The Omagh bombing – the worst atrocity of The Troubles where 29 people were murdered and 220 were injured by republican terrorists opposed to the Good Friday Agreement – could have been prevented, a High Court judge in Belfast ruled today.
Mr Justice Mark Horner also called for new investigations on both sides of the Irish border amid claims secret service agents and police could have halted the 500lb car bombing almost 23 years ago.
On August 4 1998, 11 days before the bombing, the Royal Ulster Constabulary received an anonymous telephone call warning there would be an ‘unspecified’ terrorist attack on police in Omagh on August 15. But officers failed to tell the local commander.
It has also been claimed that MI5, Britain’s internal security service, and Ireland’s Garda special branch, starved police of intelligence from their own operatives that could have prevented the Real IRA launching the attack.
Errors on the day of the bombing also contributed, when telephoned warnings 40 minutes before the 3.10pm explosion were bungled when police inadvertently moved people towards the town centre bomb.
Today Mr Justice Mark Horner said there was a ‘real prospect’ the Real IRA attack in 1998 could have been prevented in a ruling sparked by a human rights complaint made by the father of one of the victims. No one has ever been convicted for the atrocity.
A high court judge has ruled that the 1998 Omagh bombing, which claimed the lives of 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins, could have been prevented
A further 220 people were injured after the bomb ripped through the town centre which was packed with Saturday afternoon shoppers
The bombing claimed the lives of 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins. Among the victims were, from top left, James Barker, Esther Gibson, Sean McGrath, Gareth Conway, Elizabeth Rush, Fred White, Lorraine Wilson; and from bottom left, Veda Short, Alan Radford, Bryan White, Brenda Logue, Deborah Cartwright, Geraldine Breslin and Oran Doherty
Michael Gallagher, pictured right, beside Stanley McCombe, took the judicial review which led to today’s High Court ruling. Mr Gallagher’s son Aiden, 21, was killed in the bombing. Mr McCombe’s wife Ann was also murdered in the attack
The missed chances and security blunders that could have prevented the deaths of 29 Saturday shoppers at Omagh 23 years ago
The same car, now carrying the fake Northern Ireland registration MDZ 5211, is driven into Market Street, Omagh, and parked outside SD Kells clothes shop. Two male occupants are seen walking away in the direction of Campsie Road.
They are not pursued or the car registered checked.
The THREE warning phone calls
At 2.30pm on the day of the bombing a man phones Ulster Television (UTV) newsroom with a bomb warning: ‘There’s a bomb, courthouse, Omagh, main street, 500lb, explosion 30 minutes.’ The caller gives the Real IRA codeword ‘Martha Pope’.
At 2.32pm the Samaritans office in Coleraine is called with another warning. ‘Am I through to Omagh? This is a bomb warning. It’s going to go off in 30 minutes.’ The caller said the bomb was 200 yards from the courthouse. He also gave the codeword ‘Martha Pope’.
At 2.35pm UTV receives another phone warning: ‘Bomb, Omagh town, 15 minutes.’ Two of these warnings were phoned from a call box in Forkhill, south Armagh. The third was made from a phone box in Newtownhamilton, also in south Armagh.
UTV and the Samaritans both place emergency calls to the Royal Ulster Constabulary control centre. The message is immediately passed to officers in Omagh and an evacuation operation commences. But a threat warning was not sent to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh. An RUC review concluded in 2000 that the information should have been passed to the commander.
There was no street named Main Street in Omagh. The only target specified was the courthouse, which was at the top of High Street at the west end of the town. The car had actually been parked at the east end of the town, on Market Street, more than 500 yards from the court.
Police cordon off High Street and move shoppers and shop owners down to Market Street before commencing a search round the courthouse.As a result all the people who had been in Omagh town centre when the warning came through had now assembled in Market Street, yards from the red Cavalier.
Twenty-one people are killed instantly – some of their bodies were never found, such was the force of the blast. A water main under the road ruptures. Gallons of water gushes out. Some of the dead and badly injured are washed down the hill.
Security services kept ‘police in the dark’ while Irish police ‘allowed bombers across the border’
MI5 withheld vital anti-terrorism intelligence just months before the Omagh bomb atrocity, it emerged after the attack.
