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Police officers and firefighters inspect the damage caused by the August 1998 bomb in Omagh, Co Tyrone. PA
Omagh Bombing

UK Government to establish public inquiry into the Omagh bombing

The dissident republican bomb exploded in the Co Tyrone town on 15 August, 1998 killing 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.

LAST UPDATE | 2 Feb 2023

NORTHERN IRELAND SECRETARY Chris Heaton-Harris has said he intends to establish an independent statutory inquiry into the 1998 Omagh bombing.

The dissident republican bomb exploded in the Co Tyrone town on 15 August, 1998 killing 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins. Hundreds more were injured.

Relatives of victims of the atrocity had been advised that Heaton-Harris would make a statement in the House of Commons today.

Speaking in the Commons, he said he had listened to the representations of the families affected by the atrocity and taken their varying perspectives into account alongside other factors, such as “the independence of any future investigation, the costs to the public purse and how best to allay wider public concern”.

“I have weighed these up 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,” he said.

“I intend to establish an independent statutory inquiry into the Omagh bombing.”

In 2021, a High Court judge recommended that the UK Government should carry out a human rights-compliant investigation into alleged security failings in the lead-up to the attack.

Mr Justice Horner found that it was potentially plausible the attack could have been prevented.

His ruling came after a legal challenge by a bereaved family member against the Government’s refusal to hold a public inquiry.

The judge also recommended that the Irish Government establish its own investigation.

Heaton-Harris said he has informed Michael Gallagher, whose son Aiden died in the bombing and who took the legal challenge that resulted in the judge’s direction in 2021, of the decision.

He said he has also informed members of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group and representatives of Families Moving On.

‘Significant decision’

He said the inquiry “will focus on the four grounds, which the court held, as giving rise to plausible arguments that the bombing could have been prevented”.

He went on: “I know that this is a significant decision and I’m keen to explain now to the House why I believe it is also the most appropriate course of action.

“Firstly, 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 be capable of compelling the production of documents and witnesses and subjecting their accounts to scrutiny.”

Heaton-Harris noted the 2008 review conducted by Peter Gibson did not have such statutory powers, meaning he had “no means of compelling witness testimony”.

He went on: “It’s important that any investigation has sufficient tools at its disposal to access all necessary evidence and materials.”

The Northern Ireland Secretary said it is not in his power to call for “a simultaneous Article 2 compliance investigation” in Ireland.

“The inquiry will involve the next of kin and will be open to public scrutiny where possible,” he continued.

“This will of course, need to be balanced against national security considerations. And it’s important to note that there will be some material, which will not be able to be examined in public. A final report will be published which will respond to each of the issues identified by the High Court.

“You may be aware that in his judgment, Justice Horner expressed a desire that a simultaneous Article 2 compliance investigation occur in Ireland.

He recognised that it was not in the court’s power to order a cross-border investigation and nor it is in my power as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to do so, but I remain in close contact with the Irish government on this issue.

Heaton-Harris had pledged to announce the UK Government’s response to the judgment early in the new year.

The Secretary of State travelled to Omagh in December to meet some of the bereaved families and visit the site of the bombing and a nearby memorial garden.

omagh-bombing Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris speaks to the media after meeting with family members of victims of the Omagh bombing in December. PA PA

In his 2021 judgment, Justice Horner directed that a fresh investigation should take place into the Real IRA atrocity.

He said any probe should examine the failure to act on an informer tip-off or use intelligence and surveillance evidence about previous terror attacks.

The judge said a new investigation should also examine whether a politically motivated “de-escalation” of the security approach to dissident republicans in the months before the 1998 attack resulted in crucial intelligence not being acted upon.

Mr Justice Horner said he was not going to order specifically that the UK probe into the Omagh bomb takes the form of a public inquiry, explaining he did not want to be “prescriptive” about the methodology.

While having no jurisdiction to order the Irish Government to act on the matter, the judge also urged authorities there to establish their own probe in light of his findings.


The announcement of the inquiry has been welcomed by the families of the Omagh bomb victims, including Michael Gallagher.

“The Secretary of State has given us everything that we have asked for, and we’re very appreciative of that,” he said.

“It’s still sinking in, to be honest, I think it’s going to be a long time to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to hopefully get the answers that we need and we can move on.”

Gallagher said the probe announced did amount to a full public inquiry.

