Reviewed by Richard Fitzpatrick
FRED WHITE was 60 in 1998. He had been married for 32 years. He retired from his job as a clerk with the local education board in 1989, having suffered a brain haemorrhage. He occupied his time with odd-jobs around the house and growing prize-winning daffodils. His wife, Edith, gave up her job as a lecturer in business studies at Omagh College to look after him. They had two children: Bryan and Linda.
On August 14, 1998, Fred, Edith, and Bryan travelled home from Aberdeen, in Scotland, where Linda was at university. Edith, nervous about the bombings in Northern Ireland, pressed Fred to buy a house in Aberdeen, but Fred, a native of Omagh, assured her they were safe. When their ferry home was late docking, they debated staying the night in Belfast, but Edith, afraid of bombs, was eager to get home, so they pressed on, arriving at their house at 3.30am.
Later that morning, after breakfast, Bryan drove his father into town to do some shopping. Bryan, a part-time student of business and horticulture, had a job in Strabane and a girlfriend.
He had just been promoted. Before leaving, he put his arm around his mother and said, “cheerio, Mum. See you shortly.”
At 3.04pm, Bryan and Fred were blown to bits by a bomb the Real IRA planted in a car in the centre of Omagh. Twenty-nine other innocent people were murdered that afternoon, including Avril Monaghan’s unborn twins, Eimear and Evelyn, her one-year-old daughter, Maura, and her mother, Mary Grimes.
Although the people believed to be responsible for the bombing were known to the police, there was insufficient evidence to bring charges. Ten of the bereaved families clubbed together to bring a civil case against the perpetrators.
Two men were at the forefront of the campaign: Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son, Aiden, was killed by the bomb 14 years after Michael’s 26-year-old taxi-driver brother, Hugh, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, was murdered by the IRA and Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son James was killed.
Ruth Dudley Edwards, an historian, journalist and crime novelist, was introduced to Barker in her words “a one-man tornado” in February, 2000, by a mutual acquaintance in the hope that she could help him with his quest for justice. Barker, a solicitor, had already secured audiences with Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Martin McGuinness, but to no avail. Dudley Edwards was dragged into his campaign and has written a book about the case.
It is a remarkable story, complete with celebrity cameos by Bob Geldof and George Clooney; a small group of London sympathisers that numbered a viscount, who helped raise invaluable funds; a pair of Republican ex-terrorists; a young, idealistic and fervent legal team, led by Jason McCue, an indomitable character; and an unlikely hero in former Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson. “It was an oddball collection,” says Dudley Edwards.
Fundraising “it was hellish, awful; we were nervous wrecks” was the most difficult aspect of the campaign, says Dudley Edwards, given that the defendants’ legal team continually used delaying tactics, so that it was June 8, 2009 before a verdict on the case was finally handed down, in which damages of £100,000 each to 12 people listed on the writ, were awarded. It wasn’t about the money. It was about naming and shaming the culprits: Liam Campbell, Michael McKevitt, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly; the case against Seamus McKenna was dismissed.
“This is about identifying people responsible, identifying them in their own community and saying: ‘these people should be rejected; they are not part of a decent society and they should be regarded by everyone as pariahs’,” said Barker after the verdict.
“Michael Gallagher,” says Dudley Edwards, “is very hot on the fact that, in the end, the wives and the families have to know that this hits home. You can’t just sit at home thinking that daddy’s a freedom fighter; there are consequences... this was an independent victims’ group, and it has given a horrendous shock to the terrorist community to discover that ordinary people will stand up.”