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Omagh Bombing

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 2 February 2023

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the Omagh bombing.

The Omagh bombing of 15 August 1998 was an horrific terrorist atrocity committed by the Real IRA that caused untold damage to the families of the 29 people and two unborn children who were tragically killed, and to the 220 people who were injured. It remains the largest loss of life in a single incident in Northern Ireland, and it took place mere months after the signing of the landmark Belfast/Good Friday agreement, just as Northern Ireland had overwhelmingly expressed its desire for a future of peace and stability based on democracy and the principle of consent, and a future without the violence that had dominated the previous three decades and that, once again, caused untold pain and suffering to families on that day in August 1998. That atrocity, as well as other acts of terrorism before and since, had absolutely no justification.

The Omagh bombing has been subject to a number of investigations, both immediately after the event and in subsequent years. This includes the original inquest and the investigations by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, as well as a review by Sir Peter Gibson, the then Intelligence Services Commissioner, at the request of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

In 2013 my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) decided not to establish a public inquiry into the Omagh bombing. Her decision was made in the light of the situation as it was at that time. Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Aidan in the bombing, pursued a judicial review of the decision not to establish a public inquiry into whether there had been a failure to investigate whether the Omagh bomb could have been prevented. Following a short summary judgment in July 2021, the Northern Ireland High Court found in October 2021 that plausible arguments could be made that the state had failed to comply with its obligation under article 2 of the European convention on human rights to take reasonable steps to prevent the bombing.

The Northern Ireland High Court identified four grounds that gave rise to the plausible argument of preventability: the handling and sharing of intelligence; the use of cell phone analysis; whether there was advance knowledge, or reasonable means of knowledge, of the bomb; and whether disruption operations could or should have been mounted, which may have helped to prevent the tragedy. The court did not prescribe the form of investigation that should take place. It left that to be decided by the state authorities.

Since coming into post, I have taken time to carefully consider the full judgment. I have met Mr Gallagher and representatives of the support group he chairs, the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, which works to promote and advocate for the needs of victims of terrorism. I visited the site of the bomb with them—it was a very sobering experience—and crossed the road to the memorial garden that commemorates all those who lost their life. I have also met representatives of Families Moving On, another support group that is doing incredibly valuable work in helping victims and survivors to recover, grow and sustain a sense of wellbeing. I have listened to the representations of these families and taken their varying perspectives into account.

I have considered important factors such as the independence of any future investigation, the cost to the public purse and how best to allay wider public concern. I have weighed these against the clear findings set out by the court, which we must meet for any investigation to be effective and compliant with our international obligations, and which are at the core of my decision.

I intend to establish an independent statutory inquiry into the Omagh bombing. I have informed Mr Gallagher and members of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, as well as representatives of Families Moving On, of that decision. The inquiry will focus specifically on the four grounds that the court held as giving rise to plausible arguments that the bombing could have been prevented. The inquiry will also need to take account of the findings of previous investigations in order to avoid duplication.

I know that this is a significant decision, and I am keen to explain to the House why I believe it is also the most appropriate course of action. First, the inquiry will allow us to meet our article 2 procedural obligations under the European convention on human rights, as it will have powers of compulsion and will be capable of compelling the production of documents and witnesses and of subjecting their accounts to scrutiny. The 2008 Gibson review of the Omagh bombing did not have such statutory powers, meaning that Sir Peter Gibson had no means of compelling witness testimony. It is important that any investigation has at its disposal sufficient tools to access all necessary evidence and materials. It is for that reason that I discounted the option of a non-statutory inquiry.

I also discounted referring the Omagh case to the yet-to-be-established independent commission of reconciliation and information recovery, which will be established by the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which is being considered in the other place. That new body will have all the powers required to access all evidence and compel witnesses. However, it has been designed to consider cases that occurred before the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed on 10 April 1998. That is a well-established approach to distinguish between cases that happened before and after the agreement. I do not think that we should change that approach now, and the legislation setting up the commission has yet to pass into law.

Secondly, an independent statutory inquiry is an appropriate forum for examining the vast volume of national security-sensitive information that the court has deemed to be at the core of the question about whether the bombing could have been prevented. A disclosure protocol will be agreed between the inquiry and all relevant partners to take account of the national security-sensitive material involved in this case.

Thirdly, the inquiry will involve the next of kin and will be open to public scrutiny where possible. That will, of course, need to be balanced against national security considerations. It is important to note that it will not be possible to examine some of the material in public. A final report will be published and will respond to each of the issues identified by the High Court. Justice Horner expressed in his judgment a desire for a simultaneous article 2-compliant investigation to occur in Ireland. He recognised that it was not in the Court’s power to order a cross-border investigation. Nor is it in my power, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to do so, but I remain in close contact with the Irish Government on the issue.

