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24 July 2009

AFTERMATH REVIEW: by David McKittrick

The prevailing feelings of the hundreds bereaved and wounded by the 1998 Omagh bomb are, of course, loss and grief for the 29 people, and the unborn twins, who died in the County Tyrone town on an August Saturday afternoon. But for many others the dominant feeling is sheer anger at the futility of the waste of so many lives and the ruin of so many others. Some of those left behind have attempted suicide; some are amputees; some are scarred; one woman is blind.

It had taken three full decades for almost everyone in Northern Ireland, as well as those involved in Britain, the Irish Republic, the US and elsewhere, to arrive at the conclusion that the Troubles could only end in compromise. There were thousands of slow learners, who had persisted in believing that a conflict which had over the decades proved unwinnable might somehow yet be won. Eventually, most of them came round. But not the "Real IRA", which had not the sense to realise that it would never end with a violent republican victory over democracy in general, and Britain and unionism in particular. While everyone else was concentrating on points of order, cross-border relationships and mutual guarantees, the political primitives of the Real IRA remained fixated on detonators and coded bomb warnings.

They may not have wanted to kill all those people in Omagh - not because they valued life but because even they realised that civilian casualties were bad for terrorist business. In Omagh's immediate aftermath, they initially seemed shamefaced as they saw the international wave of outrage. They were correct in figuring it meant major police and legal initiatives aimed at them. Some of the Real IRA leaders and members did indeed wind up behind bars. Michael McKevitt, the chief-of-staff at the time of Omagh, looks set to spend many years in an Irish jail. But others, though known, eluded the law.

Police investigations and aspects of the legal system were flawed: some of those involved seemed overwhelmed at the scale of the inquiry and unnerved by the huge pressure for results. Efforts to lock up the bombers sometimes seemed jinxed. The dogs in the street knew the names of many involved in the attack but some remained free, and indeed some are probably still active in terrorism. The Real IRA and similar organisations continue to pose a danger: earlier this year they shot dead three members of the security forces. At that point, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein denounced the killers as "traitors to the island of Ireland".

Most relatives who feel they have not received justice react stoically and do not publicly air their hurt. For example the Grimes family, which suffered grievous losses in Omagh, have not taken the campaigning route. A neighbour said : "They were hit the hardest and they have dealt with it admirably in the privacy of the farmhouse kitchen."

But other Omagh people have stayed in the public eye and reacted to the lack of legal redress by launching a civil action. The merit of Ruth Dudley Edwards's valuable book about the Omagh families' "pursuit of justice" is that it meticulously chronicles how they did so, charting the enormous efforts involved in raising large amounts of money and getting the case under way.

A prime mover was Victor Barker, a Surrey-based solicitor who lost his 12-year-old son in the bombing. With others, he committed himself to years of emotionally draining effort. But it worked, for last month the campaigners scored a landmark victory when a judge ruled that four prominent republicans were liable for the 29 deaths.

After hearing evidence from the families the judge awarded damages of more than £1.5 million against the four men. The case was, however, never about money, but about pursuing individuals who thought they had literally got away with murder. Legal victories will never bring back those who were lost but, judging from the reaction of Omagh families, they have eased some of the pain. Such campaigns can stand as an assertion of humanity against those responsible for inhuman acts.

David McKittrick is 'The Independent''s Northern Ireland correspondent


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