London (CNSNews.com) - In a major boost to an effort to sue those thought to be responsible for Northern Ireland's bloodiest terror bombing, the British government has granted $1.25 million in taxpayer-funded legal aid to the relatives of victims of the 1998 Omagh atrocity.
The announcement, made on Friday by U.K. Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy, will allow a civil case against the alleged bombers to go ahead.
"I have been working for many months with ministerial colleagues...to try to find ways of helping the Omagh families with the funding of their legal case," Murphy said.
"While I recognize the legal constraints and complexities, I have always believed that this is an exceptional case, and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and beyond want to see the families bring it to court.
"I am delighted to be able to say that these efforts have borne fruit," he said.
The bombing killed 29 people and injured hundreds.
The plight of the victims' families was highlighted by the conviction last week of Michael McKevitt, the man suspected of leading the dissident Real IRA group that is thought to have carried out the bombing.
McKevitt was given 20 years in prison in the Republic of Ireland for directing terrorism and membership in a banned organization.
But so far, only one man - Colm Murphy - has been convicted of charges directly connected to the bombing. The $16 million civil suit names five suspected Real IRA leaders, including McKevitt and Murphy.
Michael Gallagher, a spokesman for the families of the Omagh victims, said Monday that the momentum is on their side "for the first time in five years."
"We wanted to make sure that the people who bombed Omagh didn't get away with it," Gallagher said by phone from his home in Northern Ireland. "It has been a long, hard struggle."
Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son died in the bombing, said the strain of trying to raise money for the legal fight had been starting to take a toll on the Omagh families.
"We've been waiting for this for eight months," he said.
Two of the five men named in the civil suit, McKevitt and Liam Campbell, have also been awarded legal aid.
"We never objected to anyone getting legal aid, but we did object to the fact that there wasn't a level playing field," Gallagher said. "McKevitt and Campbell were getting legal aid, while the families (of the victims) weren't."
Murphy said he had asked the independent Law Society of Northern Ireland to review its decision to grant legal aid to the pair of Real IRA suspects on the grounds that they are not as poor as they claimed and thus are not in need of financial aid.
"While the decision to grant legal aid is taken independently of government...I have now asked them to look at their decision in the light of the new information," Murphy said.
Gallagher said the civil case "is good news for victims of terrorism anywhere in the world."
"It's the first time that the victims of terrorists, the families, have taken terrorists to court," he said.
Hearings could start early next year, Gallagher said.
The campaign has earned broad public support and the backing of several influential British and American politicians and celebrities.
In April 2002, President Bush sent a message of support to the families via the U.S. special adviser to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass.
"We are heartened that people in Northern Ireland are turning away from violence and instead relying on normal political and legal means to resolve issues and disputes," the letter read. "In that vein, we commend your decision to pursue legal civic action."
Gallagher said lawyers would be meeting this week in Omagh to discuss the next phase of the case. Friday is the fifth anniversary of the bombing.
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See Earlier Story:
Real IRA 'Leader' Convicted of Terror Charges in Ireland (Aug. 6, 2003)
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