I wish to assure the House that this decision has been taken following careful consideration of the facts, of the findings of the Supreme Court judgment, and of the United Kingdom’s obligations under article 2 of the European convention on human rights. I hope that the decision to establish an independent statutory inquiry gives some comfort to the families who have long campaigned for that outcome. I recognise, however, that not all the families affected by the bombing desire such further investigation. Some have worked hard to process their trauma and move on with their lives, and do not wish to re-examine the past. I hope that the targeted nature of the inquiry, allowing it to answer the four points I have mentioned, will provide the middle ground whereby answers are sought for those who want them without reopening avenues that have already been investigated to satisfaction.

On the next steps, I will now proceed to identify a chair for the inquiry and finalise the terms of reference following consultation with that chair. My intention is that the terms of reference will be heavily based on the grounds set out by the Court. Further details will be announced in due course, but it is my full intention to establish the inquiry as promptly as possible and for the investigation to proceed at pace.

It must be remembered that those responsible for the deaths and destruction on that awful day in 1998 are the immoral terrorists. As Justice Horner highlighted:

“It is important not to forget that the responsibility for this terrible atrocity, the worst in the last 60 years of Northern Ireland’s history, lies with those malevolent and evil dissident republicans who, with complete disregard for human life, planned, planted and detonated a huge bomb among shoppers in Omagh’s town centre on a Saturday afternoon in August.”

I fully concur with those words. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the in-person briefing that he afforded me and the team earlier this week.

I begin by paying tribute to all those who lost loved ones or were injured in the Omagh bombing. Last year, I visited Omagh and went to the memorial park—a beautiful tribute to the victims. The local community in that quiet market town has shown remarkable resilience and dignity in the face of an unspeakable act of terror.

The republican dissidents who planted the bomb were trying to derail the peace process, just months after a majority had voted for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. They did not succeed, which is a credit to everyone in Northern Ireland. Michael Gallagher’s son, Aiden, was one of 29 people and two unborn children who were murdered that day. Michael has been a tireless campaigner for answers. I am struck by his powerful words when he says that he and other relatives of those killed want answers so that they can finally reclaim their lives.

We welcome the Secretary of State’s decision and the approach that he has taken in putting victims first in his deliberations. I know that he met the families before Christmas and promised that he would return personally to tell them whether he would order an inquiry. He has been a man of his word. Justice Horner was not prescriptive in his ruling about what the Secretary of State should do. Indeed, other Northern Ireland Secretaries have responded differently to similar rulings.

It is important to say that if the inquiry finds that there were shortcomings in how intelligence was used, that will not change the fact that republican terrorists are ultimately responsible for the lives that were lost and changed that day. Any article 2-compliant inquiry should provide the opportunity to learn the lessons that will prevent similar tragedies in future. The Republic of Ireland now has a moral obligation to start its own investigation. However, the fact that the Secretary of State is calling for the inquiry clashes with the Government’s overall approach to legacy issues. We oppose the Government’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill because it provides more benefits to perpetrators than it does to victims of terror.

The Secretary of State has put Omagh families at the heart of today’s decision. I am worried that other victims of atrocities during the troubles will be watching and wondering why their loved ones are not being treated in the same way. I speak regularly with the families of the Birmingham pub bombing victims, for example, and I am worried about how this news will affect them. Victims are already noticing contradictions in the Government’s approach to legacy issues. The Government rightly included the Omagh bombing in the troubles for the purposes of the victims’ pension scheme in 2020, but today the Secretary of State is saying that the Omagh bombing is outside of the troubles as defined by the legacy Bill.

Although the legacy Bill is opposed by all parties and communities in Northern Ireland, I think the Secretary of State’s decision today will be supported by them all. A seesaw approach to policy is not healthy in any circumstances—least of all when dealing with the sensitivities of Northern Ireland’s past. The Government have presented their logic as to why atrocities that were committed in late 1998 qualify for a public inquiry and those committed before that do not, but that logic is understood only in Whitehall.

Many families still struggle with the loss of loved ones, and their grief is compounded by the absence of information or justice. They simply cannot see the logic in treating the crimes that shattered their lives as undeserving of the treatment announced today simply because of a date that appears to them suited to the needs of Ministers but not respectful of their needs as victims.

