Amid the unfathomable grief unleashed by the Omagh bomb – the single worst atrocity of the Troubles – the bereaved and injured found purpose, even comfort, in a joint enterprise: a search for truth and justice.
Twenty-nine people died and hundreds were wounded when the Real IRA detonated a car bomb in the County Tyrone market town on 15 August 1998, four months after the Good Friday agreement supposedly drew a line under Northern Ireland’s conflict.
Protestant or Catholic, it did not matter – survivors and relatives of the dead all wanted to know how it happened and see the murderers jailed.
So began a legal odyssey of inquests, investigations, rulings and appeals, a two-decade judicial marathon that showed relatives’ dignity and determination.
But along the way solidarity cracked. Personality clashes and differences over tactics frayed the shared sense of loss. Truth and justice, once so simple and clear, took different forms.
“At the beginning you felt you were with those who understood you. We were bonded by grief,” said Claire Monteith, 38, who lost her brother Alan in the bombing. “Now it’s completely fractured. It’s sad.”
The latest landmark – and source of division – came last week when a Belfast high court judge said security forces had a “real prospect” of preventing the atrocity. Those who brought the case felt vindicated and hope it will lead to a public inquiry to investigate the actions of Irish and British security forces before and after the bombing.
“An inquiry would be difficult and embarrassing for both governments but how does that compare to what we have gone through? The goal would be to understand what went wrong and learn lessons to mitigate any future tragedy,” said Michael Gallagher, a leading campaigner whose son Aiden was among the dead.
And Stanley McCombe said: “It’s fantastic news, it’s what we’ve been fighting for for 23 years. My wife was murdered in Omagh. I can’t live without knowing what happened.”
However, others are ambivalent or opposed to a public inquiry. They worry that scrutiny on the police and intelligence services – who infiltrated the Real IRA and had warning of an attack – would deflect blame from the bombers. Or that an inquiry would suck up resources better spent on financial assistance for the injured.
This month’s anniversary will bring relatives to the memorial on Market Street that marks the spot of the car bomb, but even here there is friction.
Kevin Skelton, whose wife, Philomena, was killed, felt the plaque’s reference to an “act of terror” was too vague so two years ago without authorisation he glued his own plaque that specifies a “dissident republican terrorist car bomb”. Some approve, others do not. The council has not removed it.
Skelton is also critical about the memorial’s design, saying a mirror that is supposed to reflect sunlight does not work even in sunshine.
After chafing at the direction of a victims’ group, Skelton formed his own, Families Moving On, which has an office in the town centre. It focuses on compensation for the injured rather than pressing authorities for information about the attack. “To say it could have been prevented won’t bring anybody back. There’s no point to it,” he said.
Nor is there any point pursuing Real IRA members through the courts, he said. “The chance of anyone being convicted is out the window. Some families don’t want to hear that but it’s true. Providing services for the injures should be the priority.”
Time has healed some wounds from that awful day of screams and flying glass.
The nascent Good Friday agreement survived the massacre, paving the way for power sharing between unionists and nationalists. Remnants of the Real IRA and other splinter republican groups limp on with negligible support. Omagh is once again a bustling, attractive market town, a place rather than an event.
But the crime is unsolved. No one has been convicted, a painful lacuna, said Stephen Donnelly, an Alliance party councillor. “The atrocity still hangs like a shadow over the town.”
In 2001 Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman criticised the police investigation as seriously flawed. In 2002 a Dublin court convicted a dissident republican, Colm Murphy, of plotting the bombing, only for the conviction to be later quashed. In 2003 Michael McKevitt, a Real IRA leader, was found guilty of directing terrorism but not charged with Omagh. In 2005 Sean Hoey was found not guilty of the 29 murders, with the judge accusing police witnesses of deception.
In 2009 some victims’ relatives won a civil case: McKevitt, Murphy and two other men, Liam Campbell and Seamus Daly, were found liable for the bomb and ordered to pay £1.6m in damages. It was a landmark judgment but the four suspects remained free and did not pay a penny. McKevitt died of cancer earlier this year. “They’re left to live out their lives and we’re left here with confusion and pain,” said Monteith.
When the British government refused a public inquiry some relatives brought a judicial review that led to last week’s court ruling that the bombing could have been prevented. The judge stopped short of ordering a public inquiry but urged the British and Irish governments to undertake human rights-compliant investigations.
John Fox, a solicitor who represented the families, said he expected the UK government to respond after the full judgment is given, possibly in September. Only a full public inquiry, like that for the Manchester Arena bombing, can provide answers, he said.
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister, said in an interview she favoured a public inquiry. “This family group has had to fight tooth and nail to expose every piece of information. They deserve to have the answers.”
The UK government’s plan to end Troubles-era prosecutions may exclude Omagh, since it happened after the Good Friday agreement, but such a proposal was unacceptable, said O’Neill. “If Boris Johnson thinks people here will accept this he’s off the mark.”
In another twist this week Irish judges ordered that Campbell, one of the four men found civilly liable, be extradited to Lithuania, where he is accused of smuggling weapons for the Real IRA in 2006 and 2007.
After two decades of legal actions and political twists the Omagh families remain in limbo, no longer a united front yet forever threaded by grief.
“I’m lost without him,” said Monteith, who was 15 when her brother Alan, 16, died. “My heartbreak is that I’ve lived longer without him than with him. He was my all. There were so many moments when I needed him.”
Skelton, a former truck driver, remembers the click, click, click of his wife’s knitting. “Even when reading a book she’d be knitting. She could knit a jumper in two days.”
Gallagher grieves not only for his son Aiden but for a brother, Hugh, a soldier killed by the IRA in 1985. “They didn’t just destroy Hugh’s life, they destroyed his family’s life. It’s another pain that we have to endure.”