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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 December 2007, 20:56 GMT
How the Omagh case unravelled
By Kevin Connolly
BBC News

You can write the history of Northern Ireland's troubles as a litany of the names of small market towns on which terrorist violence conferred a kind of grim immortality.

Scene of Omagh bombing
Twenty-nine people died in the Omagh bombing in August 1998

You may remember some of them - Claudy and Ballykelly, Kingsmills and Enniskillen.

For outsiders of course they fade from the memory as they fade from the headlines.

Only in the hundreds of homes that knew the numb despair of bereavement do they continue to resonate down the years.

Something made Omagh different.

It is almost ten years since the explosion that tore through the shoppers and tourists crowded into the neat little town centre, killing 29 people and injuring hundreds more.

And somehow the case has continued to command our attention, even as Northern Ireland has made the painful transition from conflict in its aftermath.

Dogged family

First of course, there was the sheer scale of the horror. Omagh saw the biggest loss of life in a single bomb blast in 30 years of atrocities in Ireland and on the British mainland.

Then, there have been the court cases - one prosecution now on either side of the Irish border, and a civil action planned by the families of the victims against some of the men they accuse of murdering and maiming the people they loved, and continue to love.

And the sheer doggedness of the victims families in keeping the issue of the Omagh attack and the subsequent police investigation in the news shouldn't be underestimated.

They have become a formidable presence in the life of Northern Ireland, impossible for politicians and senior police officers to ignore. They have acquired skills at lobbying and campaigning that you suspect many of them never wanted, and never knew they had.

But more than anything, for the rest of us, it was the timing of the attack on Omagh which burned it into our memories.

As we listened, it became clear slowly that the judge was not satisfied with the case.
Kevin Connolly

It came just four months after Northern Ireland's fractious political parties made a political deal which included Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

It tore apart a community in a province which was beginning to learn to hope after decades of despair - and it made people fear that the new dawn which had promised so much, would be quickly and cruelly extinguished.

Like the other bombings in the early part of 1998 in places like Lisburn and Banbridge, Omagh was a conscious attempt by republicans who disagreed with the political strategy of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, to destabilise Northern Ireland in that vulnerable moment of hope.

It failed - but there is a terrible irony to the way in which the campaign was halted only by the wave of revulsion triggered by the carnage at Omagh.

So there was intense interest in the prosecution of Sean Gerard Hoey, the only man to face charges of murder in relation to the worst single terrorist atrocity of what we euphemistically call "the troubles".

So crowded were the public benches that when I glanced up from my seat at one of the press tables I noticed that Sean Hoey's brother was squeezed in beside the husband of one of the women he was accused of murdering.

A court artist's drawing of Sean Hoey
Sean Hoey is the only man to face murder charges over the bombing

The legal process was extraordinarily protracted - nine years passed in all from the moment when Sean Hoey's home was first searched to the moment of acquittal.

The case was heard in a "Diplock" court, that it is to say by a judge, Mr Justice Weir, sitting alone without a jury. The system was introduced in 1972 to counter the possibility that paramilitary organisations would cripple the criminal justice system by intimidating jurors in cases involving their members.

It was once a commonplace sight, but its become much rarer as the age of political violence recedes into history.

Mr Justice Weir spent more than an hour examining the case against Sean Hoey, as the families of both victims and accused listened intently.

He explained that the evidence was mainly scientific - that is to say it was based on conclusions drawn after subjecting fragments of material gathered at the scenes of bomb attacks to forensic analysis.

As we listened, it became clear slowly that the judge was not satisfied with the case. There was strongly worded criticism of how the police had collected, labelled and handled evidence.

'Beefed up' statements

There was elegantly expressed scepticism at the extent to which scientists have validated a technique called Low Copy Number DNA - essentially the belief that workable evidence can be gathered from microscopic particles of material.

Above all there was thinly veiled judicial anger that two police witnesses had "beefed up" their statements - had lied, in plain English.

Mr Justice Weir's words on the subject of LCN DNA were strong enough to suggest that questions will now be asked in other cases working their way through the criminal justice system which rely on the technique.

For the Hoey family of course this was not simply a failure to convict, it was a verdict which acquits a man who in their view, and now in the eyes of the law, was simply not guilty in the first place.

The Omagh families were dignified in defeat, as they have been dignified at every stage of their fight for justice. Their campaigning will go on, but the prospect is surely receding now that anyone will ever be convicted of murdering their husbands and brothers and sisters and wives and children.

As this case fades from our memories it's worth remembering the victims of all Northern Ireland's atrocities for whom the pain is not fading even as the province heads into a more hopeful future.


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