I believe the Secretary of State to be a decent man. If he proceeds with the legacy approach that he has inherited, he needs to be certain that it will provide to all victims the same comfort and answers that he is offering the families in Omagh today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and support for my decision. On what he said about the main point of difference, I actually do believe that we are being consistent. For hundreds, if not thousands, of families over the 25 years since the troubles ceased and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement came into effect, there has been no justice or information about what happened to their loved ones during that period. Investigations might have come and gone, but to no result for those families.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am trying to improve the legacy Bill as much as possible by talking to everybody who has an interest in the legislation. I have met victims groups over the last four months, as has the Minister from the House of Lords—Lord Caine—to ensure that we get the legacy Bill exactly right so that it can give those families, if possible, at least some information about what happened to their loved ones. That is all Michael Gallagher really wanted when he started his campaign. He wanted to know as much information about what happened that day as possible, and I hope the inquiry I have announced today will give him that.

The Omagh bomb was one of the most appalling atrocities of the long campaign of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Even all these years later it is painful to hear the facts recounted at the Dispatch Box in the Chamber. I accept the decision that the Secretary of State has made. It is different from the one that I made, but I accept that circumstances have changed.

It is important in the inquiry going ahead that we address some of the defects in the public inquiry process. We want to avoid the delays that have beset some public inquiries. We want to ensure that the extensive investigations that have already taken place into the Omagh attack are carefully considered by this new inquiry. As the Secretary of State has said, it is vital that sensitive security information can be examined by the inquiry but not disclosed publicly in a way that would put lives at risk or jeopardise the fight against terrorism. I want to offer my support, condolences and sympathies to the Omagh families, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on the important points that I have made.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her questions and views; they are very valuable indeed. She knows better than anyone the complexities that sit behind the sorts of decisions that a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has to make. I find myself in a completely different position from the one that she found herself in all those years ago. The Government had lost a court case, and I had to consider what I was going to do based on its findings. She is entirely right. It is important that there is not duplication or undue delay, and that this targeted public inquiry delivers for all who have concerns, especially the families. I completely understand what she says about addressing defects of previous inquiries, and I would very much like to think we can get it right on this occasion.

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance notice and sight of his statement. The bomb that exploded on Market Street in Omagh on 15 August 1998 left hundreds of people injured and saw 29 people have their lives taken away from them in the most brutal, callous and indiscriminate manner imaginable. Several children lost their lives, including in the unspeakable tragedy that afflicted the Monaghan family, when 18-month-old Maura lost her life—the youngest of three generations who lost their lives that day—along with her mother Avril, who was pregnant with twins. It remains the worst single atrocity in the history of the troubles.

The pain of those who survived and continue to live in the dark shadows of the events that day can only be intensified by the knowledge that the security services held information that may have been able to prevent what happened, especially since, in the words of Mr Justice Horner, there is “no doubt” that the authorities could have done more to disrupt the activities of those involved.

Today’s announcement by the Secretary of State is long overdue, in my view, but no less welcome. We thoroughly welcome the fact it has been made, and we commend the Secretary of State for taking this step toward enabling the families who were affected on that day to access a route by which the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth can hopefully at last be established.

Like the shadow Secretary of State, I cannot help but notice a difference. I believe that everybody should have access to justice, truth and reconciliation on equal terms, but there is a contrast between the approach that allows for an inquiry of this nature to go ahead and the way that the shutters will be brought down by the legacy Bill. I know that he will, but I ask the Secretary of State to reflect deeply on the difference that sets up for all those who continue to grieve losses from the troubles. I urge him to reflect deeply on the fact that there can surely never be any time bar on access to truth and justice.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words and support today. I would like to think I covered briefly in the statement what he mentions on the legacy Bill. When the Bill comes back to this House after being amended in the other House, I believe we will be able to answer the questions that he and the shadow Secretary of State have raised. I understand the point he makes, but as I have just said, I have literally met hundreds of people who for years and years—decades—have had no answers at all using the current system.

Omagh is most definitely the worst atrocity and has been at the forefront of people’s minds. It is one of the legal cases that has been rumbling through the system for years. However, thousands of people in Northern Ireland have not had access even to an investigation in some cases. I would like to think that when the legacy Bill comes back to this place, I will be able to demonstrate to those people that they have a chance of getting information about what happened to their loved ones, just like we are doing for the victims of Omagh today.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the way in which he has presented this statement. He has reflected the sensitivity of these issues and the deep concern of the families involved. I well remember some of the complexities from my time in the Northern Ireland Office. The legal judgment he quoted quite rightly described the people who planned and carried out this appalling atrocity as “malevolent and evil”. It is important to put on record that they failed. They failed in their objective to disrupt the peace process, and they failed in their vision for a violent, divisive future for Northern Ireland.

