(CN) — The British government has announced a wide-ranging inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Omagh car bombing in Northern Ireland, almost 25 years after an explosion on a busy shopping street claimed the lives of 29 people and left hundreds more with injuries.
The announcement, made on Thursday by Northern Ireland minister Chris Heaton-Harris, has been welcomed by relatives of the bombing victims, who have long campaigned for a full inquiry into the role of the authorities in the atrocity. Speaking to the BBC on Friday, Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden died in the bombing, hailed the news as “fantastic,” adding that it “was something that I would never hear.”
The bombing, which occurred just months after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, was the most deadly attack during the decadeslong conflict between Northern Ireland’s nationalist and republican communities, known as The Troubles. It was carried out by dissident republican paramilitary group the Real IRA, and led to shock and outrage across the territory's sectarian divide.
The authorities in Northern Ireland, along with the British and Irish security services, have long been hampered by allegations that the attack was wholly preventable, and that critical mistakes and failures contributed to the deadly outcome.
In 2021, Northern Ireland’s high court ruled that both the British and Irish governments should conduct thorough investigations of their role in the attack. The court found that both could plausibly be in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that governments must conduct “a proper and effective investigation which is both impartial and independent” into any deaths in which the state could be complicit.
The ruling followed years of incomplete investigations into the attack, the results of which have either been disputed or labeled as unsatisfactory by victims' groups. The British government previously rejected calls for an inquiry in 2013. Colm Murphy, the only person ever convicted in relation to the bombing, successfully appealed his conviction in a 2011 retrial.
On Thursday, Heaton-Harris pledged to focus the investigation on the facts that remain disputed or unresolved, telling Parliament that the inquiry “will provide a middle ground whereby answers are sought for those who want them, without reopening avenues which have already been investigated to satisfaction.”
The authorities are subject to two claims of having failed to prevent some or all of the deaths at Omagh. The first key allegation is that the security services did not act on information about the bombing which they were in possession of for days prior.
Unresolved allegations include the claim that a double agent working for MI5, the British security service, had informed his handlers that the Real IRA were planning to detonate a large car bomb in Omagh in the days leading up to the attack. In addition, it has been alleged that British intelligence agency GCHQ had a listening device inside the vehicle and were monitoring live communications on the day of the bombing.
Similarly, it is alleged that a double agent working for the Gardaí, the Irish police service, stole the car in which the bomb was planted, and further that Irish police knowingly allowed the vehicle to pass over the border into Northern Ireland so as not to raise suspicion over the identity of their informer.
Previous investigations have concluded that critical information obtained by security services was not passed onto the Royal Ulster Constabulary – Northern Ireland’s police force at the time of the attack – and that local authorities on the ground had been “starved of information.”
The second key allegation is that the response to a Real IRA warning about the bomb was bungled, leading to a greater loss of life. At the time the dissident group claimed they had been targeting commercial property, rather than civilians, and had warned police about the bomb 40 minutes prior to the explosion.
However, the stated location of the car was unclear in warnings and misunderstood by police, who ended up moving some civilians closer to the bomb, rather than away from it. A 2001 report accused Northern Ireland’s police of “defective leadership, poor judgement and a lack of urgency” in their response to information received.
The new inquiry will focus on whether any of the prior information given to authorities could have prevented the bombing from taking place entirely, or at least limited the loss of life.
The fresh British inquiry into the bombing is in stark contrast to the U.K. government’s controversial approach towards other atrocities committed during The Troubles. The government is in the process of legislating for an amnesty for perpetrators of pre-1998 killings, on the grounds of reconciliation. The legislation will limit criminal investigations into deadly atrocities, and provide immunity from prosecution for those who come forward with information relating to more than 1,000 unsolved deaths.
The so-called "legacy killings" bill is at an advanced stage in the British Parliament, but has been opposed by representatives of both communities in Northern Ireland, who argue it will deny justice to the families of victims. The failure to receive consent within Northern Ireland for the bill has raised questions over its viability, and forced the government to make a number of concessions. However, the central principle of amnesty remains in the bill, and continues to garner fierce opposition.
For the families of Omagh victims, however, it seems that at least some progress on their long journey towards justice is being made.
“The horrifying attack on this community was designed to destroy the town and divide our people – those behind it have failed,” Omagh legislative representative Daniel McCrossan said in a statement on Friday. “The incredible fortitude of the people of Omagh has been inspiring. They should never have had to fight so hard or for so long for a proper inquiry to determine the truth about what happened that day. I am delighted for the families that they now have a path to the truth which is what so many of them have been campaigning for.”
For Aiden’s father, the inquiry provides the possibility of closure. “If we don’t have this process, for the rest of our lives we’re going to be wondering ‘what if,’” Gallagher told reporters.
“We’re going to hopefully get the answers that we need and we can move on,” he added.
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