4 found liable in N. Ireland's Omagh bombing

Families gain closure for '98 terrorist attack

By Alan Erwin
Associated Press / June 9, 2009
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BELFAST - Four members of an Irish Republican Army splinter group were found responsible yesterday for the worst terrorist attack in Northern Ireland after a landmark civil case brought by the families of the 29 people killed in the Omagh bombing.

The court's determination that the men and the Real IRA organization to which they belonged were responsible for the 1998 car bombing brings a measure of closure to the families, who have suffered for years as United Kingdom and Irish authorities tried - and failed - to secure convictions against those suspected of being behind the attack.

The verdict was like "a line drawn in the sand," said Michael Gallagher, whose son died in the bombing. He called the judgment a "tremendous moral victory for the families."

It was also a vindication of the families' novel legal strategy. Inspired in part by the successful US civil action against former American football star O.J. Simpson, which found him responsible for the 1994 killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, they sought to attack the Real IRA in a civil suit - which in the United Kingdom has a lower threshold of proof than criminal cases.

Belfast High Court Justice Declan Morgan found for the families, declaring that Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt was liable for the bombing - along with Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, Seamus Daly, and the Real IRA itself.

A fifth man, Seamus McKenna, was cleared of involvement in the bombing. The case against him had been based on evidence from his estranged wife, who the judge considered an unreliable witness.

McKevitt is imprisoned, but he is appealing his 2003 conviction for "directing terrorism," a charge created by the Irish government in direct response to the Omagh carnage.

Murphy is awaiting retrial after having his original conviction for aiding the Omagh attack quashed in an appeal.

Campbell is in custody in Northern Ireland fighting extradition to Lithuania, where he is accused of being involved in an arms smuggling plot.

Daly is free after serving a brief sentence for dissident IRA activity.

Morgan ordered the four men to pay $2.5 million in damages to 12 named relatives who filed the suit.

While the financial penalty imposed by Morgan was small compared to the multimillion dollar payouts regularly awarded in the United States - Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages in 1996, for example - attorney Georgina Squire told the BBC it was "pretty high by British standards."

One of the family's lawyers told reporters outside the court he would fight to claw the money from Real IRA assets frozen around the world, including Ireland and the United States.

Jason McCue also said the decision could clear the way for the British families of those killed or injured in the July 7, 2005 London suicide bombings to sue for damages.

"7/7 (victims) want to do an action," McCue said. "They are going to do it now. They are definitely going to because they've seen the consequences."

While the four perpetrators died in the bombings, British authorities suspect many more were involved in planning the attacks, which claimed 52 lives. But they have struggled to secure convictions.

In April, a jury acquitted three men charged in the bombings of the most serious accusations leveled against them.

The Omagh case has been years in the planning, and the yearlong trial cost an estimated $3.2 million - which was partially funded through efforts by the Daily Mail newspaper and former US President Bill Clinton, among others.

It followed several unsuccessful attempts to bring justice to those suspected of being responsible for the bombing.

A Northern Ireland electrician, Sean Hoey, was acquitted in December 2007 on charges that he built the bomb after a Belfast judge denounced the forensic evidence against him as shoddy.