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Sunday 28 February 2010

A miserable week for the families of Omagh victims

With Colm Murphy's acquittal there seems little hope of a criminal prosecution, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE bereaved and the mutilated of Omagh have had another terrible week. There was the huge bomb in Newry last Monday, which is thought to bear the hallmark of the Omagh bomb-maker. And there was the acquittal in Dublin of Colm Murphy -- whose mobile phone was used by a bomber on that dreadful day in August 1998 when 29 people and two unborn children were murdered -- on charges of conspiracy to cause an explosion.

Although a civil case brought by some of the families in Northern Ireland resulted last year in damages being awarded against Murphy and three other men, there has been no successful criminal prosecution. So the victims see that the Real IRA are undefeated and no one is serving time for the atrocity in Omagh.

Even after the bitter disappointment of the collapse in December 2007 of the trial of Sean Hoey, Murphy's nephew, charged with 29 murders, the families had maintained some hope.

Sentenced to 14 years by the Special Criminal Court in 2002, Murphy's conviction had been overturned in 2005 because the gardai had altered interview notes. His retrial has just collapsed because the judges consider that garda fabrications -- never explained by the two gardai in question -- tainted all garda evidence.

I know some families think otherwise, but I've no doubt whatsoever that the court had no legal alternative to giving Murphy the benefit of the doubt. "I am glad to see it's all over," said Murphy outside the court. "Find out who was behind it -- MI5 agents setting people up."

"We feel," said the families' spokesman, Michael Gallagher, "that this is the end of the line for the criminal process."

Though I have known and cared about many Omagh victims for years now, since I became first involved in fundraising for the successful civil case in 2000, the picture dancing before my eyes now is that of another victim -- the pathetic Terence Morgan.

Barely literate, Morgan was a hard-working decent man, happy to be employed as a foreman on the Dublin building site of his second cousin, publican and contractor Colm Murphy, even though commuting from his Northern Ireland home meant his days were very long.

He had no interest in politics. Did he even know that Murphy had convictions for firearm possession with intent to endanger life (1972) and IRA membership (1976), and that in 1983 in the US he was given five years and deported over offences arising from the purchase of machine guns?

Morgan was questioned by the RUC in February 2001 when it was discovered that a mobile he was known to use was in Omagh that day along with Murphy's. Reluctantly he eventually admitted that he had lent his phone to Murphy for the weekend and he gave evidence to that effect in November 2001 in Murphy's first trial.

But on the penultimate day, Morgan returned to the witness box and retracted the story, which he said had been extracted under police pressure: his phone had simply disappeared from his van and been mysteriously returned on the Monday.

The judges "decided to accept as truthful Mr Morgan's original evidence and rejected Mr Morgan's purported retraction of evidence having observed his demeanour and having noted the general tenor of his evidence on both occasions".

Years later, I watched this broken little man giving evidence during the civil case, heavily medicated and sweating and shaking as he said he could remember nothing about the phone.

He was in an even worse state this January, giving evidence by video link from Belfast, continually wiping his face and drinking water as he said over and over again that he could not even remember working for Colm Murphy. "My head is blank," he said, when asked about his statement to the RUC. A judge described him as "terrified". There have been many other decent men destroyed in Ireland by circumstances beyond their understanding.

The families want a public inquiry, but interestingly, Nuala O'Loan, the ex-PSNI Ombudsman, who has championed their cause, disagrees. She believes that forensic science is making such strides that there may yet be successful criminal convictions.

We must hope so: in the past week, besides the Newry bomb, there has been a murder of a suspected informer in Derry and a mortar attack on an Armagh police station.

Dissidents are engaged in shootings and beatings, in armed robberies, in attacking police stations and many other terrorist activities.

South Armagh has become extremely lively, which means that local Provos are -- at the very least -- turning a blind eye. Bereft of experienced anti-terrorist officers and of army escorts, the PSNI are ceasing to police dangerous areas. What do the dissidents have to do to get the authorities to take them seriously?

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards's 'Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families' Pursuit of Justice' will be published this week.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards