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Landmark damages awarded for N. Ireland bombing

BELFAST (Reuters) - Four individuals and an outlawed militant group, the Real IRA, were responsible for the deadliest bombing in Northern Ireland’s three decades of sectarian conflict, a court ruled in a landmark damages award on Monday.

Twenty-nine people were killed, among them a woman pregnant with twins, and more than 200 wounded when the Real IRA, a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army, detonated a car bomb in the market town of Omagh in August 1998. The court awarded around 1.5 million pounds ($2.4 million) in damages.

No one has been convicted for the attack, carried out months after the signing of a peace agreement. Frustrated by this, relatives of victims took civil action against five men in 2001. One of the men was cleared on Monday.

“Those involved in the planning, preparation, planting and detonation of the bomb recognised the likelihood of serious injury or death from its detonation but decided to take that risk,” High Court Judge Declan Morgan said.

The court case, which was not meant to determine if any criminal offence had been committed, could open the way for more victims of attacks to sue alleged members of paramilitary organisations.

“We have now created a precedent and those other people who are victims of terrorism can use this vehicle,” said Michael Gallagher, who was awarded 80,000 pounds in damages for the death of his son Aidan in the blast.

One of the men found liable, Michael McKevitt, is the alleged leader of the Real IRA, and is serving a 20-year jail term for directing terrorism.

Another, Colm Murphy, was found guilty in 2002 of conspiracy in the Omagh bombing but the conviction was later overturned.

The Real IRA killed two British soldiers at an army barracks on March 7 as part of its continuing campaign to end British control of Northern Ireland.

The perpetrators of the Omagh bombing made several warning calls before the attack, mentioning the Real IRA codeword “Martha Pope”, but the judge said they did not mention the precise location, model or colour of the car carrying the bomb in order to avoid detection.

“The general warnings ... were conflicting and misleading,” Morgan said. “The safety of those members of the public in Omagh town centre was at best a secondary consideration.”