Friday, December 21, 2007

Omagh: the search for justice goes on

Sean Hoey, the only man charged with a direct role in the 1998 Omagh bombing, has been found not guilty. Families of the 29 victims have called for a cross-border enquiry as the judge blamed police failures for the verdict in one of Northern Ireland’s largest ever trials. After a $32 million investigation that took nine years, Hoey was cleared on 56 counts relating to the Omagh bombing and several other attacks on police and military installations. Justice Reginald Weir, who conducted the case without a jury, said the police had a "slapdash approach" to evidence-gathering, which meant DNA evidence presented at the trial could not be relied upon. He also said police were guilty of a "deliberate and calculated deception" and ordered court transcripts be sent to the police ombudsman.

The judge said the people of Omagh and Northern Ireland community clearly wanted to convict the perpetrators of bombing. But he also said he had to bear firmly in mind the cardinal principle of the criminal law. He quoted a judgment by the Court of Appeal, which said justice demanded " proper evidence and not merely evidence which might be true to a considerable extent, probably is true, but which was so convincing in truth and manifestly reliable that it reached the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt." The judge’s verdict was that “the evidence against the accused in this case did not reach that immutable standard.”

Hoey is a 38 year old electrician from Jonesborough, in County Armagh. His solicitor Peter Corrigan said his client was an innocent man who had been completely vindicated. "Today's judgement - a reasoned, lengthy and well considered judgement - completely vindicated this position that he maintained. Sean Hoey is an innocent man” Hoey's mother Rita also read out statement in which she described the police investigation into her son as a "witch-hunt". "I want the world to know that my son, Sean Hoey, is innocent," she said. "This is not a failure to bring those responsible to justice."

Her attitude was not shared by relatives of the victims. Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son James died in the attack, blamed Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the former chief constable of the then Royal Ulster Constabulary, for the police's failure to convict anyone. Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Aidan in the bombing, also blamed Flanagan’s “appalling inefficiency”. He said the case had been a disaster for the Omagh families. "I think there has to be real questions why this was allowed to go through the system,” he said. "The police recommended the prosecution and the DPP allowed it to move forward, then they brought us all here for Christmas to get this news."

Omagh was a quiet Tyrone market town that was mostly spared the ravages of the 30 year Northern Irish strife. On 15 August 1998 a 225kg car bomb exploded in Omagh town centre after three warnings failed to give the exact location. It was a Saturday afternoon and the town was packed with shoppers. It was a particularly busy as women and children were in the town buying school uniforms and supplies at the end of the school holidays. The town was also hosting a cross-community carnival. Authorities believed the warnings were for the courthouse and shepherd people towards the site of the car bomb. The blast killed 29 people and two unborn children in what was to become the largest loss of life in Northern Ireland’s history. Another 220 were wounded.

While no one initially claimed responsibility for the bombing, suspicion immediately fell on the Real IRA, a small offshoot of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Real IRA had rejected the ceasefire the IRA had declared in 1997. The Real IRA finally claimed responsibility on the Tuesday after the attack. Their statement claimed there had been "three warnings put in, there were 40 minutes warning on each of them." They said they placed two warning calls to Ulster Television (UTV) and one to the Samaritans in Coleraine. "Each time the call was made it was very clear [where the bomb was] and the people talked back.” They said. "At no time was it said it was near the courthouse. It was a commercial target." They offered apologies to the “civilians”.

The following year, South Armagh republican Colm Murphy was the first to face charges relating to the bombing. He was charged with conspiring to cause an explosion. The judge at his trial in Dublin's special criminal court described him as a "service provider" for the Real IRA. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years. However in 2005 his conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered, due to defects in the earlier trial with doubt cast on the evidence of two Irish police officers. His lawyers successfully fought this year to postpone the retrial indefinitely as Murphy is suffering from short-term memory loss resulting from a car accident and this condition will interfere with his right to a fair hearing.

Sean Hoey is Colm Murphy’s nephew. In September 2003 Hoey was arrested at home following a massive security operation involving 200 officers and soldiers. He had no past paramilitary or criminal convictions. His supporters claim Hoey is being framed in a conspiracy involving the Irish and British governments. A group called the Irish Freedom Committee say there were many irregularities surrounding the Omagh attack. They say authorities knew about the bomb two weeks in advance, and army and police were confined to barracks on the day and suffered no casualties.

However one major authoritarian casualty was police chief Ronnie Flanagan. He immediately announced a task force had been set up to investigate the bombing which would supplement the local police resources. Forensic scientists had examined the bomb timers for fibres and Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA. LCN is a new development which allows analysis of tiny samples of skin cells, sweat and other bodily fluids. Police matched the DNA to Hoey but the technique remains unreliable and scientists are divided over its efficacy.

In a 2001 ombudsman report, Flanagan was accused of "defective leadership, poor judgement and a lack of urgency" for his role in the bomb. English lawyer Victor Barker, whose son, James, died in the attack, said the initial investigation by Flanagan had been deeply flawed. "He [Flanagan] said he would fall on his sword if anything was wrong with this investigation,” said Barker. “I will give him the sword."

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