Green light for Omagh bombing inquiry is belated win in long campaign for truth

<span>Photograph: Niall Carson/PA</span>
Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

The government’s decision to hold an inquiry into the 1998 Omagh bombing is the result of a long, lonely campaign by some of the injured and bereaved for truth and justice.

Chris Heaton-Harris’s announcement on Thursday about an independent statutory inquiry raises hope for the former, not the latter.

No one has been convicted over the single deadliest atrocity of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. The car bomb in the County Tyrone town killed 29 and injured hundreds. That it happened on 15 August 1998, four months after the euphoria of the Good Friday agreement, made it all the more shocking.

Related: Omagh bombing: independent inquiry announced into 1998 attack

The Real IRA, a dissident republican group, admitted responsibility. But police in Ireland and Northern Ireland struggled to gather enough evidence to convict suspects.

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 2009 some victims’ relatives won a civil case: McKevitt and three other men were found liable for the bomb and ordered to pay £1.6m in damages. It was a symbolic victory because the four suspects remained free and did not pay a penny. McKevitt died of cancer in 2021.

Omagh families waged a separate battle to scrutinise security services’ action – or lack of action – before and after the attack. Eleven days before the bomb the Royal Ulster Constabulary was warned of a planned attack in Omagh on 15 August.

So began a legal odyssey of investigations, rulings and appeals. In 2001 Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman criticised the police investigation as seriously flawed. The Police Service of Northern Ireland – the RUC’s successor – rejected the ombudsman’s key allegations.

In 2013 the then Northern Ireland secretary, Theresa Villiers, rejected growing calls from Omagh families for an inquiry. In 2015 Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was one of those killed, won the right to legally challenge Villiers’ decision.

That led to a 2021 high court ruling by Mr Justice Horner that the British and Irish governments each undertake human rights compliant investigations. It paved the way for Heaton-Harris’s announcement on Thursday and puts pressure on Irish authorities to cooperate with the inquiry.

Gallagher says the goal is not to embarrass the authorities but to understand what went wrong and learn lessons to mitigate any future tragedy. “I thought that it was something that I would never hear. It is a very important step forward,” he told RTÉ.

For campaigners such as Stanley McCombe, who has said he cannot live without knowing the full story behind his wife’s murder, it gives hope.

However, some, such as Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife, told the Guardian in 2021 the focus should be on compensation rather than retrospectively judging security force operations. “To say it could have been prevented won’t bring anybody back. There’s no point.”