Sunday 9 August 2009
Review: Aftermath by Ruth Dudley Edwards
The Real IRA’s car-bombing of Omagh, which killed 29 people and injured 220, was the largest single atrocity of the Northern Ireland troubles. It happened on August 15, 1998, at a time when the IRA was on ceasefire and the violence was thought to be at an end.
Aftermath is the story of six bereaved families who demanded justice and wouldn’t let go. It ends earlier this summer in a civil case, with Michael Gallagher (whose son Aiden was among the dead) and the other victims posing outside Belfast High Court wreathed in smiles. They had succeeded where police investigations had failed. Four Real IRA members had been held responsible for the massacre and were saddled with damages of £1.6m that will leave them in debt and disgrace for the rest of their lives.
Ruth Dudley Edwards, a fundraiser for the families, gives an insider’s account of the campaign, starting with the harrowing details of the blast. First responders tell of the difficulties of identifying headless bodies and of limbs lying in the street amid the debris. Blood ran from the doors of buses pressed into service as ambulances the injured screaming at every speed bump on the way to the hospital. She hints at the drinking, the marriage break-ups and the suicide attempts that were the ripple effect of the atrocity. The victims squabble and at times come close to buckling under the strain as they move forward towards a court showdown that most experts predicted they would lose.
In a criminal case, the accused must be proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but in civil law, where damages are sought, matters are decided on the balance of probabilities. The idea of suing terrorists in a civil court came to Jason McCue, the solicitor representing the families, when he worked on a libel action taken by Thomas “Slab” Murphy against The Sunday Times. Murphy, a former IRA chief of staff, sued after being accused of masterminding an English bombing campaign and, following a series of hearings in the Dublin courts, he lost.
Costs were awarded against Murphy but the biggest penalty was that his cloak of anonymity was snatched away. The once secretive godfather became a household name and even a target for stand-up comedy. Murphy’s mistake had been to sue. McCue and the Omagh families wondered what was to stop victims taking the initiative and suing the terrorists.
Expense was one barrier, for this was a test case and would not be cheap. The eventual legal bill was £2m and even starting the process required a fighting fund of tens of thousands. Established human-rights bodies showed little interest in supporting the case. Instead, the families relied on an eclectic group of volunteers. Bob Geldof, the Tory peer Lord Cranborne, Andrew Neil and Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA terrorist turned Garda informant, are among the names that pepper the accounts of planning meetings attended by Dudley Edwards.
Peter Mandelson was a consistent political champion. While secretary of state for Northern Ireland, he broke down in tears when he was shown artwork produced by victims’ children as part of bereavement therapy. Later, he made a personal donation of £10,000. In 2003, after the families had raised £1.2m by public appeal, he intervened to ensure they were offered £800,000 in special legal aid, an unprecedented move in a civil action.
Last year, when John Ware of the BBC’s Panorama revealed that GCHQ had been tapping mobile phones used by the bombers and tracking their movements, Mandelson insisted on checking thetranscripts of the calls himself and arranged a meeting between Gordon Brown and the families.
It emerged that this intelligence was not passed on to the detectives probing the case. Without it, the police spent months trying to identify which mobile phones were used, and what route the bomb car had taken. If the information had been available on the day of the massacre, police could have conducted searches and arrests in the so-called “golden hours” of the investigation before forensic clues had been cleaned away and alibis concocted. Since then, procedures have been reviewed, in order to prevent a repetition.
The case and the precedent it set after nine years of legal battles have made McCue a celebrity lawyer. We read of him marrying Mariella Frostrup, the journalist and commentator, and taking holidays with A-list celebrities such as George Clooney.
McCue is now suing Hamas and the Arab Bank on behalf of victims of Palestinian terrorist groups to which, it is alleged, the bank provided services. He has also been consulted by the victims of London’s 7/7 bombing, and may take a case against the Libyan government on behalf of those who died as a result of the explosives and weapons Gadaffi supplied to the IRA.
The Omagh families have not only held terrorists to account for the death of their loved ones; their legacy is a new legal remedy for victims of violence everywhere.
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