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16 June 2009

Shameless betrayal: How Omagh victims were left to confront bombers themselves after Blair failed to deliver justice

For relatives of the 29 people and two unborn babies killed by the Omagh bomb, the words of Prime Minister Tony Blair brought some comfort.

He promised that catching those responsible was his main priority.

But increasingly one grieving father began to fear that Blair was more interested in the peace process than bringing the Omagh bombers to justice. 

Vigil: Donna Marie Barker, mother of James Victor Barker, a victim of the Omagh bombing,
holds a candle as she protests against a fund raising meeting for
The Real IRA taking place in the Cock Tavern in London in 2000.

In the third extract from a new book, we reveal how he wrote a thunderous letter to the Prime Minister, before launching the families' campaign  -  funded in large part by our generous readers...

The immediate aftermath of the bombing of Omagh was a tsunami of sympathy.

Prince Charles walked sadly through the rubble in the town centre where 29 people had been slaughtered and hundreds injured. Irish President Mary McAleese came from Dublin to denounce the bombers as 'off the Richter scale of decency'.

Tony Blair declared he would go mad with grief if it were his children who had been among the two babies, five children and unborn twins murdered.

'Justice': Tony Blair in Omagh

A Protestant minister summed up everyone's feelings when he described the killings as 'an act of medieval savagery' and spoke of 'the anguish, bitter grief and hot, hot tears' of the families.

A Catholic bishop voiced his revulsion for the bombers: 'Shame on you for killing and maiming, shame on you for bringing so much pain into so many homes.'

Some were not totally taken in by the outpourings of shared grief.

At the funeral of James, his 12-year-old son, Victor Barker had to endure the presence of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

The Sinn Fein leaders were desperate to distance themselves from the Real IRA (RIRA), the group who had planted the bomb in an attempt to derail the peace process that Adams and McGuinness had signed up to.

Murdered: 12-year-old James Victor Barker who died in the Omagh bombing

For years, their stock-in-trade on being asked to condemn IRA violence had been to say they did not believe in the politics of condemnation.

But now, for the first time, they did commit themselves. 'I am totally horrified by this action,' said Adams. 'I condemn it without any equivocation whatsoever.'

Victor was not convinced. He was one of many who believed the Omagh atrocity perpetrated by the Real IRA was no different from those the Provisional IRA carried out when Adams and McGuinness were involved with it.

Yet with this wave of anger and determination coming from all sides, perhaps a new era had dawned.

At the very least, it seemed a certainty that the killers would soon be brought to justice.

The RIRA had admitted planting the bomb. The shop in Dundalk run by the wife of Michael McKevitt, head of the RIRA, was besieged by journalists, and callers to radio phone-in programmes threatened to burn it down.

From the authorities on both sides of the border, there were pledges that there would be no hiding place for the bombers.

The victims needed this. They drew what comfort they could from the 800 books of condolence with two million signatures that were delivered to Omagh.

But what was most important was the belief that the men who had killed their loved ones would be brought to justice.

They had plenty of top-level encouragement that unprecedented action would be taken to make this happen. Blair and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern promised 'unrelenting' pursuit of the perpetrators. 

Legal battle
Legal battle: Victor Barker, who lost his son, leaves Belfast High Court

Blair hailed the new cooperation between the two governments to catch the bombers. In both countries, emergency legislation was introduced to crack down on terrorists.

But, crucially, this response fell short of the one measure that might have done the trick: internment without trial, north and south.

Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, objected to this on principle, despite promising 'to leave no stone unturned to make sure the people who did this are caught'.

Both in London and Dublin, politicians were nervous of upsetting Sinn Fein and putting the power-sharing deal they had so painstakingly constructed at risk.

It was also vital to families of the victims that the peace process should not be derailed.

As Aiden Gallagher's sister put it: 'It is all we have left. I don't want Aiden to have died for nothing.'

Others were less forgiving. 'What peace process?' asked a friend of victim Alan Radford.

'Sorry, have I missed something? The only solution is to take an Israeli attitude. Shoot to kill and annihilate the terrorists. Give the police and the army a free hand for 48 hours.

'Let's see how brave the bombers are then.' Instead of tough action, wishful thinking became the order of the day. 