It is vital that we continue to work with all parties across all communities to ensure that the peace process moves forward and that we can successfully deliver on the legacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which this atrocity was designed to disrupt and avoid. With that in mind, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard just yesterday from victims groups about the ongoing challenge of tackling paramilitarism. I know that my right hon. Friend has been engaging extensively with those groups. May I encourage him to continue to engage with those victims groups, and particularly to address some of their concerns about the information disparity on each side of the border? It was a vital part of the Stormont House agreement to have information from both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. May I urge him to engage with the Irish Government, as he said he will on the back of this inquiry, on ensuring that information flows from south to north to the victims groups in Northern Ireland?

I thank my hon. Friend for his wise words about what happened as a result of Omagh—it was not the success that the terrorists had wanted. They failed to derail the peace process and, on 10 April, we will reach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That agreement came at some price in political capital for many of the people who entered into it, but it has brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland for the last 25 years. As he rightly said, I am well aware of the ongoing Select Committee investigation into paramilitarism. I have engaged partially with it so far, but I believe that I will even have the privilege of attending and giving evidence to it in the near future. On Ireland, I would like to think that I have a constructive and friendly relationship with my counterparts there. At the last British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, we talked about a number of cases where information flows on both sides were mentioned, so we talk about these issues and I hope that we will engage fully on them as we move forward as well.

I remember exactly where I was the day that the Omagh bomb atrocity took place in August 1998 and I remember the news being announced, so we appreciate all the efforts today. My party has previously supported the Omagh families’ call for an article 2-compliant investigation, and I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. Although we know that evil republican terrorists detonated the bomb, we hope that the inquiry will help the families to establish more of the truth in their quest for justice. The bomb that murdered 29 people and the unborn twins that day was detonated in Northern Ireland, but it was planned, assembled and transported from the Republic of Ireland. In noting the comments of Justice Horner about a simultaneous investigation in the Republic of Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that unless there is such an investigation, it is unlikely that the full truth about what happened that day will be brought to light?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that his party leader, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), wanted to be present. The nature of giving statements, and the fact that I wanted to personally contact the families first, meant that that was logistically impossible, but I know that he and his party have supported the families’ call for the inquiry, and that the Gallagher family and his campaign appreciate that.

What the hon. Gentleman says about Ireland is true in many ways but, as I said, there is no way that the British Government can compel the Government of Ireland to do anything, in the same way that they cannot compel us. We are, however, talking to each other about a range of issues, much more constructively than we have done for a decent while. Discussions about issues such as this can be tough for both sides, but they are being done respectfully, and I know that both sides want to do the best they can by all the people we represent.

I welcome the statement and commend the Secretary of State for his leadership on this matter. The entire community in Omagh and further afield stands in solidarity with the families. It must be stressed on every occasion that the ultimate responsibility for the murders in Omagh lies squarely with the terrorists—there should be no ambiguity about that. I ask him to respond to Michael Gallagher, who said in response to the statement in the last few minutes:

“This is an inquiry that we’ve been calling for really since 2001… We believe that there was serious security and intelligence failings and I personally believe that Omagh was a preventable atrocity, had the right action been taken in the lead-up to Omagh.”

On the terms of reference that the Secretary of State set out, as comprehensive as they were, can he confirm that if the chair feels that he needs to go beyond that, he will have the flexibility?

I have not heard Mr Gallagher’s words, because obviously I have been in the Chamber and paying attention to hon. Members rather than regarding my phone or checking the news, but I completely understand his point and I am sure that that information, if it exists, will come to light in the inquiry. I hope that he will be able to prove to himself, and the community in Omagh will be able to prove to themselves and the wider community, exactly what happened one way or another. The terms of reference have not actually been set yet. When I have appointed the chair of the inquiry, we will have that conversation, but I will certainly take into account what the hon. Gentleman has said.

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome and commend his decision to establish an inquiry into the Omagh bombing? I also pay tribute to the victims and their families, particularly Michael Gallagher. I will never forget visiting the town towards the end of 1998 to see the devastation for myself—it was beyond heartbreaking. The Secretary of State is a decent man and a man of his word, and he completely understands the complexities of the issue—all hon. Members understand how difficult it is—but I echo the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) and the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) about how the inquiry will relate to the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. I am mindful of the comments that the Secretary of State has already made, but I ask him to keep an open mind in that regard and to continue what he is already doing, which is working with others to ensure that the Bill gets to the best possible place.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. As we have seen in previous exchanges at oral questions and in other places, he cares passionately about these matters for all the right reasons and has more than a passing interest in them. I enjoyed meeting him recently to talk about issues in the Bill and I hope that we can continue those discussions, because it is fully my intention to improve it so that I can stand here, when it returns to the Commons, and answer all the points that have been made, knowing, hand on heart, that I am doing the right thing.