By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A 49-year-old publican and builder, Colm Murphy, has become the first person to be convicted in connection with the August 1998 Real IRA bombing of Omagh that killed 29 people and injured hundreds of others.
Murphy, a father of four who lives in Ravensdale, Co. Louth, had pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiring to cause an explosion likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property in the State or elsewhere between Aug. 13-16, 1998.
He will be sentenced on Friday. The charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Originally from South Armagh, Murphy remained impassive Tuesday as the 75-minute verdict was read out by Justice Robert Barr on behalf of the three judges in the no-jury Special Criminal Court in Dublin.
In one of the most closely watched verdicts in Irish criminal history, Barr said the bombing was the worst atrocity in Northern Ireland since 1969.
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Amid tight security, some of Murphy’s grim-faced relatives and friends were in the public gallery. One shouted, “What’s the charge of perjury in this State?”
Barr said Murphy was a republican terrorist of long standing who had been convicted of a series of offenses in Ireland and the U.S. and had served sentences for them.
No details of the convictions were given in the verdict, but they are understood to include firearms and IRA membership offenses in Ireland dating back to 1972, and a conviction in the U.S. in the early 1980s for trying to smuggle arms for the INLA.
The judges said Murphy was a liar with a long history of republican violence and they accepted Garda evidence he had confessed to them he had lent mobile phones to a known dissident republican and was aware he was going on a bombing raid.
An emotional Laurence Rush, whose wife, Elizabeth, 57, died in a Market Street shop when the car bomb exploded, broke down in tears after the verdict and said, “I’m so relieved.” He had sat in the public gallery within yards of Murphy.
“It’s as if a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “I cried for myself and I cried for the victims.
“Its only the crack in the plate. It’s the start. We are on the right road to justice. This is going to open the floodgates of justice.”
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said in a statement following the verdict that the bombing was “one of the most vicious outrages in the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
“Mr. Murphy was the first person to be charged and convicted in connection with the Omagh bombing,” he said. “No effort has been, or will be, spared by the Garda authorities in doing all they can to ensure that all those responsible for the Omagh bomb are brought to justice.”
The verdict was delivered after a 25-day trial in which the judges heard evidence of the mobile phones being tracked as they bounced off transmission masts north and south of the border on the day of the bombing.
One of the phones was Murphy’s and the other was borrowed from his building foreman and second cousin, Terence Morgan.
Morgan, who lives in Armagh, testified last November that Murphy had asked to borrow his mobile phone because his own wasn’t working.
Morgan retracted his statement this month and claimed police on both sides of the border had pressured him into making the allegations.
Instead, Morgan claimed he lost the phone before the bombing and had later found it in his van after the weekend when the bombing took place.
The judges rejected Morgan’s retraction and accepted the veracity of his original statement. They said Morgan’s demeanor and the general tenor of his new evidence that he had lost his phone was one of discomfort and untruthfulness.
Murphy had denied Gardai claims he had admitted his role when being questioned after his arrest in February 1999.
During the trial, the judges found two gardai were discredited witnesses after it emerged that interview notes had been rewritten.
Murphy was interviewed for two days in Monaghan Garda station and the judges said that even though one Garda team’s evidence was discredited, it did not taint admissions made to the other two teams.