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Northern Ireland Judge Awards $2.5 Million in Suit Over Terrorist Attack

A judge in Belfast has awarded more than $2.5 million to relatives of victims of the worst terrorist attack in Northern Ireland's history - the Omagh bombing of 1998. may have repercussions far beyond Northern Ireland's borders.

On Saturday August 15, 1998, an Irish Republican Army splinter group - known as the Real IRA - planted a car bomb in the market town of Omagh, in central Northern Ireland.

Darwin Templeton is the editor of The Belfast Newsletter, a daily newspaper with close ties to the Unionist or pro-British community.

"The warnings they [the Real IRA] gave were inadequate," he said. "And as the police were clearing the town, the car bomb exploded - and as you can imagine, there were massive civilian casualties. In the end, 29 people and two unborn children were killed in the bomb[ing] and there were hundreds of people injured."

Analysts say the attack was an attempt to derail the Northern Ireland peace process - but it failed.

The terrorist act came four months after the signing of the so-called Good Friday agreement. That accord came after years of negotiations between the pro-British community - predominantly Protestant - and Irish nationalists - predominantly Catholic, who favor union with Ireland. Among other things, the pact established a power sharing structure between both communities.

Many analysts say the Good Friday accord began the healing process following more than three decades of sectarian violence known as "The Troubles" in which more than 3700 people were killed.

Noel Doran, editor of the Belfast Irish News, a daily newspaper reflecting the views of the pro-Irish community, says police and government officials were unable to bring people to justice for the Omagh bombing.

"Despite assurances from the authorities that no effort would be spared to bring the perpetrators to justice, no one has been convicted in a criminal court of those murders," said Doran. "There was one prosecution for a murder and the charges collapsed during the trial. So no one really was convicted and that's why the relatives of the victims took the very unusual step of turning to a civil court to gain satisfaction through the legal process."

Twelve family members initiated the civil action in 2001, naming four members of the Real IRA, including leader Mike McKevitt, currently in jail, as responsible for the Omagh bombing. Just recently [June 8th] a judge in Northern Ireland awarded the family members more than $2.5 million in damages.

However Noel Doran and others say it is unlikely the money will ever be paid.

"It's almost certainly the case that the people who were named in court will maintain that they have no assets, they have no resources to cover that sort of outlay," said Doran. "But they will be forced to explain themselves, will be forced to justify their position - and they'll find it a deeply uncomfortable experience."

Darwin Templeton says the families wanted vindication more than money.

"The most important thing from the families' point of view is they have had an element of justice in the whole thing," said Templeton. "And the people they believe were involved in the bombing have now been publicly named and a judge has said that he believes that on the balance of the evidence they were part of it."

Templeton says the court ruling in Belfast could have repercussions far beyond Northern Ireland's borders.

"It's a very potent symbol to terrorist groups around the world that if you engage in terrorist activities against innocent people, that not only do you have to fear the response that perhaps the state will throw in your direction, but you also have to bear in mind that if the state fails, that there is a recourse in court for innocent victims to pursue," he added.

Noel Doran says there may be another similar case coming up soon.

"One of the lawyers involved in the [Omagh] case is already suggesting that the relatives of those who died in the bombings in London, which were thought to have been carried out by Muslim extremists a couple of years ago, that they will be the next group of relatives to take a case," said Doran. "Those bombings in 2005 killed a series of people in London and it's believed that the names of the organizers are known - so the possibility of a parallel or a similar civil action taking place in London is very much in the cards."

As for the Real IRA, British and Irish authorities say the terrorist group is still active. It is widely believed it was responsible for the murder of two soldiers and a police officer in different parts of Northern Ireland last March. But authorities also point out the level of threat is much lower than during the dark days of "The Troubles."