DUBLIN — The Real IRA veteran charged with murdering 29 people in Omagh walked free from prison Tuesday after prosecutors concluded that the evidence against him — particularly a witness supposed to place him in the Northern Ireland town that day — was too weak.
Seamus Daly had spent nearly two years in prison awaiting trial for the Aug. 15, 1998, car bomb attack on a crowd of shoppers, workers and tourists. His case joined a string of failed prosecutions against the alleged Real IRA figures long blamed for the deadliest single bombing of the entire Northern Ireland conflict.
Daly, 45, did serve a brief prison sentence in the Republic of Ireland after pleading guilty in 2004 to membership in the Real IRA, one of several outlawed factions all styling themselves as the "true" Irish Republican Army. These small, feud-prone gangs reject the cease-fire observed since 1997 by the major group, the Provisional IRA.
The Real IRA planted a string of car bombs in Northern Ireland towns in 1998 in a bid to undermine support for that year's Good Friday peace accord, which sought to end a three-decade conflict that claimed 3,700 lives. Police prevented deaths in several other car bombings with swift evacuations.
But on that unusually sunny Saturday in Omagh, police responding to vague telephone warnings ordered people away from the town's hilltop courthouse down Market Street — and straight to the bomb parked outside a shop selling school uniforms. Most of those slain were women and children, including a mother 9 months' pregnant with twins.
At the time, public horror over the Omagh atrocity spurred an island-wide security crackdown on those IRA factions that refused to back the peace. The British and Irish prime ministers and U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the scene of destruction and vowed to isolate the extremists. But in the nearly 18 years since, those IRA factions remain active and Omagh has become a byword for justice denied.
Police have testified in court that telecommunications tower records document how a cellphone allegedly used by Daly traveled across the Irish border to Omagh on the day of the attack. A witness, Denis O'Connor, who previously testified that Daly used that phone to call him from Omagh a half-hour after the blast, performed badly on the stand last week during a preliminary hearing designed to test evidence.
"He sounded not a credible witness at all, a very untruthful witness. I would not want anybody to be convicted on that evidence," said Michael Gallagher, who has campaigned since 1998 for the Real IRA bomb unit responsible to be brought to justice. Nobody has been successfully prosecuted for the crime.
Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Aiden died in the attack, noted that three high-profile attempts to convict alleged members of the Omagh bombing team all have failed because of weak, disputed or overturned evidence.
"It's soul-destroying," Gallagher told reporters outside a courthouse in the Northern Ireland town of Ballymena, where the decision to abandon Daly's prosecution was announced.
Gallagher said few relatives of those slain at Omagh had come to Ballymena "because families have given up on ever getting justice."
Daly's lawyer, Peter Corrigan, compared prosecutors' case to "a house of straw." He said O'Connor committed perjury, while police had misrepresented their evidence on mobile phones used by the attackers.
In 2009, a Belfast civil jury found Daly and three other Real IRA figures responsible for the bombing and ordered them to pay 1.6 million pounds (about $2.5 million) in damages, a judgment upheld on appeal in 2013. They have refused to pay.
In 2007, electrician Sean Hoey — who had faced 56 charges, including construction of the Omagh bomb's power-timer units and 29 counts of murder — was acquitted on all charges after a Northern Ireland judge rejected forensic evidence and said police witnesses had lied. Hoey had spent four years behind bars awaiting trial.
In 2002, pub owner Colm Murphy was convicted of supplying the phones used by the bombers and received a 14-year prison sentence in the Republic of Ireland. His conviction was overturned on appeal eight years later after two detectives admitted they had rewritten their interrogation notes to remove conflicts in information.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which represents the British Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, said the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast had let down the Omagh families once again.