Rebecca Black, Richard Wheeler, Martina Bet and David Young (PA)
Families of Omagh bomb victims have welcomed the ordering of an independent inquiry into the atrocity.
Twenty-nine people, including a woman pregnant with twins, were killed when a dissident republican car bomb ripped through Omagh town centre on August 15 1998.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told the Commons on Thursday he is establishing the inquiry in response to a court judgment that directed the Government to carry out some form of investigation into alleged security failings.
The blast, which occurred months after the signing of Northern Ireland’s historic Good Friday peace agreement, inflicted the highest death toll of any incident during the region’s conflict.
In 2021, a High Court judge in Belfast recommended that the UK Government should carry out a human rights-compliant investigation into alleged security failures in the lead-up to the attack.
Mr Justice Horner found that it was potentially plausible the bombing could have been prevented.
Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden died in the Real IRA bombing, took the legal challenge that resulted in the judge directing the state to act.
“The Secretary of State has given us everything that we have asked for, and we’re very appreciative of that,” he said.
“It’s still sinking in, to be honest, I think it’s going to be a long time to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to hopefully get the answers that we need and we can move on.”
Mr Gallagher said the probe announced did amount to a public inquiry.
“My understanding is that it is a public inquiry, it’s a judicial inquiry with powers of investigation and that’s exactly what we wanted,” he said.
“This is not a case of deflecting the blame from those who are responsible – that was the criminal terrorists who planned, prepared and delivered this bomb into Omagh. What we’re looking at is the failings of the people that are there to protect us.”
He said reliving the events of Omagh through the inquiry would be “difficult” and “painful” for the families, but added: “If we don’t have this process, for the rest of our lives we’re going to be wondering ‘what if’.”
Mr Heaton-Harris explained that he had listened to representations of those families affected by the atrocity alongside other factors, including its independence, cost to public purse and how best to “allay wider public concern”.
The Northern Ireland Secretary told MPs: “I intend to establish an independent statutory inquiry into the Omagh bombing.
“The inquiry will focus specifically on the four grounds which the court held as giving rise to plausible arguments that the bombing could have been prevented.
“The inquiry will also need to take account of the findings of previous investigations to avoid duplication.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said he accepted the move represented a “significant” decision.
In his court judgment, Justice Horner directed that a fresh investigation should examine the failure to act on an informer tip-off or use intelligence and surveillance evidence about previous terror attacks.
The judge said a new investigation should also examine whether a politically motivated “de-escalation” of the security approach to dissident republicans in the months before the 1998 attack resulted in crucial intelligence not being acted upon.
While having no jurisdiction to order the Irish government to act on the matter, the judge also urged authorities there to establish their own probe in light of his findings.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar said his government would not be found wanting when it came to examining what happened at Omagh.
“We’re going to sit down with the UK authorities and work out how we can contribute to that,” he said.
“We certainly won’t be found wanting in terms of making sure that any aspect of this that happened in our jurisdiction, on our side of the border, is fully investigated as well.”
Irish Justice Minister Simon Harris added: “What happened at Omagh was an unspeakable and brutal act of cruelty.
“The terrorists who carried it out had simply no sense of humanity and they displayed a complete and shocking disregard for life itself.
“It is they who carry responsibility for this brutal act.
“I will be discussing today’s announcement with my Government colleagues and we will, of course, consider what further action is required on our part in response to the UK Government’s decision to establish an inquiry.
“I look forward to receiving further detail on the proposed UK inquiry as it becomes available.”
Mr Heaton-Harris told MPs that the UK Government could not compel the Irish government to open an investigation.
But he added: “We are talking to each other on a whole range of different issues in a much more constructive way than we have done for a decent while, and I know we will have – actually some of the discussions on things like this can be quite tough on both sides – but they are being done in a respectful way and I know that both sides are wanting to do the best by all the people that we represent.”
The UK Labour Party welcomed the Government decision to open the inquiry, and said the Republic of Ireland had “a moral obligation to start their own investigation”.
But shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle added that the move clashed “with the Government’s overall approach to legacy issues” as set out in the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.
The Bill proposes a form of immunity for those accused of Troubles crimes as long as they co-operate with a new truth recovery body. The draft laws, if enacted, would also end further civil cases and inquests related to the Troubles.
Mr Kyle said: “The Secretary of State has put Omagh families at the heart of today’s decision. I’m worried that other victims of atrocities during the Troubles will be watching and wondering why their loved ones are not being treated in a similar way?”
Mr Heaton-Harris responded: “I actually do believe that we are being consistent. What has happened is that for hundreds, if not thousands of families, 25 years since the Troubles ceased and the Belfast Good Friday Agreement came into effect, there has been no justice and no information about what happened to their loved ones in that period of time.
“Investigations might have come and gone, but to no result for those families.
“And what the Legacy Bill hopes to do – and as he knows I am trying to improve the Bill as much as possible – to try and make sure that we get the Legacy Bill into exactly the right place so it can give those families, if at all possible, at least some information about what happened to their loved ones at this time.”
Omagh bomb campaigner Michael Gallagher speaks to the media at the Silver Birch Hotel in Omagh, Co Tyrone (Photo by PA)