OMAGH, Northern Ireland, March 15 -- In a last-ditch attempt to hold accountable those responsible for a 1998 car bomb that killed 29 people in Omagh, families of victims are launching a major drive for an O. J. Simpson-type civil action against those believed to have planted it.
The unprecedented development comes just at the point when the United Kingdom government may offer immunity from prosecution to terrorists in return for Irish Republican Army progress on the dismantling of its arsenal of weapons.
Relatives are starting a campaign to raise $1.4 million for the cost of the private prosecution, which will be taken against as many as 15 individuals, allegedly members of the "Real" IRA, a dissident republican group also believed to have been behind a recent bomb attack on London. The organization now poses the greatest threat to the Ulster peace process, but so far seems beyond the jurisdiction of criminal law.
The Omagh atrocity stands as the biggest single massacre of the Northern Ireland troubles. Intensely disturbing eyewitness accounts marked the month-long enquiry into the events of August 15 1998, when the explosion tore apart a town center crammed with shoppers.
The coroner's inquest after the incident had no legal powers to subpoena, name or question suspects, or even to reach a conclusion about the unlawfulness of the deaths. Yet the graphic public testimony was notable for its harrowing and disturbing content, and served to heighten families' feelings of impotence and rage.
The most senior police officer on duty in Omagh, County Tyrone that Saturday, Inspector Joseph Johnston, was unable to give evidence to the inquest. Indeed, he has not been able to work since the day of the blast. Another policeman on duty, Sgt. Martin Millar, told how he found the body of a baby girl, and how the terrorists' phone warning gave misleading information that sent police and the crowds straight into the blast area.
The police investigation has been hampered by insufficient evidence and the silence of those arrested on both sides of the Irish border. Yet police are believed to now know the identities of the entire bombing team. Acting Assistant Chief Constable Eric Anderson told the inquest police had conducted 6,500 interviews, visited 3,500 homes, taken 2,700 statements and had sifted through a ton of rubble.
A total of 81 arrests had been made, 58 by the Gardai in the Irish Republic and 23 by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. However, only one suspect has been charged, Colm Murphy, a publican from the border town of Dundalk. He is on bail awaiting trial on Oct. 9 at Dublin's Special Criminal court.
Eric Anderson, who has led the police investigation, is due to retire from the RUC later this week, and says he will publicly name those suspected.
He has spoken to the families of the victims, and told them he knows who made and planted the bomb. "If I am asked in a civil court to confirm the names," he said, "I will."
In his opening address to the inquest, Greater Belfast coroner John Leckey said 29 people died in the bombing, including a woman pregnant with twin girls.
"Who can deny that the true number of fatalities was in reality 31?" he said. Three hundred people were injured in the explosion of the 500-pound bomb.
One woman underwent eight weeks of acute reconstructive surgery before she could be told her young daughter had been killed. Victims included two toddlers, mothers shopping for school uniforms and two Spanish students.
One senior surgeon described how he might have been able to save the life of 12-year-old James Barker, who died three hours after the blast from massive internal injuries, had medical staff not been overwhelmed by scores of equally serious casualties.
Victor Barker, James' father, is leading the relatives' campaign to bring the killers to justice.
"I have lost a son," he said. "He was murdered. Someone blew him up, and I will do everything I can to ensure that those responsible are shown for what they are."
Evidence requirements in a civil action are less stringent than in criminal proceedings. Also, corroboration is not necessarily required. The case need be proved only on the balance of probabilities, and not beyond reasonable doubt.
The burden of proof may even fall on the accused to fully explain their movements leading up to the explosion, and they will not be protected by the right to silence as they are in criminal trials. Failure to give evidence will be interpreted as incriminatory. It could prove to be a test case for other victims to take similar action against perpetrators of terrorism.
The prototype lawsuit will be the first of its kind in Britain. Barker cited the success of the private action taken in the United States by the families of Nicole Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, following O.J. Simpson's trial and acquittal in that much-publicized murder case.
Families' frustration was fuelled by an award-winning investigative BBC television documentary late last year, which named and built a convincing body of evidence against suspects on both sides of the border who have not been charged in the atrocity. Some suspects are in hiding; others live openly in towns just across the border in Ireland.
The relatives' anger remains close to the surface. "Bertie Aherne (the Irish prime minister) and Tony Blair said they would go to the ends of the earth to find the people behind the Omagh bomb," Victor Barker said last week. But, two-and-a-half years later, "I do not think Tony Blair has made it to the end of Downing Street."