers, doctors and nurses who treated the dying and injured.

The relatives know it won't be easy. They also realise that what emerges will have no practical impact on the investigation, separately being conducted by the RUC and the Garda Siochana. Mr Gallagher acknowledged that the most the inquest could practically achieve was to examine the facts surrounding the deaths.

However, he, and the relatives for whom he is the unofficial spokesman, believe that the findings of the coroner, Mr John Leckey, may help to exert further pressure which could yet lead to those who planned and carried out the bomb attack being brought to justice.

"We will not hear a lot other than what we know at the moment, but there is provision for the coroner to recommend further inquiries into some of the things that will be raised during the inquest. That will be the time when we can see change," said Mr Gallagher.

Further confronting the horror of what happened in Omagh's town centre that day may help to provide some release from the burden of grief afflicting the relatives, but it will be difficult therapy. The families also hope that the grim details which will be recorded each day could yet prompt a change of heart or conscience among the perpetrators, or among those who could provide information leading to their conviction.

So far the rule of republican omerta has held strong, but the relatives are not giving up. Mr Gallagher on their behalf urged that Mr Francis Mackey, an Omagh councillor and chairman of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, and Mr Colm Murphy, the only man charged in connection with the bombing, should be called as witnesses. Mr Gallagher said the 32-County Sovereignty Movement was "inextricably linked to the `Real IRA'." It would be "useful" if Mr Mackey could provide some clarity "as to the nature and status of the organisation he represents". Whether they are called will be a matter for Mr Leckey.

He has the power to subpoena witnesses and will consider Mr Gallagher's application on its merits. It was obvious that Mr Gallagher and other relatives dearly wish to put hard questions to these potential witnesses.

There was a victory of sorts for the relatives yesterday when a legal precedent appeared to have been established, as a result of work by a solicitor from the Republic. Mr Ciaran Mac Lochlainn, solicitor for the families of Buncrana Oran Doherty (8) and Sean McLoughlin (12), argued strongly that the lawyers and the families should have access to the depositions of the 154 witnesses, plus maps and other documents.

Ms Karen Quinlivan, a lawyer for the Human Rights Commission, citing the European Convention on Human Rights, had also prepared a detailed submission for Mr Leckey making a similar argument.

It was Mr Mac Lochlainn who made the case at the inquest. Normally depositions are only available on the day of inquests to lawyers but Mr Mac Lochlainn contended that he could not reasonably do his job of establishing what happened two years ago unless he could prepare his questions based on prior access to the depositions and documents.

Much of the morning's work was taken up with his argument. Ms Quinlivan's argument was rendered unnecessary when Mr Leckey conceded the point. For the first time in the North, the lawyers and the families could have prior disclosure of inquest documents.

This could have implications for future inquests in Northern Ireland where a number of inquests into controversial killings by the British army and RUC have never been completed. Mr Desmond Doherty, solicitor for Lawrence Rush, whose wife Elizabeth died in the explosion, described Mr Leckey's ruling as a landmark decision.