It took just over an hour to deliver a judgment that the Omagh families had been waiting eight years to hear. In a landmark case on Monday, a Belfast judge found four men and the dissident terrorist group the Real IRA liable for the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people and unborn twins, and awarded more than $2.6 million in damages to the families of those who died in the attack. But as well as bringing relief to the small market town of Omagh in Northern Ireland, Justice Declan Morgan's judgment could pave the way for victims' families around the world to pursue terrorists in civil court cases.
Before this verdict, the Omagh families had failed time and time again in their attempts to bring the perpetrators of Ireland's bloodiest terrorist attack to justice. It wasn't until 2007 that someone finally stood trial in Northern Ireland for the August 1998 attack that killed 29 and injured 250 when a bomb hidden in a stolen car parked on the busy High Street exploded. But the accused, Sean Hoey, was found not guilty of 29 counts of murder and other charges relating to the attack. (See pictures of new hope for Belfast.)
The judge at Hoey's trial strongly criticized the police's handling of forensic evidence, and a subsequent report by Northern Ireland's police ombudsman claimed that the police had failed to act on intelligence reports regarding a possible bomb attack in the town. Even Sir Hugh Orde, chief constable of the police service of Northern Ireland, admitted after Hoey's acquittal that it was "highly unlikely" that anyone would be successfully prosecuted for the Omagh bombing. Prior to that, Colm Murphy one of the five accused in the families' civil case was sentenced to 14 years in jail in the Republic of Ireland in 2002 for conspiracy to cause the bombing. Murphy is currently awaiting a retrial after that conviction was overturned. (See pictures of the British army leaving Northern Ireland.)
In the absence of any criminal convictions, four families of people who died in Omagh launched a civil action in 2000 against the Real IRA as an organization as well as five individuals they believed were chiefly responsible for the bombing. Using their own savings, donations and legal aid, they raised about $2.4 million to fund their case, with more families coming on board later. Their subsequent claim for more than $15 million in damages was based on the long-term psychological impacts of the atrocity posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and alcoholism which continue to affect many of the victims' family members. Given their disappointments in the past, the odds seemed stacked against them.
Monday's judgment finally turned the tables in the families' favor. Four of the accused Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly, none of whom were present in court were judged to have assisted in the organization and execution of the bomb attack, with Justice Morgan describing the evidence against them as "overwhelming." (McKevitt and Campbell are known to have been members of the Real IRA at the time of the attack, while Murphy was described as having been a member of another IRA splinter group, the Continuity IRA, in August 1998. There is no proof that Daly was a Real IRA member when the bombing occurred.) A fifth man, Seamus McKenna, was cleared. McKevitt, who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in the Republic of Ireland for directing terrorist activities, was described in the judgment as being "undoubtedly responsible" for the campaign of dissident republican attacks in 1998 that culminated in the Omagh bombing. (Read "In Northern Ireland, a Civil Action.")
"Until today, you felt that [the five accused] were laughing at you and that people said it was a waste of time," says Kathy Gallagher, 31, whose brother Aidan died in the attack. "We're so glad to have this result. Now I feel like we have the last laugh on them."
Outside Belfast's High Court, Gallagher's father Michael, the chief spokesman for the Omagh families, vowed that their campaign for justice would continue. Michael Gallagher and others are calling for an independent inquiry to be set up by the British and Irish governments to further investigate the Omagh atrocity. Other killings carried out during Northern Ireland's 25-year sectarian conflict have been the subjects of similar investigations, and not without controversy. The Saville Inquiry into the 1972 shooting of 27 civil-rights marchers in Derry by British army soldiers is already in its 10th year and, despite having cost an estimated $320 million so far, has yet to deliver its final report. The result is that the Northern Irish public has little appetite for further in-depth inquiries into Northern Ireland's bloodiest episodes Omagh included.
"This is one of the last hurdles out of the way," Michael Gallagher told reporters after the judgment. "But the curtain can never be pulled on Omagh until both governments cooperate and tell families the truth."
The $2.6 million awarded in Monday's judgment falls well below the $15 million sought by the victims' families, and it remains unclear if the Real IRA's financial assets will be sufficient to cover the payout, meaning the sums that are finally awarded to the victims' families could be significantly less. (Read "Could It Happen Again?")
But after eight years of disappointment and frustration, it's not the money that matters to the Omagh families. As they posed in the sun for a group photograph outside the courthouse, the families refused to describe the judgment as any kind of hollow victory. "People threw doubt on whether we would ever get justice," says Edmund Gibson, a former policeman whose sister Esther was killed in the bomb attack. "What we have done today is defied the odds."