Carnage: The aftermath of the bombing

Residents and police officers survey the scene
Residents and police officers survey the scene

Ahern thought to solve the problem by sending an emissary to McKevitt with a request to disband the Real IRA. Not surprisingly, the 'godfather'  -  already recruiting, reequipping and planning to further his campaign of violence  -  declined.

The families pinned their hopes on the huge criminal investigation that had swung into gear on either side of the border. Police conducted more than 6,000 interviews, 3,000 house-to-house inquiries and took 2,500 statements.

They sifted through the dialling records of some 500 million phone calls made on the day of the bombing.
But, despite the dedicated work of at times hundreds of officers, the months dragged and the cross-border investigation was going nowhere.

The RUC investigation was badly co-ordinated in the view of the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman, a view largely rejected by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

On top of that, forensic evidence was difficult to collect because of the inevitable chaos of the crime scene.

But the biggest single problem was that witnesses were not coming forward with information that would nail the bombers.

Six months after Omagh, a senior police officer admitted: 'We have a fair idea who did it. We probably know about half a dozen who were involved.' However, the evidence was not available to 'put them away'.

The Omagh bombing victims' families outside Belfast High Court

This caused an uproar. How could it be, the bereaved wondered, that the police believed they knew who committed the crime but they could not bring them to justice?

Eighty-one people had been arrested and questioned, but all except one were released through lack of evidence.

And the one person charged was not even one of the main suspects.

He was accused of conspiracy to endanger life by supplying mobile phones to the RIRA gang, rather than of murder itself.

It would not have been surprising if the relatives of the victims had given up at this stage.

Most were still in various stages of grief and denial and exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Several were clinically depressed and a number had lost their jobs because they could no longer cope.

A psychiatrist concluded that their suffering was intensified by their knowledge 'of the intentional nature of the acts' that killed their relative.

Illness or an accident they could understand, but not this deliberately inflicted carnage.

Many also suffered from senseless guilt. Victor Barker felt he had let James down simply by not being with him.

His personal response was to throw himself into getting justice for his dead son.

As a way of channeling his rage, every day he would give himself what he called 'James time', when he would think of practical things to do for his dead son.

That involved trying to find out what exactly had happened that awful day in Market Street, Omagh, and trying to stop the Real IRA from killing again.

He pestered politicians and police with a one-man tornado of letters.

Others found different ways of coping.

Michael Gallagher  -  who had lost his son, Aiden  -  forged a close friendship with Stanley McCombe, whose wife, Ann, had died from a shrapnel shard in the face.

Night after night they would sit together, sobbing their hearts out.

Widower Laurence Rush, mourning his wife Libbi, was also in a desperate state, and began calling in from time to time, as did others.

Gradually, the idea of a proper support group developed.

They also decided they wanted to take some control over their fate  -  to transform themselves from victims into activists for justice.

So they invited all the others to a meeting and set up the Omagh Support and Self-Help Group (OSSHG), with Gallagher as its chairman.

'Its aim,' he said, 'is to support and help the bereaved and injured.'

One of the key virtues of the group was that it gave them the chance to talk about agonies with others who understood.

'There are tears,' said McCombe, 'and there is anger. But the main thing is none of us is afraid or embarrassed to show the way we feel.'

It quickly became much more than an organisation for bereavement counselling. Its members were soon holding meetings with senior civil servants and politicians over the system for compensation payments and how the police investigation was going.

They were impressed by no one and felt let down.

Politicians had been quick to come to Omagh after the bombing, Gallagher complained, 'but when they left, the promises they had made left with them'.

It was fair comment. While everyone wished the survivors of Omagh well, there was no doubt that society and governments alike preferred them not to rock the peace process.

A line from a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney about this time being one when 'hope and history rhyme' was quoted by people from all sides urging them to rise above their sufferings.

Victory: Michael Gallagher (left) and Victor Barker with the judgement outside Belfast High Court

Mo Mowlam was anxious for them to emulate bereaved families who had become peace activists, such as Colin and Wendy Parry, whose son had been murdered in Warrington in 1993.

She seemed to have no understanding of their anger and craving for justice.

The truth was that, while it is unwise to encourage victims to hate, society's impatience for them to forgive can be hard to bear.

The relentless propaganda for the peace process was an affront to those victims who thought it morally repugnant to negotiate and share power with those they regarded as unrepentant terrorists.

