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We have consistently failed the Omagh victims

There will be enormous sympathy for the words of Kevin Skelton yesterday on the 20th anniversary of the Omagh atrocity in which his wife, Philomena, was among the victims.

When asked about the latest dispute over the circumstances surrounding the outrage, Mr Skelton said; `Telling us now that the bomb could have been prevented is a bit late. It should have been prevented at the time. It won't bring my wife back.'

Two key points must always be made from the start in each and every debate about the Omagh catastrophe, in which 29 innocent people, including a woman who was pregnant with twins, were killed.

The first is that the primary responsibility for the explosion lies with the group which carried it out, the Real IRA, and the second is that the performance of the police both before and afterwards was deeply flawed.

Even two decades on, the utter recklessness of the individuals who constructed a massive car bomb, and then telephoned an entirely inadequate warning as they left it on the main street of a busy town on a Saturday afternoon, defies belief.

The role of the RUC, who plainly had detailed advance intelligence about the evil plans of the Real IRA and subsequently failed to bring even a single one of the perpetrators to justice, has also caused enormous concern.

Many of the related facts have been in the public domain since the comprehensive report compiled by the then police ombudsman, Baroness Nuala O'Loan, 17 years ago.

Baroness O'Loan said yesterday she was unable to state with certainty in 2001 that the bomb could have been prevented but it was now her `very firm view' that this was the case.

The PSNI chief constable, George Hamilton, swiftly and directly rejected her claim, saying it would further traumatise the families of the victims.

In many ways, it is a considerable pity that such a sharp exchange took place on the same day as a poignant service of remembrance and hope was staged at the scene of the carnage at Market Street in Omagh.

A range of issues linked to the explosion remain unresolved, and discussions about the way forward will probably continue for many years to come.

Valid arguments for a public inquiry, as proposed by Baroness O'Loan, can be advanced, but the precedents offer no guarantees that the full truth will ever be established.

While the opinions of the grieving relatives must be treated with the utmost seriousness, the reality is that as a society we have consistently failed to come up with a credible wider strategy for dealing with the past.

If and when our politicians return to their duties at Stormont, the legacy question should be at the top of their agenda.

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