LONDON — Nearly 25 years after a car bombing killed 29 people in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh — the deadliest single attack of the era known as the riots — the British government said Thursday it would open an investigation independent to determine if the security forces could have prevented the bombing.
The decision, which came after a court ruled in 2021 that there was evidence the attack could have been prevented, is a stunning victory for the families of the victims, who had campaigned for a new investigation for more than a decade.
It comes at a sensitive time as the government is promoting so-called legacy legislation, which would grant immunity from prosecution for those who cooperate in investigations into unsolved murders from the three decades since the riots. Those investigations would be carried out by an independent commission.
Although Omagh is part of that bloodstained story, he falls into his own tragic category. The attack, in August 1998, occurred four months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which is credited with ending the sectarian violence of the riots. It was seen as a last spasm of terror by an Irish Republican Army splinter group, the Real IRA, which fiercely opposed the peace deal.
Britain’s decision also comes at a crucial time in negotiations between Britain and the European Union over post-Brexit trade deals for Northern Ireland. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has signaled that he would like to reach a deal before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Deal in April, which could draw President Biden and others to Belfast to celebrate their achievements.
“Having carefully considered the High Court ruling,” Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told parliament, “I believe that an independent legal inquiry is the most appropriate form of further inquiry to address the grounds identified. by the court. .”
“The Omagh bombing was a terrible terrorist atrocity committed by the Real IRA, causing untold damage to the families of those who were tragically killed and injured,” Mr. Heaton-Harris stated in his statement. “His impact was felt not just in Northern Ireland, but across the world.”
Among those killed in the mid-afternoon attack in Omagh, a busy market town, were a woman pregnant with twins, two Spanish tourists, six teenagers and six children. No one was convicted of the attack in criminal court, but four members of the Real IRA were found “responsible” for it in a civil case in 2009.
The independent investigation, which will be chaired by an as yet unnamed senior judge, will investigate four issues identified by the court: how authorities handled and shared intelligence, how they analyzed cell phone data, whether there was prior knowledge of the plot, and whether the authorities could or should have carried out an operation to thwart the Real IRA attack.
Questions about the bombing have festered for decades. British, Irish and American security agencies were accused of withholding intelligence about the Real IRA from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland police force. In 2008, the BBC reported that GCHQ, Britain’s electronic surveillance agency, listened to telephone conversations between the attackers on the day of the attack.
“It’s a huge risk for the government,” said Monica McWilliams, an academic and former politician who participated in the 1998 peace negotiations. Security agencies, she said, could be forced to reveal sensitive national security information.
British officials estimated the investigation would take at least two years and could take much longer. Ms. McWilliams said that her effectiveness would depend on her powers and the credibility of the person who chairs her.
A hastily conducted inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972, which largely exonerated British troops, was discredited as a cover-up. A further investigation, conducted by Mark Saville, a former British Supreme Court Justice, found that soldiers had fired on fleeing unarmed civilians.
While political analysts said there was no direct connection between the inquiry and trade talks between London and Brussels, they said the announcement could sway the mood in Northern Ireland at a critical time.
Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast, said this context was “very much on the minds of people in the UK government on everything to do with Northern Ireland at the moment.”
The British government has downplayed a recent media report that it was on the brink of a deal with the European Union. “Substantial gaps” remain between the two parties, a Downing Street spokesman said on Wednesday.
Probing Omagh’s secrets, McWilliams said, could help deepen a sense of reconciliation between nationalists and unionists in the North as the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches.
“We cannot raise anyone from the dead,” he said. “But it is a very timely announcement, given that there is so much angst surrounding the legacy legislation.”