Donna-Maria Barker, Victor's wife, gave way to those feelings of anger on a TV programme, and got the backing of Bob Geldof, who had always been implacably anti-IRA and was 'sick with rage' over the Omagh atrocity.

He had thought the 'boil' of terrorism had been lanced, 'and then these pigs crawled out again from under whatever rock and did this.

'I sympathise with the woman who is angry. I think we must remain angry.'

Meanwhile, as the police investigation plodded on, its lack of progress knocked back many of the relatives.

'When you hear of arrests and then people being released, your heart hits the floor,' said one.

Another, who had lost his wife of 40 years, was dismayed when a detective told him of seeing the men police believed were the bombers, walking about the streets in the Republic 'spending their giros on pints and fags, and trips to the bookies, and they don't give a damn about what they've done'.

Victor Barker, who worked as a solicitor in England, was pressing on with his campaign of pestering politicians for answers, but getting nowhere with Sinn Fein, despite their earlier protestations of horror at the outrage.

He challenged McGuinness and Adams to call for witnesses to come forward. They refused.

In a radio interview, McGuinness was asked why he would not tell the police who the bombers were. 'I am not an informer,' he replied.

To Barker it was incredible that Adams, 'a man who purports to stand for peace will not assist in bringing these terrorists to justice'.

But he found himself being stonewalled by the British and Irish governments, and at the highest levels.

He wrote several times to Blair, the parent who purported to understand his grief, inquiring 'how the Prime Minister would feel if he had to spend sleepless nights in the depths of despair as I do, wondering what suffering my 12-year old son endured', and protested at the negotiations with Sinn Fein 'with whom the Prime Minister seems only too keen to "do a deal" at any cost'.

He said he was convinced that for political reasons the Government had failed to pursue the murderers.

A reply assured him there were no grounds for his fears.

Blair wrote: 'I share your determination to see James's killers brought to justice ... the police investigation continues ... catching those responsible is the main priority of all agencies involved in counterterrorist work in Northern Ireland.'

Barker then proposed that if Blair meant what he said, then he and his Irish counterpart should make a joint public appeal for people who were withholding information to come forward to give evidence to the police.

The response from Downing Street  -  which was in a delicate situation over the IRA's refusal to decommission its arsenal of weapons  -  was to divert Barker's correspondence with Mr Blair to another department.

An 'insulted and saddened' Victor replied with a thunderous letter to Blair about his 'sickening' appeasement of the IRA.

'I do not intend to let this matter rest. I will go to my grave still pursuing these people, even if you are not prepared to help me.'

Barker told others: 'I would love to move on. But James is still part of me.

I can't say: "Well, that's what happened; we can't change it".'

Michael Gallagher felt the same. He was outraged when the Republic police chief admitted that those behind the Omagh bomb were likely to escape conviction.

'To hear the Garda chief knows who planted the bomb which killed my wife but has no evidence against them, is a disgrace,' he railed.

What was worrying was that some relatives might consider taking up arms and getting revenge that way.

Failed by the law, it was a miracle no one had chosen to go down that road.

Gallagher and Barker had been talking vaguely about how they could take action against the Real IRA. Barker was a provincial solicitor whose main work was conveyancing of house sales, 'but I refuse to believe some way can't be found of making the law work'.

Now, after 18 months of frustration  -  and, some would say, even obstruction  -  from the authorities, they decided it was time to take the law into their own hands.

If the criminal law could not help them, then they would take on the terrorists in the civil courts. 'These people have to be held responsible in some manner,' said Gallagher.

This was no easy decision for many of the families, who were aware the Real IRA dealt in murder and intimidation.

I became closely involved in the campaign, and I held the hands of a terrified, weeping young woman who was convinced she would be killed.

But she was determined to put her name to a writ, out of loyalty to her dead sibling.

That was back in 2000.

A process had begun that would take years to come to fruition.

Members of the RIRA would be brought to court; and to last week's historic ruling in the High Court in Belfast that pinned responsibility for the Omagh bombing to Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Seamus Daly and Colm Murphy and ordered them to pay £1.6 million damages to the victims.

This is an abridged extract from Aftermath by Ruth Dudley Edwards, to be published by Harvill Secker on July 2 at £12.99. © 2009 Ruth Dudley Edwards. To order this book P&P free, tel: 0845 155 0720.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards