The anniversary of the Omagh bombing of August 1998 weighs heavily on me every year. My sadness does not begin to compare to that suffered by family, friends and neighbours of the dead and the injured, but I spent a decade closely involved with that small, brave group of ordinary people who successfully took some of the bombers to court – and their supporters in England who made it possible.
Published: 15 August 2023
I’ve maintained a cherished friendship with Surrey-based Victor Barker, father of 12-year-old murdered James, who first met me in February 2000 to talk about the failure to prosecute the members of the breakaway group from the Provisional IRA well known to have been the perpetrators.
“I’ve wondered about bringing a civil case against the bombers,” he told me that evening, “but no one takes the idea seriously.”
That July, at a friend’s house in Tyrone, I met someone like-minded, Omagh-based Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old mechanic son Aiden had died in the same Real IRA atrocity. The two bereaved fathers would spearhead the campaign.
Two days ago a service organised by the Omagh Churches Forum at the memorial garden for the victims took place on the closest Sunday to the date of the 25th anniversary, August 15.
I wasn’t there: instead I was at James Barker’s Surrey school where he is buried and remembered.
Victor and Michael are striking examples of those described by Kenny Donaldson – the director of SEFF (the South East Fermanagh Foundation), that fine organisation that works for innocent victims of terrorism without regard to religious or ethnic distinctions – as having “refused to allow the events of that day to define or embitter them: their humanity has won through.”
Victor had organised a service to remember all the victims and “to pray for continued peace in Northern Ireland and an end to bitter sectarian violence.”
Among those present were Lady Janie Grosvenor from Fermanagh, who was one of the doughty fundraisers; Paul Le Druillenec, an English accountant who acted as a trustee and despite the risk from the Real IRA had his small firm process (without charge) the many hundreds of small cheques that came in from the press campaign. There too was Rory, the son of the IRA murderer-turned-informer, the late Seán O’Callaghan, who played a key role as a brilliant wooer of the press. Apologies for non-attendance and warm messages came from many stalwart supporters over the whole campaign, including that unlikely duo of senior politicians Conservative Lord Salisbury and Labour Lord Mandelson.
An attendee whose presence meant a great deal to Victor was Mark Benson, who as an RUC constable tended the injured James on the bloody street in Omagh, dressed some of his wounds and helped lift him into the ambulance. He later recognised his body when it came to the temporary mortuary.
I was delighted to meet Mark, for he is typical of so many decent, brave retired officers I know who served country and community faithfully despite paramilitary assassins only to find their organisation demonised by brilliant republican propagandists. The PSNI, who replaced the RUC, were trammelled and demoralised from the start by over-regulation, armies of critical lawyers and the indignity of having police boards that included ex-terrorists.
One of the many questions to which I would love a satisfactory answer is why Drew Harris was rejected for the job of Chief Constable despite outstanding qualifications that had him warmly embraced by the Irish government as Garda Commissioner.
The British government has set up an independent inquiry under Lord Turnbull, a distinguished public servant and one-time Cabinet Secretary with a record of impartiality, to investigate if the Omagh bombing could have been prevented had the state done its job.
I hope that despite political pressure he is paying attention to the pleas both Michael and Victor have made to him in person to remember that “the people responsible for the bomb were those who planned, prepared and delivered the device to Omagh from Republic of Ireland”.