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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Year Later, Omagh Is Still Seeking Justice




OMAGH, Northern Ireland -- Within hours after the huge car bomb exploded in the crowded town square here - killing 29 people who had come downtown to shop on a bright August Saturday - police had a fairly good idea who the culprits were. Just days later, their suspicions were confirmed when a splinter faction of the Irish Republican Army admitted responsibility.


And yet, as the people of this pleasant town gather Sunday to mark the first anniversary of their town's darkest day, police records list the Omagh bombing as an unsolved crime. Although many people - including ranking members of the local government - appear to know who the killers are, nobody is in jail for the crime, and police seem to have reached a dead end after a year of intense detective work.


About two dozen people have been arrested, some more than once. Yet all but one of those suspects have been released without charges. Colm Murphy, 46, a pub manager from the Irish Republic, has been charged with conspiracy in the case, but he is currently free on bail and no trial is scheduled.


The car bomb that blew up last Aug. 15 killed grandmothers, school children and a woman pregnant with twins. It injured more than 350 people, leaving some maimed and others blinded. It infuriated the people and the political leaders of Britain and Ireland, who swore that those responsible would face swift and stern police action.


But to take action, the police need cooperation from people familiar with the killers. And that has been slow in coming.


The IRA and other paramilitary groups hold to a code that requires that no member cooperate with police. Violators of the code are punished by beatings or murder.


On top of that, politicians affiliated with the IRA view Northern Ireland's police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as a political adversary.


A group of hard-liners who call themselves the Real IRA have admitted detonating the Omagh bomb. The faction is small; police estimate no more than a few dozen people.


Numerous reports here say that the Real IRA is centered in Dundalk, just south of the border. Its leader is said to be Michael McKevitt, who broke with the IRA when it backed the Good Friday agreement, which was designed to end nearly 30 years of sectarian warfare and give Catholics additional political power in the predominantly Protestant province.


At the time of the bombing, McKevitt lived in a quiet suburban home near Dundalk with Bernadette Sands-McKevitt. She heads an anti-agreement organization called the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, which argues that the 26 counties in Ireland and the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland must be reunited under the republic's flag.


Sands-McKevitt has been a successful fund-raiser among Irish Americans, and some of the U.S. money she brings home pays for the Real IRA's deadly arsenal, according to IRA-watchers here.


Both McKevitts have denied involvement in the bombing.


Officials of Sinn Fein, the political party connected to the IRA, are familiar with the Real IRA, and seem to know which members were involved in the Omagh bombing. But these people have refused to share any of their knowledge with the police.


Martin McGuinness, the second-ranking member of Sinn Fein and an elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly has all but conceded that he knows who planted the bomb.


Asked why the Omagh killers have not been punished, McGuinness reacted angrily. "But they didn't get away with it," he replied. "We in Sinn Fein mobilized against them. We've told the people responsible that this [killing] has to stop, and it has."


But if McGuinness is in touch with "the people responsible," why won't he tell the police who they are?


"I am not an informer," he said. "You can't ask me to confer legitimacy on the policing power. I have no respect for the RUC. I won't help them."


On Sunday, townspeople, relatives of the dead, and victims recovering from their injuries will hold a series of memorial church services followed by a cross-community ceremony on the rebuilt town square.


One of those present will be Victor Barker, a lawyer from Surrey, England, whose son was killed in the blast. "There are people in official positions who know the perpetrators but won't take a single step to see them brought to justice," Barker said. "We can have memorial services forever, but you'll never have an atmosphere of peace as long as the people who did this are walking around free."


Police in Northern Ireland were examining a homemade bomb for clues Thursday after it was found by workmen at a Belfast primary school, Reuters reported.


The device - a coffee jar filled with a small amount of explosives attached to a detonator - was discovered in a sports bag in a storeroom,a police spokeswoman said. A shotgun and ammunition were also found.


There was no immediate indication who put the bomb in the storeroom or whether the school was the intended target, but the discovery will further fuel fears of a return to violence after a series of recent arrests and arms seizures in the Irish Republic and the United States.