Although the agency helped thwart an attack planned on the Co Tyrone town or Londonderry at the time of the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it kept police in Northern Ireland in the dark about the bomb plot, according to authoritative security sources in the years following.
Even after the outrage which killed 29 people, MI5 failed to inform Special Branch of the threat, and details have only just emerged as part of an investigation into an FBI agent who infiltrated the Real IRA, the dissident republican group, which carried out the attack.
A secret transcript that emerged in 2003 allegedly exposed how high-ranking Garda detectives were alerted to a bomb attack in Northern Ireland just 24 hours before the atrocity but decided to let the bombers across the border.
A master car thief who infiltrated the Real IRA, the dissident republican terrorist outfit behind the attack which killed 29 people, said the force wanted to protect him as an agent.
The man, who has since fled Ireland, is said to have warned the Irish state: ‘Omagh is going to blow up in their faces.’
The attack, which took place on August 15, 1998, claimed the lives of 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins. A further 220 people were injured in the bombing which was claimed by the dissident Real IRA.
The outrage was the worst single atrocity in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Eight years ago, Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed in the blast, launched the judicial review against the UK Government’s refusal to order a public inquiry into security failings prior to the bombing.
Mr Justice Horner told Belfast High Court today: ‘I am satisfied that certain grounds when considered separately or together give rise to plausible allegations that there was a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing.
‘These grounds involve, inter alia, the consideration of terrorist activity on both sides of the border by prominent dissident terrorist republicans leading up to the Omagh bomb.
‘I am therefore satisfied that the threshold under Article 2 ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) to require the investigation of those allegations has been reached.’
Judge Horner said he was not going to order that the probe take the form of a public inquiry, explaining that he did not want to be ‘prescriptive’.
He also said he did not have the powers to order the authorities in the Irish Republic to act, but he expressed hope the Irish Government would take a decision to order one.
‘I am not going to order a public inquiry to look at the arguable grounds of preventability. I do not intend to be prescriptive. However, it is for the government(s) to hold an investigation that is Article 2 compliant and which can receive both open and closed materials.’
The judge added: ‘It is not within my power to order any type of investigation to take place in the Republic of Ireland but there is a real advantage in an Article 2 compliant investigation proceeding in the Republic of Ireland simultaneously with one in Northern Ireland.
‘Any investigation will have to look specifically at the issue of whether a more proactive campaign of disruption, especially if co-ordinated north and south of the border, had a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing, and whether, without the benefit of hindsight, the potential advantages of taking a much more aggressive approach towards the suspected terrorists outweighed the potential disadvantages inherent in such an approach.’
In a brief hearing, Mr Justice Horner only read the conclusion of his judgment to Belfast High Court on Friday.
He explained he was unable to read the full open judgment setting out his reasoning because the person whose job it was to check the document to ensure it did not contain sensitive material was self-isolating with Covid-19.
Michael Gallagher, who took the judicial review case, described the ruling as ‘absolutely amazing’.
Mr Gallagher launched his action against former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers after she declined to order a public inquiry.
Ms Villiers argued a probe by former police ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire was the best way to address any outstanding issues.
In the legal case, Mr Gallagher claimed that intelligence from British security agents and Royal Ulster Constabulary officers could have been drawn together to prevent the dissident republican bombing.
The force’s Special Branch, which handled intelligence from agents, took limited action on the information and a threat warning was not sent to the sub-divisional commander in Omagh, an investigation by former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan found.
An RUC review concluded in 2000 that the information should have been passed to the commander.
According to Mr Gallagher: ‘The important thing is that a senior High Court judge looked at the issues that we raised and agreed that there needs to be more done, there needs to be Article Two compliant investigation.
‘So, we feel vindicated, this has been a great day for the families.
‘We just hope that both the British and Irish governments, as the judge has recommended, will look at these issues and move them forward very quickly.
‘We just want closure, we’re not opposed to any government, we’re not terrorists. We just want real answers.
‘We want a public inquiry to determine whether that terrible event could have been prevented and, more importantly, learn the conclusions and put them into action so that other people who are faced with the same that they will have a better chance of surviving.’
