He is the first person to appear before a criminal courts charged directly with constructing or placing the Omagh bomb. A civil case against five men allegedly involved is also before the courts.
Belfast magistrate, Desmond Perry, ruled that three minor charges relating to a 1998 bombing in Belfast should not be proceeded with, but otherwise he was satisfied there was sufficient evidence to return the defendant for trial.
Sean Hoey, aged 36, an electrician from Molly Road, Jonesboro, South Armagh, will face charges of conspiracy to cause explosions, conspiracy to murder, possession of explosive devices and 29 murder counts.
No date has yet been set for the hearing which could be delayed until next year. The case will be a complex one, relying on forensic evidence between a series of 1998 bombings.
The charges relate to what the prosecution claimed was a series of similar bombings carried out by a dissident republican group, the Real IRA, in 1998. They said the construction of the bombs is so similar that it is likely they were all made by the same person.
During a three-day preparatory hearing, fiber evidence was given to the court allegedly linking Hoey to eight devices and DNA evidence allegedly linking him to another four devices.
There is no circumstantial or other evidence directly linking the defendant to the Omagh bombing and the defense contends that the forensic evidence is inadequate and may be cross-contaminated. It also says the Crown’s case linking Hoey to the Omagh bombing is purely speculative.
Defense barrister Martin O’Rourke told the court it could not treat the evidence like “a line of dominoes” and conclude that if the accused could be linked to one bomb, he could also be held responsible for others.
Perry rejected a defense submission that he should look at each case in isolation, rather than — as the prosecution had asked — the cumulative effect of all the forensic evidence.
He said, for example, that the fiber evidence linked to a bombing in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, was “barely adequate” to return the defendant for trial, but taken with DNA evidence linking him to the same bombing, there was a strong case against Hoey.
Perry said there was a “huge quantity of evidence” that Hoey had made all the devices, “the most devastating of which decimated the center of Omagh in August 1998 and resulted in the tragic death of 29 innocent people.”
Asked by the magistrate if he had anything to say after the magistrate’s ruling that he be returned for trial, Hoey shook his head and mouthed “No” from the dock. Members of his family sat in the public gallery and he waved to them as he was led away.
Speaking outside the courthouse in Belfast, the father of one of the Omagh victims, Michael Gallagher, of the Omagh Self-Help Group, whose son, Aidan, died in the atrocity, said: “These last three days in court has been very, very difficult. I felt very nervous because, obviously, this is the court and things can go any way.
“It was a very nerve-wracking experience to sit there, but tremendous relief when we knew that at least one person is going to face charges in connection with Omagh,” he said.
Gallagher was also critical of the failure of the gardai to bring anyone to court. “We believe it is very regrettable that no-one has been brought to justice across the border, where the bomb team emanated from, and most of the evidential opportunities exist there,” he said.
Defense solicitor, Peter Corrigan, said his client would be strenuously denying the charges. “Obviously, we’re disappointed with the magistrate’s ruling today, we don’t think it’s the right decision,” he said.
“The evidence against the defendant is solely that he ‘may’ or ‘possibly’ constructed the Omagh device,” he said.
He also appealed to the public not to prejudge his client and said there had been huge political and public pressure on the police to bring someone before the courts.