Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 17:01 UK

Verdict brings Omagh 'justice'

By John Ware
BBC Panorama Reporter

Omagh bombing
The families have said the civil case was about principles, not money

The Omagh families' landmark legal victory holds out the prospect of justice for victims of terrorists who escape the clutches of the criminal law.

The civil court judgement in favour of 12 relatives of Omagh victims effectively means that even if the police cannot bring those culpable before a criminal court, they could still serve a financial life sentence.

Four of the five defendants named in the civil suit have been held liable by Mr Justice Morgan for the worst single attack of the Troubles.

Jason McCue, solicitor for the Omagh families, said: "This verdict sends a clear message to those contemplating acts of terrorism in Britain: 'You may not end up in jail but you could still end up paying a massive debt which could cripple you for the rest of your life.'"

McCue said this is the world's first case where both individuals and an organisation - the Real IRA - have been held liable for terrorist acts.

The case was launched with funds from a campaign begun by the Daily Mail in 2000 after the BBC's Panorama named three of the five defendants in a programme called Who Bombed Omagh?

Legal aid

The campaign raised nearly £1.2m. When those funds were exhausted, the government agreed to provide legal aid for both the plaintiffs and the defendants.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary, persuaded the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, that legal aid was the only way the case could continue.

The fact that we've taken this civil action shows the system was broken. It has failed to nail anyone and the inquiries into this failure have been piecemeal
Jason McCue, families' solicitor

The August 1998 bombing killed 29 men, women and children and two unborn babies, and injured 250, when a 500lb bomb hidden in the boot of a stolen car parked in the busy High Street detonated.

It was carried out by republican dissidents who had split from the Provisional IRA in protest at their ceasefire and support for the peace process.

Of the four men found by the Belfast High Court to have been responsible for the bombing, only Colm Murphy, 57, has faced criminal charges, despite a decade long cross-border police investigation costing tens of millions of pounds.

Mr Murphy has been released pending a retrial.

A builder from Co Louth, Mr Murphy lent two mobile phones to the bombers which were allegedly then used to coordinate the bombing.

The Belfast judgement awarded £1.6m in compensatory damages to the families. However the final liability may run to several million pounds. The law does not allow the judge to award exemplary and punitive damages, but the families plan to challenge this at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.

Lifetime of debt

Between them, the four defendants will be liable for finding the money from the sale of their assets and from any money they earn. It is possible that they will spend the rest of their lives repaying the money.

At the time of the bombing, Mr Murphy owned a large house, a popular bar in Dundalk and 30 acres of land that he planned to sell for development.

Liam Campbell, alleged to have been in overall charge of the bombing, and Seamus Daly, 42, said by the police to have been the "hands-on organiser", have both been owners of a number of properties.

Police in the Irish Republic say Mr Campbell became rich from cross-border smuggling. He and his family owned a number of well-appointed properties along the border.

Mr Campbell, a farmer, was recently arrested in Northern Ireland where he is being held because Lithuania is seeking his extradition on charges of smuggling firearms, ammunition and explosives to the Irish Republic.

Mr Daly has also owned properties near the Co Monaghan border, one with his brother Padraig, and a house which he used as a scrap yard.

Police sources say they believe Daly has transferred the house to his sister's name and moved out since the BBC's Panorama secretly filmed him there in late 2008.

Frozen assets

In seeking enforcement of the damages, the Omagh families will apply for the recovery of any assets found to have been moved into someone else's name, even if the transfers happened before the civil writs were served in 2002.

Omagh bombing
Gordon Brown ordered a review of police intercepts

Another of the defendants, former Real IRA leader Michael McKevitt, 54, is currently serving an 18-year sentence in the Irish Republic for organising terrorist activities.

The defendant cleared by the judge was Seamus McKenna, a 56-year-old labourer who worked for Mr Murphy. The families had argued that a telephone call from a mobile in one of the cars that went to Omagh linked him to the bombing.

Any assets owned by the Real IRA's political wing - known as the 32 County Sovereignty Committee - will also be recoverable. Some of those assets are believed to have been frozen in the United States.

Although the four defendants live in the Irish Republic, EU directives mean the Belfast judgement can be enforced across the border.

The question, in light of the civil court judgement, remains - why did the police inquiry fail - despite pledges from ministers and police chiefs that no stone would be left unturned in the hunt or the bombers?

In practise, cross-border police co-operation was not always close because of clashes in personalities and differing protocols and procedures.

'System broken'

The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has also said evidential opportunities were lost because Special Branch did not share all relevant intelligence.

Last autumn, a second Panorama programme disclosed that GCHQ were also monitoring telephones used by some of the bombers. However the detectives hunting the bombers were never told this, even though the numbers could have given them an early paper trail to key suspects.

After Panorama's Omagh - What the Police Were Never Told, Prime Minister Gordon Brown ordered a review of any intercept material to be carried out by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, Sir Peter Gibson. He concluded the bombing could not have been prevented.

Sir Peter, however, did not investigate the key issue identified by Panorama, which was why the detectives were not given the intercepted telephone numbers.

Jason McCue, the families' solicitor, said: "The fact that we've taken this civil action shows the system was broken. It has failed to nail anyone and the inquiries into this failure have been piecemeal."

John Ware has covered the Omagh bombing case extensively for BBC's Panorama.

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