The dissident Real IRA claimed responsibility for the attack which claimed the lives of 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins
Michael Gallagher, pictured, from County Donegal, took a judicial review over the British Government’s failure to launch an investigation into the bombing and the failures of the security service in preventing the attack. Mr Gallagher’s son Aiden was one of those killed in the attack. He launched his legal bid after the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers refused to hold a public inquiry
Builder Seamus Daly, pictured, was accused of the 1998 attack. A case against him collapsed after all the charges were withdrawn
Timeline: The aftermath of the 1998 Omagh bombing – the worst atrocity of The Troubles
In September, a month after the bombing, the RUC and Garda arrest 12 men in connection with the atrocity. They subsequently release all of them without charge.
Seven men are arrested in a joint RUC-Garda operation.
Colm Murphy is charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion likely to endanger life or cause injury. The then 48-year-old, from Ravensdale, Co Louth, is also charged with membership of an unlawful organisation – the so-called Real IRA.
At the inquest into the deaths of the 29 victims, coroner John Leckey says he will press the courts to prosecute the bombers with the destruction of unborn twins. Avril Monaghan had been pregnant with twins when she was killed. Mr Leckey says he is in no doubt that 31 people were killed in the bomb and that he will write to the Director of Public Prosecutions to ask him to consider charging anyone apprehended for the bombing with child destruction.
A report by the Police Ombudsman finds the RUC Special Branch failed to act on prior warnings and condemned the RUC’s investigation of the bombing.
Colm Murphy is found guilty by the Dublin Special Criminal Court of conspiracy to cause the Omagh bombing. He is jailed for 14 years.
Alleged Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt, from Blackrock Co Louth, is found guilty of directing terrorism and membership of an illegal organisation at Dublin’s Special Criminal Court. He is sentenced to 20 years.
Sean Hoey, of Molly Road, Jonesborough, Co Armagh, is charged with the murder of the 29 people killed in the Omagh bomb. He is the first person to face a murder charge in relation to the attack.
Murphy’s conviction in the Irish courts is overturned and a new trial ordered.
Hoey is found not guilty at Belfast Crown Court of 58 charges, including the murders of 29 people in the Omagh bombing. Clearing Hoey, the judge criticises police witnesses for ‘deliberate and calculated deception’ during the lengthy trial.
The families of some of the victims of the bomb begin a landmark civil case, suing five men they claim were involved.
A memorial garden is opened in Omagh to remember the victims of the blast, as well as a monument on the site where the bomb exploded.
The judge in the civil trial rules McKevitt, Murphy and two others – Liam Campbell, from Dundalk, and Seamus Daly, from Monaghan – were all liable for the Omagh bomb. He orders them to pay a total of £1.6 million damages to 12 relatives who took the case. A fifth man, Seamus McKenna from Dundalk, is cleared of liability for the bombing.
Murphy is cleared following a retrial after interview evidence from the Garda is ruled inadmissible.
McKevitt and Campbell lose their appeal against the civil trial verdict. Murphy and Daly both win their appeals.
Murphy and Daly are both found liable for the Omagh bombing after a civil retrial.
McKenna dies after falling off a roof in Dundalk.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers rules out a public inquiry, insisting a fresh investigation is unlikely to reveal anything more about the attack.
Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden died in the bombing, takes legal action against Ms Villiers’s decision.
Daly is charged with the murders of 29 people in the Omagh bombing.
The prosecution case against Daly collapses. The Public Prosecution Service decides there is no reasonable prospect of conviction after a key witness contradicted his own previous testimony.
A bid by Campbell and McKevitt to overturn the civil ruling that found them liable for the Omagh bomb is rejected by the European Court of Human Rights.
Relatives of Omagh bomb victims sue PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton for investigative failings they believe let the killers escape justice. The bereaved families issued a writ against the chief constable seeking damages and a declaration their human rights have been breached
Ruling in Mr Gallagher’s judicial review, a judge recommends the UK Government carries out an investigation into the Omagh bombing, and urges the Irish Government to do likewise, after finding ‘plausible arguments’ that there was a ‘real prospect’ of preventing the atrocity.
Responding to the judgment, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said: ‘The Omagh bombing was a terrible atrocity that caused untold damage to the families of the 29 people who were tragically killed and the 220 who were injured. The reverberations of that awful event were felt not just in Northern Ireland, but across the world.
‘I want to put on record my deep regret that the families of those killed and wounded have had to wait so long to find out what happened on that terrible day in 1998. They deserve answers and I have great respect for their patience, grace and determination.
