The effects of the Omagh ruling stretch far and wide

It’s now very clear that the effects of yesterday’s momentous ruling against Real IRA members stretch far beyond the precincts of the Belfast High Court. The words of Michael Gallagher, the dauntless campaigner whose son Aiden, 21, was one of the Omagh bomb victims, will ring down the years: ‘We have sent out a message to terrorists that from now on you don’t only have to worry about the authorities – the families of your victims will come after you”. The families succeeded with volunteer help where prime ministers were unable to fulfil their promise to pursue the guilty to the ends of the earth – or at least to the Armagh border. That fierce critic of physical force republicanism Ruth Dudley Edwards was present in court for the Daily Mail, which had run a campaign fund supported by among others Peter Mandelson and Lord Salisbury. She wept as she heard Justice Morgan’s finding of “irresistible inference” that the Real IRA named had liability. Carol Coulter of the Irish Times gives an excellent summary of Judge Morgan’s arguments.

Referring to the Real IRA, he pointed out that the time between the issuing of warnings and the explosion of bombs had been reduced following the dismantling of two bombs by the RUC in Lisburn and Armagh earlier in 1998.This was likely to increase the danger to members of the public, and those who were members of the army council of the Real IRA in August 1998 bear responsibility for directing the Omagh bomb and are therefore liable, he said”. The failure of a party to give evidence in relation to matters which are likely to be “within the knowledge of the silent party” could lead a prima facie case to become “a strong or even an overwhelming case”. None of the defendants gave evidence to counter that given against them.
Dudley Edwards gives the background to the civil action: ”Let’s be clear about this. What we have here is a victory for ordinary decent people. When Victor Barker, a Surrey solicitor, originally suggested taking a civil case against the bombers who had set about destroying evidence and intimidating witnesses, lawyers either scoffed or ran away because they were afraid of the terrorists. Yet in September 2000, a reckless young solicitor, Jason McCue, took the risk. He had made his reputation defeating the chief of staff of the IRA, Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, in a libel action Murphy had taken against a newspaper that accused him of being a smuggler and a member of the IRA – and with immense courage he agreed to take on a case without precedence or funding.”

The Indo reports that the families of the Omagh bomb victims will today move to freeze the assets of the four men blamed for the atrocity. . David McKittrick quotes lawyer Jason McCue : “We are going to appeal and this is the sort of case that could get the highest award ever in the UK.” Saying the ruling had set a precedent for other victims of terrorism, he said he was sure those caught up in the July 2005 attacks in London would now seek damages from those who helped plan them: “7/7 want to do an action,” he said. “They are going to do it now. They are definitely going to because they’ve seen the consequences.”. The Times’ Frances Gibb reports that ” a multibillion-pound class action has already been lodged in the name of 143 families over the IRA bombings between 1983 and 1997, including Warrington, Enniskillen, Manchester and Canary Wharf.. The New York Times reports an unexpected link. that the Omagh families were “inspired in part by the successful civil action against O. J. Simpson in the killing of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson.”

John Ware, BBC Panorama’s investigative reporter who confronted suspects and challenged intelligence agencies in fine detail, reveals the considerable assets owned by the liable parties, whether in jail or out. Ware adds: “the question, in light of the civil court judgement, remains – why did the police inquiry fail – despite pledges from ministers and police chiefs that no stone would be left unturned in the hunt or the bombers? . The families still demand an inquiry to uncover why not, among many other questions. This I suspect will not be granted.

Yesterday’s result was a success, if not for cross border policing, then for cross border judicial cooperation. More’s the pity that such co-operation failed to function forty years ago.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London