With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement.
The Omagh bombing of 15 August 1998 was a horrific terrorist atrocity, committed by the Real IRA, which caused untold damage to the families of the 29 people and two unborn children who were tragically killed, and the 220 people who were injured. To this day, it remains the largest loss of life in a single incident in Northern Ireland. 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 upon democracy and the principle of consent; a future without the violence that had dominated the previous three decades and, 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 or 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; investigations by the Royal UIster Constabulary, by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland; as well as a review at the request of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, by Sir Peter Gibson, the then Intelligence Services Commissioner.
In 2013, my Rt Hon Friend, the Member for Chipping Barnet, decided not to establish a public inquiry into the Omagh bombing. My Rt Honourable Friend’s decision regarding the holding of a public inquiry was made in 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.
It identified four grounds which gave rise to the plausible arguments of preventability. These relate to:
- 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 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.
I have taken time since coming into post to consider carefully 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 – a very sobering experience – and crossed the road to the memorial garden which commemorates all those who lost their lives. I have also met representatives of Families Moving On, another support group doing incredibly valuable work, 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 up alongside 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.
Mr Speaker, 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 this decision.
The inquiry will focus specifically on the four grounds which the Court held as giving rise to plausible arguments that the bombing could have been prevented. The inquiry will also need to take into account the findings of previous investigations to avoid duplication. I know this is a significant decision and I am keen to explain now to the House why I believe this to be 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.
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 sufficient tools at its disposal to access all necessary evidence and materials and it is for this reason that I discounted the option of a non-statutory inquiry.
I also discounted referring the Omagh case to the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, which will be established by the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill that is currently being considered by the other place. The new ICRIR will have all the powers required to access all evidence and compel witnesses. However, the ICRIR has been designed to consider cases that occurred before the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, that is 10 April 1998. It is a well established approach to distinguish between cases that happened before the Agreement and afterwards and I do not think we should change that approach now and the legislation setting the ICRIR up has yet to pass into law.
Secondly, an independent statutory inquiry is an appropriate forum for examining the large volume of national security sensitive information which the Court has deemed to be at the core of the question as to whether or not the bomb 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 next of kin, and will be open to public scrutiny where possible. This will of course need to be balanced against national security considerations, and it is 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.
Mr Speaker, you may be aware that in his judgment, Justice Horner expressed a desire that a simultaneous Article 2 compliant investigation occur in Ireland. He recognised that it was not within the Court’s power to order a cross-border investigation. The UK and Irish Governments will remain in close contact on this issue.
Mr Speaker, I wish to assure the House that this decision has been taken following careful consideration of the facts, the findings of the High Court judgment, and 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 those families who have long campaigned for this outcome. I recognise however, that not all families affected by the bombing desire further investigation – some have worked hard to process their trauma and to move on with their lives, and do not wish to re-examine the past. I hope that the targeted nature of the inquiry, to allow it to answer the four points I mentioned earlier, will provide a middle ground whereby answers are sought for those who want them, without reopening avenues which have already been investigated to satisfaction.
In terms of next steps, I will now proceed to identifying a chair for the inquiry, and to finalise terms of reference following consultation with the 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 not be forgotten that those responsible for the deaths, injuries and destruction on that awful day in 1998 are the immoral terrorists. As Mr 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 agree with these words and I commend this statement to the House.