SECRETARY of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris has announced that an independent statutory inquiry will be established into the Omagh bombing.
Mr Heaton-Harris said this afternoon that the inquiry will be established to examine “the preventability” of the bombing which killed 29 people – including a woman pregnant with twins - in August 1998.
The deaths were caused by a car bomb which detonated on Market Street in the Co. Tyrone town of Omagh at 3.10pm on Saturday, August 15, 1998.
The bombing came just four months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and left more than 200 people injured.
The Real IRA attack is deemed the single deadliest atrocity in the history of the Troubles and was condemned around the world at the time, including by Sinn Féin figures such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
However no one has ever been convicted of involvement in the bombing.
Today’s announcement of an inquiry into the tragedy comes in “response to a High Court judgment that found there were specific issues that gave rise to plausible arguments that the bombing by the Real IRA could have been prevented”, Mr Heaton-Harris’ department stated.
“The Real IRA claimed responsibility for the Omagh Bombing in 1998, and four members of the Real IRA were subsequently found liable for the bombing in civil proceedings held in Northern Ireland,” they add, “this inquiry does nothing to counter these findings, which are clear in who was responsible for this awful atrocity.”
The independent statutory inquiry will instead examine four issues identified by the High Court – namely, the handling and sharing of intelligence, the use of cell phone analysis, whether there was advance knowledge or reasonable means of knowledge of the bomb, and whether disruption operations could or should have been mounted, which may have helped prevent the Real IRA’s attack.
It will also have the full powers provided by the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and witnesses and take evidence under oath, it was confirmed today.
“Limiting the inquiry to the specific findings of the High Court will ensure that the Government can comply with its international obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights,” the Government statement confirmed.
“A final report will be published that will respond to each of the issues identified by the Court,” they added.
Work has already begun to establish the independent statutory inquiry “as soon as possible”, they claim, with the appointment of an inquiry chairperson and the inquiry’s terms of reference both set to be announced in due course.
Mr Heaton-Harris said today: “The Omagh bomb was a horrific terrorist atrocity committed by the Real IRA, which caused untold damage to the families of those who were tragically killed and injured.
“Its impact was felt not just in Northern Ireland, but across the world.
“Having carefully considered the judgment of the High Court, I believe that an independent statutory inquiry is the most appropriate form of further investigation to address the grounds identified by the Court.”
He added: “I would like to thank the victims and survivors and all those affected by the Omagh bomb for their patience whilst I have reflected on the judgment and taken into account a range of sensitive, complex and technical factors.”
SDLP West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan, who has supported the families of the victims of the blast in their ongoing campaign for justice, welcomed today’s inquiry announcement.
“The events of 15th August 1998 left an indelible mark on the people of Omagh whose lives were shattered and unalterably changed by an act of unspeakable evil in this town,” he said. “The horrifying attack on this community was designed to destroy the town and divide our people – those behind it have failed.
“The incredible fortitude of the people of Omagh has been inspiring.
“They should never have had to fight so hard or for so long for a proper inquiry to determine the truth about what happened that day.
“I am delighted for the families that they now have a path to the truth which is what so many of them have been campaigning for.”
He further called for the Irish Government to follow the British Government’s lead on the matter.
“I hope that this announcement will spur similar action from the Irish Government,” he said.
“The High Court judgment in 2021 clearly outlined the need for a cooperative investigation given the cross border nature of this atrocity and I was pleased to receive confirmation from former Taoiseach Micheál Martin that the Irish Government would review its approach to the case late last year.
“The people of Omagh deserve answers and I hope that this announcement brings that closer."