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Omagh bomb families told 20 years felt like 100

UK News | Published:

Mourners still awaiting justice in a town where ‘reconciliation never really happened’.

In Omagh, reconciliation never really happened.

Twenty years later families bereaved by the bombing gathered for a ceremony redolent of history and full of memory.

Omagh Council chief executive at the time, John McKinney, said: “I am sure for you, 20 years is more like 100 years.”

The blast which ripped the heart out of this market town community happened just months after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended decades of conflict – but not entirely.

The single worst atrocity of the conflict was still to come, 29 killed by a massive car bomb which exploded in the busy main shopping street of the Co Tyrone town with inadequate warning.

Police had begun to evacuate the area, but were inadvertently shepherding people towards the site of the explosion, after the dissident republican bombers gave the wrong location.

Eyewitnesses at the time have recalled eerie quiet in the immediate aftermath and there was silence again 20 years later as Omagh gathered in mourning which has never really ended, justice never served, and the killers never caught.

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Among those present was Justin Hughes, a dapper man, wearing a smart grey suit.

Justin Hughes
Justin Hughes’ twin sister Julie Hughes died in the Omagh bombing and he lay flowers and blinked back tears during Sunday’s commemoration (Liam McBurney/PA)

He was there to remember Julie Hughes, a 21-year-old accountancy student home from university in Scotland ahead of returning to complete her final year.

She was his twin sister.

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She had a summer job working in a photographic shop and was evacuated due to the inaccurate warnings.

Mr Hughes gave his personal message among the flowers a quick kiss, then laid the bouquet on the edge of the reflective pool which forms the centre of the memorial garden, pausing only to gently adjust a white petal which protruded slightly.

He rose and walked a few steps, into the embraces – long and lingering – of his family.

It was a protracted hug, other family members looked on anxiously, one gave him a reassuring pat on the elbow and tilted her head close, unaware, for that moment, of other mourners passing by.

Mr Hughes blinked back the tears and dabbed his face with a handkerchief, receiving a peck on the cheek and an arm on the shoulder.

Leslie Matthews sang a piece called Our Special Absent Friends.

He said: “Three steps forward, two back.

“I hope and pray that justice will be done in the future.”

Twenty years after Omagh, Northern Ireland is in political limbo.

With powersharing at Stormont – the crown jewel of the 1998 peace agreement – suspended for months and endless rounds of negotiations unable to restore it, the future looks uncertain.

Mr McKinney recalled the sense of hope which surrounded the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

“A hope for a better place.

“A hope that we would grow together.

“A hope for reconciliation.

“Unfortunately, and I regret to say this, the reconciliation never really happened.”

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