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The U.K. government said Thursday it will hold a public inquiry into whether the deadliest bombing in Northern Ireland’s decades of violence could have been prevented.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced a judge-led independent probe of the 1998 car bombing in the town of Omagh that killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, and wounded hundreds more. An Irish Republican Army dissident group, the Real IRA, claimed responsibility.
A court in 2021 ordered the government to investigate in response to a legal challenge by Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden was killed by the 500-pound bomb. Gallagher alleges that intelligence failings allowed a “preventable atrocity” to occur in the busy market town.
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Heaton-Harris said the inquiry “will focus specifically on the four grounds which the court held as giving rise to plausible arguments that the bombing could have been prevented,” including whether security services had advance intelligence of the bomb and whether they could have disrupted the plot.
The inquiry is likely to take two years — and potentially much longer. The inquirers will have the power to order evidence to be handed over and to compel witnesses to testify under oath.
Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, leaves after a cabinet meeting in London, on Jan. 31, 2023.
(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Heaton-Harris said he hoped the decision to conduct an independent inquiry “gives some comfort to those families who have long campaigned for this outcome.”
Gallagher said the inquiry would let bereaved families “hopefully get the answers that we need and we can move on.”
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“If we don’t have this process, for the rest of our lives we’re going to be wondering ‘what if,’” he said.
The 2021 court ruling said a new investigation should be held in the Republic of Ireland, where most of the suspected bombers were based. The Irish government said it would “consider what further action is required on our part” after the British announcement.
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The attack on Aug. 15, 1998 came months after the Good Friday peace accord largely ended three decades of conflict known as “the Troubles.” Major Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups gave up violence and disarmed, but small splinter groups continued to mount attacks.
No one has been convicted in the Omagh attack, but four members of the Real IRA were found responsible in a civil case in 2009.