“My understanding is that it is a public inquiry, it’s a judicial inquiry with powers of investigation and that’s exactly what we wanted,” he said.

“This is not a case of deflecting the blame from those who are responsible – that was the criminal terrorists who planned, prepared and delivered this bomb into Omagh. What we’re looking at is the failings of the people that are there to protect us.”

He said reliving the events of Omagh through the inquiry would be “difficult” and “painful” for the families, but added: “If we don’t have this process, for the rest of our lives we’re going to be wondering ‘what if’.”

public-inquiry-into-omagh-bombing Omagh bomb campaigner Michael Gallagher speaks to the media at the Silver Birch Hotel in Omagh, Co Tyrone, after the announcement of the inquiry. PA PA

SDLP West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan welcomed the announcement and said he hoped it would prompt a similar move from the Irish Government.

“The events of 15th August 1998 left an indelible mark on the people of Omagh whose lives were shattered and unalterably changed by an act of unspeakable evil in this town,” McCrossan said.

“The horrifying attack on this community was designed to destroy the town and divide our people – those behind it have failed.

“The incredible fortitude of the people of Omagh has been inspiring. They should never have had to fight so hard or for so long for a proper inquiry to determine the truth about what happened that day. I am delighted for the families that they now have a path to the truth which is what so many of them have been campaigning for.

I hope that this announcement will spur similar action from the Irish Government.

The High Court judgment in 2021 clearly outlined the need for a cooperative investigation given the cross border nature of this atrocity and I was pleased to receive confirmation from former Taoiseach Micheál Martin that the Irish Government would review its approach to the case late last year.

“The people of Omagh deserve answers and I hope that this announcement brings that closer.”

Irish government

In a statement this afternoon, Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin welcomed the announcement of the inquiry.

“What happened in Omagh was a heinous attack, carried out by people with no respect for the lives of others or for democracy on this island. My thoughts are with the families of those murdered and with the survivors,” Martin said.

“The announcement by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris is welcome. I spoke with him last evening and he confirmed his intention to make today’s statement to me.

“We now await further detail from the UK Government, in particular on the Terms of Reference for their inquiry. I look forward to receiving that detail and then consulting with my Cabinet colleagues, in particular the Minister for Justice, about the next steps.”

Martin added that while welcoming the announcement, it also serves as a reminder “of the need to deal effectively with the legacy of the past, in a manner which advances the fundamental goal of reconciliation”. 

But speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster today, Michael Gallagher said: “I would say that the Irish government is running away from their responsibilities here, they need to engage.”

Gallagher said that he was “hugely disappointed” after the Taoiseach did not respond to an invitation handed over in person a year ago to meet the Omagh bomb families to discuss the judgment.

We have not to this date had any communication from the Taoiseach.

He added: “We’re not vindictive. The British government is not my enemy, the Irish government is not my enemy, we support the police on both sides of the border. We just need a thorough investigation to understand what happened.”

In a statement this afternoon, Justice Minister Simon Harris said the Irish government would discuss the UK inquiry today and consider what action it should take in response. 

 ”What happened at Omagh was an unspeakable and brutal act of cruelty. The terrorists who carried it out had simply no sense of humanity and they displayed a complete and shocking disregard for life itself. It is they who carry responsibility for this brutal act,” Harris said.

“We will never forget those who lost their lives, those who were injured and the families whose suffering for their loved ones continues.”

He said the Government is “deeply conscious” of the enduring suffering and hardship that survivors of Troubles-related attacks bear and that it has always sought to acknowledge and address “the legitimate needs and expectations of victims’ families and survivors of Troubles-related attacks”.

“It is the case, of course, that a number of reviews/investigations have previously taken place in this jurisdiction with regard to Omagh,” he continued.

I will be discussing today’s announcement with my Government colleagues and we will, of course, consider what further action is required on our part in response to the UK Government’s decision to establish an Inquiry.

“I look forward to receiving further detail on the proposed UK Inquiry as it becomes available.”

Speaking this morning, Harris had said the Irish Government would wait to see the detail of the UK government’s announcement on the Omagh bomb before responding.

“Clearly what happened in Omagh was absolutely unspeakable, it was a brutal act of cruelty,” he told RTÉ Radio.

“Those who carried it out showed absolutely no humanity. They showed a complete, shocking disregard for life itself and it’s they who carry responsibility for the brutal act.”

Additional reporting from Jane Moore

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