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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Omagh families to ask McGuinness to help with civil action

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Martin McGuinness is to be asked to assist with a civil action brought by the some of the families bereaved in the Omagh bombing against the men suspected of carrying it out.

The case is set to open in April and the PSNI and Gardai are also being asked to provide witnesses. Until now the PSNI had argued that giving too much co-operation to the civil case could damage the chances of a prosecution by revealing evidence.

However Sir Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable, has now stated publicly that there is unlikely to be a prosecution unless new witnesses come forward and at the trial of Sean Hoey the judge dismissed all the evidence put forward by the police as useless.

"Looking at that fiasco there is now no reason not to co-operate fully and our lawyers are meeting the PSNI in the new year" said Michael Gallagher, whose son Aidan was amongst the 29 people killed in the car bomb attack in 1998.

Victor Barker, a Surrey solicitor whose son James was also killed in Omagh, is not a party to the action but he says that he will be asking Martin McGuiness to assist it with information from Sinn Féin and the IRA. McGuinness has offered to meet him in the new year.

"I have McGuinness before and I find him reasonably easy to talk to" Barker said. "Up to now he has denied that he can give me any information about the people involved in Omagh. That has always been his stance and I don't believe a word he has told me and I have said that to him" .

At court Barker says he was insulted and called a British b**** by some of the crowd who applauded when Hoey was acquitted. Outside he texted McGuinness and asked him if he would now be prepared to help.

Barker said "the precise content of the texts is personal but he expressed sympathy and said he hoped to meet me in the new year. I hope this will not be an empty meeting. I am not personally involved in the civil action but I wish those who are well and I will ask him to help with it as well as giving me any information he can about my son's killers."

Since the acquittal of Hoey and Colm Murphy, Hoey's uncle whose conviction on conspiracy charges was overturned by the Irish court of appeal, many of the bereaved families are fixing their hopes on the civil action which is effectively a claim for damages.

It was inspired by the success of the Sunday Times in defending a libel action brought by Thomas "Slab" Murphy, a leading IRA figure, which resulted in a Dublin jury finding that he was an IRA leader and a man of violence with no reputation worth defending.

To secure a criminal conviction it is necessary to prove a person guilty beyond reasonable doubt. A civil action, such as a claim for damages, is decided on the balance of probabilities. The families believe that with co-operation from the police on both sides of the border, Sinn Féin and journalists who have researched the area they should be able to meet this standard of proof.

Criticism of the PSNI by the families has so far been mooted. They have preferred to concentrate their fire on Sir R0nnie Flanagan, who was RUC Chief Constable at the time of the bombing and who is now head of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary which is responsible for enforcing policing standards throughout the UK.

Following swinging criticisms of the RUC handling of evidence by Mr Justice Weir, the trial judge, there have been calls by Barker and some other relatives for Sir Ronnie to resign with the result that Jaqui Smith, the Home Secretary, issued a statement saying he enjoyed her full confidence.

However some of the families are also critical of the PSNI performance.

"As I see it there needs to be root and branch within policing in Northern Ireland. We need a proper college; we need highly trained people to come in. The present regime is just not yet capable of delivering modern policing" said Gallagher.

"Terrorism has held policing her back 25 years. We haven't recovered that time yet and we need to do that as soon as possible."

December 25, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on December 23, 2007.