DUBLIN — The British government authorized a new investigation Thursday into the 1998 car-bomb attack on the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, a long-postponed commitment that could highlight security screw-ups on both sides of the Irish border.
The August 15, 1998 explosion by an Irish Republican Army splinter group nicknamed “the Real IRA ira” killed 29 people. The dead that day were mostly women and children, including three generations from one family and a mother pregnant with twins.
The attack became the single deadliest explosion from the entire three-decade conflict over Northern Ireland, which claimed more than 3,600 lives before paramilitary cease-fires took hold in the mid-1990s. It came barely four months after the Good Friday peace accord for the U.K. territory, a landmark compromise that the Real IRA hoped to undermine. Nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted for the atrocity.
While British and Irish anti-terrorist authorities had already identified senior figures in the Real IRA and were paying informers to help keep them under surveillance, the attackers that day were able to drive a 500-pound car bomb assembled in the Republic of Ireland across the border aided by a scout car, just as they had done several times previously that year to detonate bombs in other Northern Ireland towns, avoiding deaths only thanks to swift police evacuations.
This time they parked the weapon on Omagh’s crowded Market Street on a brilliantly sunny Saturday afternoon, escaped back across the border unhindered, and issued vague telephone warnings that misled police. Shoppers, tourists and workers were shepherded away from Omagh’s hilltop courthouse, the suspected target — and unwittingly into the path of the bomb.
Ever since the attack, survivors and relatives of the dead have pursued many legal routes in search of truth and justice, led by Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was among those slain in the blast. The British government took Thursday’s belated decision only because Gallagher, citing Britain’s commitments under European human rights law, won a 2021 judgment in Belfast High Court that British and Irish anti-terrorist authorities monitoring the Real IRA may have bungled “a real prospect of preventing the Omagh bombing.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, who has been in the post since September, told the House of Commons in London that the 2021 judgment left the U.K. government little choice but to comply.
Gallagher told journalists that the inquiry, which he has sought since 2001, was certain to produce “embarrassments for the British government and also embarrassments for the Irish government,” particularly over how their anti-terrorist chiefs handled “raw intelligence from agents.”
Heaton-Harris said the inquiry would be given the power to compel witnesses to testify under oath. It would investigate, he said, how British and Irish police and security agencies handled and shared intelligence; analyzed information gleaned from Real IRA members’ cell phone activity; the extent of their advance knowledge of the bomb’s preparation; and whether more security deterrents on the day of the attack “could or should have been mounted.”
The U.K.’s move put immediate pressure on the Irish government to do the same. Heaton-Harris, who discussed his decision Wednesday night by phone with Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin, said he hoped the inquiry would become cross-border in nature and would discuss this in more detail soon with Martin.
“There’s no way that the British government can compel the government of Ireland to do anything,” he told Jim Shannon, a lawmaker from the Democratic Unionist Party, which welcomed the U.K. move.
In Dublin, Martin also welcomed it — and hinted the Irish were likely to reciprocate.
Martin said the Irish government would “await further detail from the U.K. government, in particular on the terms of reference for their inquiry,” before he, Justice Minister Simon Harris and the rest of the Cabinet decide on “the next steps.”