Only suspect in 1998 Omagh bombing freed as case collapses

Paul Faith
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Seamus Daly (R) walks to a car after being released from Maghaberry prison near Belfast, Northern Ireland on March 1, 2016

Seamus Daly (R) walks to a car after being released from Maghaberry prison near Belfast, Northern Ireland on March 1, 2016 (AFP Photo/)

Maghaberry (United Kingdom) (AFP) - Seamus Daly, the only remaining suspect in Northern Ireland's 1998 Omagh bombing that killed 29 people and threatened a peace deal, walked free from prison Tuesday after a British court dropped all charges.

Daly had been in Maghaberry high-security prison near Belfast for nearly two years awaiting trial after being charged over the atrocity committed by the Real IRA militant republicans -- a splinter group of the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army).

The case against Daly, a 45-year-old bricklayer, collapsed as prosecutors withdrew all charges after inconsistent evidence by a key witness in preliminary pre-trial hearings.

The car bombing, which also injured around 220 people, was the single worst atrocity of the sectarian conflict known as The Troubles in which around 3,500 people were killed over three decades.

No-one has ever been convicted in a criminal court over the bombing, which tore through the market town of Omagh, testing the peace accords signed only months earlier to put an end to the conflict.

In 2009, the Belfast High Court found that Daly and three other men were liable in a civil case brought by families of the victims and they were later ordered to pay more than £1.6 million (2.1 million euros, $2.2 million) in damages to the relatives.

In civil cases, guilt can be proven on the "balance of probabilities" rather than criminal law's requirement of "beyond reasonable doubt".

Daly has always denied involvement in the bombing.

"It's very painful but on the evidence we've heard, I wouldn't want anyone to be convicted," Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Aiden was one of those killed in the bombing, told the BBC after Tuesday's decision.

"I feel that there has been a chance wasted here. There never was a political will to find the people responsible," he said.

- Decision 'not taken lightly' -

Acting on conflicting bomb warnings, police had moved shoppers and shop employees into a part of Omagh where a car packed with 500 pounds (225 kilogrammes) of explosives was parked, unwittingly putting them in close proximity to the huge blast.

A fireball swept from the epicentre of the explosion and shop fronts were blown back on to shoppers inside. The blast was so powerful that some of the victims' bodies were never found.

Among the dead were nine children and three generations of one family.

The Real IRA -- which sees itself as the successor to the Irish Republican Army paramilitaries -- claimed responsibility for the attack.

Daly faced murder charges along with causing the explosion and possessing the bomb, and two charges relating to another 1998 bomb plot.

The decision by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to drop the charges came in preliminary hearings before the case had even reached trial in the Crown Court, taking the decision of whether to proceed out of the hands of judge Peter King.

"Under cross-examination a number of issues became apparent which impacted upon the reliability of the evidence that the witness was providing," said a PPS spokesman.

"On behalf of the PPS, I extend our sympathy to the families affected by the Omagh bomb. We hope they are assured that this decision was not taken lightly," he added.

- Ceasefire test -

Judge King later said he "must discharge Mr Daly and order his release immediately."

Daly was driven away by family members without making a comment.

The Release Seamus Daly campaign group hit out at his long detention.

"The case against Seamus Daly showed a total disregard for his human rights and liberty," it said in a statement.

Colm Murphy, the only man ever jailed over the bombing, had his conviction overturned in 2005 following accusations of perjury against police and a new trial was ordered.

Sean Hoey, an electrician from south Armagh, was found not guilty of the 29 murders in 2007 following a lengthy trial.

Around 3,500 people died in three decades of violence between Protestants favouring continued union with Britain, and Catholics seeking a unified Ireland.

The Omagh bombing was seen as a major test of the fragile peace established by the Good Friday agreements inked just four months earlier.