‘We recognise that today the court has set out that there are ‘plausible allegations that there was a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing’ and that more should be done to investigate this.
‘The UK Government will take time to consider the judge’s statement and all its recommendations carefully as we wait for the full judgment to be published.’
Nobody has ever been convicted in a criminal court for the 1998 terrorist attack, but a landmark civil case taken by 12 relatives of the victims found four men, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly, liable for the bombing.
A judge in 2009 ruled the four men should pay the relatives a total of £1.6 million in damages.
A fifth man, Seamus McKenna was cleared of liability for the bombing.
McKevitt, who died in January, denied involvement in the bombing.
He was jailed for 20 years having been found guilty of directing terrorism and membership of an illegal organisation.
He was released from jail in 2016.
McKevitt, who was one of four men found liable for the Omagh bomb, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a number of years ago.
He was released from prison in 2016 after serving a 20-year sentence for directing terrorism and membership of an illegal organisation.
The UK Government will take time to consider a High Court judge’s ruling that there should be a new investigation into the Omagh bombing, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said.
Brandon Lewis said that the Omagh families ‘deserve answers’ but did not immediately commit to any new probe.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the Irish Government would do what is ‘necessary’ following the long-awaited ruling.
Mr Justice Horner called for fresh investigations on both sides of the Irish border into the 1998 Real IRA atrocity which killed 29 people, including a mother pregnant with twins.
Ruling in a judicial review brought over the UK Government’s refusal to establish a public inquiry, the judge also said it was plausible that there was a real prospect the bombing could have been prevented by the security services
Mr Lewis said: ‘The Omagh bombing was a terrible atrocity that caused untold damage to the families of the 29 people who were tragically killed and the 220 who were injured. The reverberations of that awful event were felt not just in Northern Ireland, but across the world.
‘I want to put on record my deep regret that the families of those killed and wounded have had to wait so long to find out what happened on that terrible day in 1998.
‘They deserve answers and I have great respect for their patience, grace and determination.’
He added: ‘We recognise that today the court has set out that there are ‘plausible allegations that there was a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing’ and that more should be done to investigate this.
‘The UK Government will take time to consider the judge’s statement and all its recommendations carefully as we wait for the full judgment to be published.’
Mr Martin said the Irish Government had an ‘open book’ policy in terms of providing information.
He added: ‘We will analyse that judgment and we will do what is necessary in terms of the citizens on the island of Ireland.
‘I always stand ready to have an open book in terms of any atrocity that was committed which had a cross-border dimension to it in terms of following through in any way we can through the provision of information or indeed to vindicating the rights of people and citizens.
‘So, a very open book in terms of how we proceed with this now but we’ve got to examine the options that are available to us in respect of the conclusions of the judge.’
Mr Martin continued: ‘That was the single worst atrocity that occurred – it was appalling and the responsibility is on those who committed that foul act.
‘So many, many people lost their lives. That said, there’s an obligation on governments to examine what could have been done, if anything could have been done to prevent the atrocity with a view to informing future practice.
‘But I’m in no doubt that evil people did that, it was just absolutely reckless and appalling and gave such heartache and broke so many families – a needless loss of life when we were on well on our way to a peace process and we should never lose sight of those who are ultimately responsible in the first instance.
‘It’s those who perpetrated the crime itself, who thought up the idea, who planted the bomb and left such devastation behind them, we can never lose sight of that, they’re fundamentally guilty in terms of murdering so many people.
‘But the state must always self-reflect in terms of how it acts to protect its citizens.’
Mr Martin highlighted that the Irish Government had previously fulfilled its obligations in respect of investigating crimes with a cross-border dimension when it set up the Smithwick Tribunal to probe allegations of Garda collusion in the IRA killings of two senior RUC officers during the Troubles.
‘We will do so again in respect of any further investigations that we support and cooperate with,’ he said.
‘But I think we have to take one step at a time, we have to analyse what the implications of this are’.
Mr Gallagher, pictured today, welcomed today’s ruling. He said: ‘We want a public inquiry to determine whether that terrible event could have been prevented and, more importantly, learn the conclusions and put them into action so that other people who are faced with the same that they will have a better chance of surviving’