Belfast High Court says security forces may have had foreknowledge of the Omagh bombing. By Anton McCabe
In February 2011, Omagh bomb victim, Laurence Rush, won an important legal victory in February, which attracted little notice. The North’s High Court allowed Rush to proceed with legal action against the North’s Chief Constable and Secretary of State. He is claiming their neglect of duty allowed the 1998 bombing to happen, and that they subsequently failed properly to investigate. Rush’s wife, Libby, was one of the 29 people killed.
Last year the High Court struck Rush’s case out, ruling it had little chance of success. The headline on the Belfast Telegraph report “Blame RIRA for your wife’s death” was typical of coverage. All reports quoted the end of the judgment: “Those who committed the civil wrong against Mr Rush, as a result of which he tragically lost his wife, were the members of the Real IRA who organised and carried out the Omagh bombing”.
Mr Justice Gillen, in the Belfast High Court, has now upheld Rush’s appeal. In his ruling, he wrote: “I have come to the conclusion that it is neither plain nor obvious that the cause of action in this matter has no chance of success. In short I do not consider that on the pleadings the case made by the plaintiff (Rush) is unarguable”. Regarding evidence produced by Rush’s legal team suggesting the security forces had foreknowledge of the bombing, he wrote: “I have concluded there may well be substance in this argument”.
Some relatives of victims are calling for a public inquiry. However, after the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament: “let me reassure the House that there will be no more open-ended and costly inquiries into the past”. Thus, the hearing of Rush’s case is the only chance for the circumstances of Omagh to be examined in public.
Rush has always said that he sees the Real IRA as primarily responsible. In his Statement of Claim, he says: “The bomb which killed Elizabeth Imelda Rush was planted by the so-called Real IRA, a criminal terrorist conspiracy and a proscribed organisation.” However, he claims the state failed to properly investigate.
Rush is being represented by British human rights barrister Michael Mansfield, instructed by solicitor Des Doherty. At the inquest into the Omagh deaths, their questioning established there were only four police in duty in Omagh at the time of the bombing on 15 August 1998. They also established that ten were being sent to Kilkeel to police a contentious parade. This police unit normally patrolled the Omagh area in civilian-type cars.
Rush is also relying on information that emerged subsequently. A long-term security force agent, Peter Keeley (who uses the name Kevin Fulton), has produced evidence that he informed a police handler the Real IRA was preparing a bomb for an attack somewhere in the North on the weekend of Omagh. These allegations led the Police Ombudsman to begin an inquiry. Her inquiry raised serious doubts about the effectiveness of the police investigation; among other matters. She established that police had received a call on 4 August 1998 warning of an attack in Omagh on 15 August, the date of the bomb, but this information was withheld from investigating officers. The Panorama programme on BBC1 later established that the UK’s electronic intelligence agency GCHQ was monitoring mobile phone communications between the bombers; but did not pass the information on to investigating police.
Rush’s legal action is separate from the Omagh Victims’ Legal Action, which two years ago obtained a judgment for £1.6million against four men associated with the Real IRA. Rush was originally a part of this, but withdrew. He was the most outspoken of a several relatives, Protestant and Catholic, unhappy with the Action’s strategy. In her book Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing and the Families Pursuit of Justice’, conservative writer and academic Ruth Dudley Edwards has claimed to have been one of the main strategists behind this action. She wrote of some relatives: “There were bereaved and injured and suffering republicans whose instinct would always be to blame the police for failing to prevent a tragedy rather than terrorists who made it happen”.
Rush believed there was no point in taking legal action against individuals with no resources. He was unhappy with the decision to employ London lawyers H20 as legal representatives. There have been subsequent complaints about the fees charged by H20.
Rush further felt there was an agenda of pinning all the blame on the Real IRA, and presenting the security forces as without fault: “The RUC were still the heroes”.
In her book, Dudley Edwards admits she did not wish to query the role of the security forces. In December 2001, the Police Ombudsman produced her report. Dudley Edwards writes: “In London, lawyers and supporters alike were fearful that the fundraising effort would be damaged as the focus moved from the bombers on to the police, and Henry (Robinson) and I were sent to Omagh to talk to Michael (Gallagher – chair of the only victims’ group) about steadying the ship. …
Henry and I sent messages to (RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie) Flanagan urging that he reassure the families urgently, but he was pre-empted by (Police Ombudsman) Mrs O’Loan, who spent four hours in Omagh presenting her report to victims immediately before making it public”.
Dudley Edwards’ book does not give any of the details of the findings of the Ombudsman’s report. However, she devotes two pages to rebuttals by police and their supporters.
Rush was further concerned at the involvement of former security force agent Sean O’Callaghan in the Action. O’Callaghan was in charge of its media side. Rush said O’Callaghan was presented as “someone with an understanding of Irish terrorism”. Rush subsequently established that O’Callaghan had two convictions for murders committed in the 1970s; and claimed to have murdered a low-level informer within the IRA in 1985 while he (O’Callaghan) was a high-level informant. O’Callaghan told the Kerryman newspaper on 29 November 1988: “I personally shot (John) Corcoran using a machine gun. I felt no remorse for the murder….”
Members of other families have also been concerned at O’Callaghan’s involvement. Dudley Edwards herself wrote of a meeting with families in Omagh on 14 July 2001: “Sean (O’Callaghan) came too, but did not appear until the families he did not know had left”.
A few months after he withdrew from the Civil Action, in 2001, Rush was expelled from the Omagh Support and Self Help Group. At the time, this was the only group representing victims of the bomb. Most of the active members were part of the Civil Action.
Rush’s stance has been vindicated by his legal victory. Tragically, he is now in poor health and was unable to attend court.