Buying justice for Omagh?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

We all feel for the families of the Omagh bombing victims. But the Government should not be giving them Pounds 800 000 to help to sue five dissident Irish republicans for damages. It is setting a dubious precedent, and mixing up emotionalism and politics with the process of justice in a way that is likely to benefit nobody -except, perhaps, the lawyers in Cherie Blair’s Matrix chambers.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Real IRA bomb that left 29 dead and 280 injured in the town of Omagh. Only one man has been jailed in connection with the atrocity; Colm Murphy is serving fourteen years in the Irish Republic for conspiracy. Nobody has been convicted of planting the bomb. The Omagh victims’ relatives, understandably frustrated by the authorities’ lack of progress,have launched a civil case against those whom they accuse of the murders, including Murphy and Michael McKevitt, who was jailed last week in Dublin for directing Real IRA terrorism.

The Omagh relatives’ campaign has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public, with high-profile support from the likes of Sir Bob Geldof and Peter Mandelson. Now the Government has stepped in very publicly to make up the shortfall, with Pounds 800,000 which is to be taken directly from Northern Ireland Office funds, not from legal aid. Paul Murphy, the Northern Ireland Secretary, says they are giving this money because ‘the vast majority of people’ want the families to have their day in court.

That may well be true. But since when has it been the job of the Northern Ireland Office, backed by the Lord Chancellor, to salve the Government’s guilty conscience by giving legal handouts to those for whom the public feels sympathy? Granting people justice should not be confused with giving them a government grant. Nor can those making the law and running the legal system afford to be guided by their professed feelings for particular victims.

The Northern Ireland Secretary claimed that the Omagh families qualify for such unprecedented support because theirs is ‘an exceptional case’. The BBC’s Ireland correspondent agrees that the Government has acted because it ‘recognised those special qualities of suffering which made Omagh unique’. Try telling that to the victims and relatives caught up in countless other tragedies, who may not see why their suffering should be considered any less ‘special’. Despite the Government’s insistence that the Omagh case is exceptional, it has given the green light for others to demand public money for their private prosecutions. Survivors of the Potters Bar rail crash have already signalled their intention to cite the Omagh money as a precedent. Why should not anybody who blames a car driver for their loved one’s death in a road accident now ask the Transport Secretary to finance a court case for damages? The creeping danger of compensation culture is not just that burglars bring silly claims for damages. It is also that genuine victims pursue worthy causes in the wrong way, turning every issue into a case of blaming and claiming. The Government’s intervention guarantees that this trend can only get worse.

Nor will the Government’s support for the Omagh families do much for the cause of criminal justice. Do the Lord Chancellor and other ministers really think that a claim for financial damages before a single judge is any way to hear a case involving the worst act of terrorism in Northern Ireland’s troubles? Some say the families have the best chance of justice this way, because the civil courts apply a lower standard of proof -the balance of probabilities -than the criminal courts’ standard of beyond reasonable doubt. But there is a good reason for that distinction; civil courts are not meant to try a crime such as murder, which the justice system treats as an offence against society, not a quarrel between individuals.

The police may have messed up the Omagh bombing investigation, but we can be certain that if they had the hard evidence they would prosecute their suspects in a criminal court. It should take more than suspicions and public sympathy for anybody to prove the accused are guilty of mass murder. And are the Omagh families likely get the ‘closure’ they say they are seeking? Win or lose, lengthy legal battles are bruising affairs not noted for their healing qualities.

The Government will not find the solution to its political problems in Northern Ireland by meddling in the civil courts. The pursuit of justice over the Omagh bombing is unlikely to benefit from such politically motivated, emotionally driven interference. Nor is the cause of democracy served by an atmosphere which dictates that anybody who criticises any of this is insulting the victims’ memory. The tragedy of Omagh seems set to continue.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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