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Last Updated: Friday, 8 August, 2003, 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK
Recognition for Omagh's suffering

By Kevin Connolly
The BBC's Ireland correspondent

From the moment the blast of a bomb ripped through a quiet County Tyrone market town in August 1998, there has been something different and unique about Omagh.

There had been terrible atrocities on both sides of the Irish border in the past, and sadly more people have died in paramilitary attacks in the years since it happened.

Omagh bombing
The explosion five years ago continues to resonate through Ireland

But something in the scale of the death and destruction - 29 people died - coupled with its timing just a few months after the elation of the Good Friday agreement made it different.

It should have been a time of hope in Northern Ireland, not grief and pain and loss.

Get the godfathers

An extraordinary wave of anger and revulsion swept the country.

New legislation was passed creating an offence of directing terrorism - a clear attempt to get the godfathers of terrorism, not the thugs who stole the cars and delivered the explosive devices.

But above all, it was the way in which the victims' families reacted which made Omagh different.

They were devastated of course, and angry and filled with grief as many other families had been in Ireland in the past.

But they were also consumed by an extraordinary determination to do something about what had happened to them and to keep their case in the public eye.

It would not be forgotten.

'Encouraging'

They still hope, of course, to see criminal prosecutions for murder handed down to the men they hold responsible.

So far only one man - Colm Murphy - has been convicted directly in connection with the conspiracy to bomb Omagh, but the families have not given up hope.

Five years on, there is a large team of detectives on the investigation and the official word from the Northern Ireland Office is that a recent briefing from a senior police office to the secretary of state was "encouraging".

The families though decided to take civil action against five of the people they hold responsible for Omagh, including three who are in prison for offences connected with dissident republican activity.

Will lawyers for the defendants be able to argue that the involvement of so much government money means that this is no longer a straightforward civil case?

They are seeking 10m in damages, and the strategy is clearly to embroil the men in a costly court case in the hope of ruining them with a huge order for damages.

The government insists its action in backing this civil case does not signal in any way that it is giving hope of mounting criminal prosecutions, but it is a way of ensuring that some sort of court action will go ahead.

What we are not hearing so far, is to what extent this will create a precedent for other cases where victims' families feel they know who has committed a crime, but where the police have failed to mount a prosecution.

Will they, in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere in the UK, now be tempted to ask for government help to mount civil cases?

Will lawyers for the defendants be able to argue that the involvement of so much government money means that this is no longer a straightforward civil case?

Special qualities of suffering

Those questions are the future.

For the moment what is clear, is this:

A civil case which looked as though it might have been failing - due to the difficulty the families had in raising the vast amount of money they needed to stage it - has now been saved.

The Omagh families will have their day in court.

And above all, the government has once again recognised those special qualities of suffering which made Omagh unique.

These qualities mean the event continues to resonate in Ireland five years almost to the week since that fatal explosion.





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