Omagh. Time for truth.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about Omagh?
I do. My future wife and I were down South on holiday. When the news came on the car radio – and with every bulletin, it became worse – we could hardly believe our ears. Hadn’t we just voted for peace and a new start in Northern Ireland a few short months before?
3.10 p.m this afternoon marks the exact moment fifteen years ago when a car bomb exploded in Market Street, Omagh killing 29 people, one pregnant with twins. It remains the largest loss of life of any single incident in the recent history of Northern Ireland political violence.
For countless families in and around Omagh and as far away as Spain, life had just changed utterly.
The UK government promised that “no stone would be left unturned in the investigation” and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam assured the families “you will want for nothing”.
Yet, fifteen years on, the families still await the truth of what happened that day. They still await justice too.
At one level, we already know what happened. Militant republicans planted a bomb – the latest in a long line of such town centre car bombs – which claimed a terrible toll in lives and injuries.
Indeed, one can say that at least some of those responsible for the Omagh bomb attack are also known; they have even been found liable in civil law thanks to the tenacity of the families. But, the criminal justice systems of two countries have failed to establish criminal responsibility.
Despite criminal investigations, a civil case, a Police Ombudsman investigation, and other reviews in the UK and Ireland – including one conducted by the UK’s former Intelligence Services Commissioner, the full contents of which have not been made public nor even made avilable to the NI Affairs Committee – serious questions remain outstanding about alleged state failures in the lead up to and the aftermath of the Omagh bomb. In particular, there are unanswered questions concerning the gathering and sharing of intelligence material both between domestic agencies (for example between the RUC and MI5) and international agencies (for example between UK authorities, Ireland’s Garda Síochána, and the United States’ FBI).
This day last week I was honoured to join many of the bereaved families in Omagh in representing Amnesty International as we backed their call for an independent public inquiry into the circumstances leading to the bomb and the investigative failures that followed. That call is supported by the evidence contained in a report which the Omagh families themselves commissioned and handed over to the governments – so far without response.
As Sir Ivor Roberts, former Ambassador to Ireland put it this week in the Irish Times: “Faced with a lack of meaningful response from the governments to the report, the families’ demand for a public inquiry (backed by Amnesty International) is eminently reasonable.”
The dignity and determination of the families to find the truth has not diminished, but has grown in the face of their loss over the last fifteen years.
If the Prime Minister and Secretary of State want to pay more than lip service to that grief, then they must now deliver the inquiry being urged by the families.
Surely Teresa Villiers and David Cameron don’t want to wait until they face the embarrassment of the bereaved families bringing them to court?
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.