Northern Ireland

John Manley: Past experience teaches us not to set our expectations too high for Omagh bomb inquiry

The aftermath of the Omagh bomb
The aftermath of the Omagh bomb

IN some regards the Omagh bomb acted as a bookend for the Troubles. Coming a matter of months after the signing of Good Friday Agreement, an accord that was meant to draw a line under almost three decades of conflict, it set new standards in terms of carnage and revulsion.

The atrocity has been scrutinised many times since, including the original inquest, investigations by the RUC, the PSNI, and the Police Ombudsman, as well as a review at the request of the then prime minister Gordon Brown, by Intelligence Services Commissioner Sir Peter Gibson.

A civil action brought by some of the victims' families identified those believed to be the main culprits, however, in terms of justice being administered, the outcome has been far from successful.

Despite this, society and many of the families who lost loved ones on August 15, 1998 have managed to move on but lingering suspicions persist that the 29 deaths could have been avoided.

The statutory inquiry announced by Chris Heaton-Harris is due largely to the dogged persistence of Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son Aiden in the Real IRA attack.

He has led a legal battle lasting nearly eight years, challenging a 2013 decision by the Northern Ireland Office to block an inquiry.

In October 2021, the High Court ruled that there were legitimate concerns over previous probes into alleged security failings in the lead up to the bombing and recommended a “human rights-compliant” investigation.

This inquiry, which could take at least two years to conduct, will fulfil the British government’s procedural duty under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, protecting the right to life.

The terms of reference have yet to be set and will be finalised once a chairman, expected to be a senior judge, is appointed.

On paper, the inquiry looks comprehensive, examining the four issues identified by the High Court, including the handling and sharing of intelligence; the use of mobile phone analysis; whether there was advance knowledge of the bomb; and whether disruption operations could have been mounted to prevent the blast.

It will compel the production of all relevant materials and witnesses, who will be questioned under oath.

Yet due to security sensitivities, parts of the probe will take place 'in camera', away from the public gaze.

While the state forces will seek to justify this secrecy, it can only serve to undermine the credibility and transparency of the process.

Another elephant in the room is the potential role of the Dublin government in examining what was after all a cross-border enterprise, where failings in the Republic's security apparatus were also identified. Previously, Mr Gallagher has accused the southern authorities of “running away from their responsibilities”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and Justice Minister Simon Harris have signalled that they will wait until details of the inquiry emerge before announcing the next steps.

When an announcement such as this receives such a broad welcome, it makes the more cynical observer suspicious.

It's obvious the British government's hand was forced on this matter, and perhaps in common with their counterparts in the Republic, some senior members of the police, security services, and government, are feeling a little unnerved.

The proof of this costly and lengthy endeavour will be in its ultimate findings and the consequences that follow but past experience has taught us not to set our expectations too high.