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Saturday 18 July 2009

After Omagh: the families who took on the bombers

Books Editor John Spain talks to Ruth Dudley Edwards about her forensic account of our worst atrocity

The horror of the Omagh bomb in August 1998 came just when the decades of carnage in the North seemed to be over. In April that year the Good Friday Agreement had been signed. In May the vast majority of people, North and South, supported it in a referendum. Power sharing was on the way. The IRA were on ceasefire and moving towards permanent peace. There was real hope at last that the murder and mayhem were finished.

And then the bomb in Omagh went off, the worst massacre in Northern Ireland's modern history, killing 29 men, women and children and two unborn babies.

In the aftermath, there was outrage. It was not just the mindless stupidity (the warnings were so confusing, people were herded towards the car bomb rather than away from it) and the utter cruelty . . . it was the disdain it showed for the wishes of the Irish people. A few twisted neanderthals were challenging the entire island. If ever a crime cried out to be solved, to have the vicious morons who carried it out put away for ever, this was it.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern promised that no stone would be left unturned. Within days, the identity of those responsible had been established. And then, as we all know, nothing.

Time dragged on and the men behind the bomb remained free, their sullen faces eventually revealed on TV as they dodged the cameras. The failure of the RUC and the gardai to nail them was shameful. It seemed inconceivable, but it looked like they were going to get away with it. There was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges. What happened then was an extraordinary example of human resilience. In spite of their grief, the families of 10 of the victims decided to go after the killers themselves through the civil courts, where the burden of proof is lower. The remarkable story of how they did it is told in Aftermath, the new book by historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, which was launched here this week.

And they were successful. A few weeks ago, after a 14-month hearing, a judge in Belfast ruled that four alleged members of the Real IRA -- Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Seamus Daly and Colm Murphy -- were responsible for the Omagh bomb and awarded £1.6m (€1.86m) in damages against them. The final liability they face may be several million pounds and has been described as "a financial life sentence". Under EU law, it is enforceable in the Republic.

Dudley Edwards was involved right from the beginning. "This campaign dominated nine years of my life," she says.

"I complained, I despaired, and I was impoverished by it. But it was a privilege and I don't grudge my time or commitment. Ordinary people stuck up to terrorists and won."

And they were ordinary people -- including a factory worker, a mechanic and a cleaner. They had no money, no lawyers, and there was no legal precedent for their action. Yet their determination and persistence over almost a decade finally paid off, making legal history in the process and doing what the two governments and security forces had been unable to do.

The idea of taking a civil action, as the book reveals, came first from Victor Barker, a solicitor in Surrey whose 12-year-old son was killed in the Omagh blast. The idea grew and was taken up by other families of victims but to get the case going they needed support and money.

And there was little real encouragement from the authorities in Britain or Ireland where the concentration was on cementing the peace deal rather than nailing the bombers. The view appeared to be that, tragic though it was, the victims needed to move on into the new era of peace.

"The establishment view was -- and usually still is -- that victims should shut up," Dudley Edwards says.

But support was forthcoming, mainly in London, where a small group of sympathisers that included Dudley Edwards herself, got the campaign going. After the BBC's Panorama programme Who Bombed Omagh? named three of the defendants in 2000, a British newspaper started a campaign to raise funds that produced over a million pounds.

When that money ran out, the British government agreed to provide legal aid for the case. Peter Mandelson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary, persuaded the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, that legal aid was the only way the case could continue.

Mandelson was one of the surprising heroes in the campaign in which other more popular figures hardly covered themselves in glory, an example being the late Mo Mowlam who, the book says, encouraged her officials to play down expectations of bringing the bombers to justice and did the minimum for the victims' families.

"Mandelson was wonderful," Dudley Edwards says. "He was always helpful. He always answered my phone messages within the hour, even if he had to come out of Cabinet meetings." The book describes how Mandelson broke down and wept on his first meeting with some of the families.

Dudley Edwards is less than impressed with the performance of the RUC and the gardai. "The bombs were planned and the car was stolen and turned into a bomb in the Republic; the victims were in Northern Ireland. The two police forces worked less well together than they would want us to believe," she says.

"And because of intimidation and omerta, there were no witnesses and the Sinn Fein leadership refused to ask its members to help the police."

So do we need to change the legal framework to make criminal prosecutions possible in atrocity cases like this? "I care a great deal about civil liberties, but there are times when the State is under threat that we have to listen more to victims," she says.

"I do believe that it should be easier for victims to sue perpetrators, and that may mean that public money has to be made available."

It upsets her "very much" that some of the bombers are still free. The book mentions that, two months ago, the people of Faughart in Co Louth elected one of the bombers, Liam Campbell, as the PRO of their Community Alert scheme.

Aftermath is a forensic account of what happened leading up to and after Omagh, set against the historical background and the developing situation in the North. It's all covered in fascinating and moving detail -- the lives of the victims leading up to that terrible day, the botched warning calls, the mobile phones that caught the bombers, the political fallout, the grief of the families and their campaign that eventually did the impossible.

It combines Dudley Edwards's ability as a gifted historian with her skill as a journalist to produce a hugely important and authoritative book that reads as compulsively as a thriller.

Aftermath -- The Omagh Bombing and the Families' Pursuit of Justice by Ruth Dudley Edwards (above) is published by Harvill Secker at €17.15

John Spain


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