Trapped by technology and terrorist past

COLM Murphy was nowhere near Omagh on the day of the biggest single terrorist atrocity in the history of Northern Ireland’s troubles.

Holding court at The Emerald Bar, the pub he owns across the Irish border in Dundalk, Co Louth, he had seven witnesses prepared to testify to his alibi.

Detectives also had no forensic evidence to connect the quietly spoken businessman, who had his own building company, with the bomb planted in the centre of Omagh.

It was a combination of cutting-edge technology and Murphy’s known past as a republican terrorist that exposed his role in the Omagh bombing.

Engineers from Vodafone used data from base stations to track a mobile phone owned by Murphy as it travelled from Co Monaghan to Omagh and back on the day of the bombing.

Murphy initially admitted lending his phone, and another belonging to a foreman at his company, to republicans, saying he believed they were moving a stash of rifles.

His 30-year history of involvement with terrorism persuaded the three judges at his trial that Murphy knew exactly what the phones would be used for.

On 15 August, 1998, a Real IRA gang used them to communicate between two cars which drove to Omagh. One of them was a "scout" car travelling ahead looking for road-blocks. The second was carrying a 500lb bomb, which was abandoned in the town’s Market Street.

At 3.10pm on a sunny August Saturday, the Co Tyrone town was filled with mothers buying uniforms for their children in preparation for the new school term. A carnival had attracted children from Co Donegal and a group of tourists from Spain.

The coded warning 40 minutes before the blast spoke of a bomb at the courthouse at the top of the High Street.

Police evacuated the area around the building, shepherding shoppers down the road to the junction of Dublin Road and Market Street - exactly the spot where the Vauxhall Cavalier packed with explosives was standing.

The blast killed 29 civilians, including one woman who was pregnant with twins. Most of the dead were women and children and they came from both the Protestant and Catholic communities.

An 18-month-old girl was killed as well as two Spanish tourists and three schoolboys from the Irish Republic. More than 300 others were wounded in what remains the bloodiest atrocity since the start of the troubles in 1969.

Murphy may have adopted the role of a law-abiding businessman but was described in court by one of the judges in his case as "a terrorist of long standing".

The 49-year-old from Belleeks, Co Armagh, has worked for various factions of republicanism during the past 30 years and served jail sentences on both sides of the Atlantic.

His first appearance at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin was in 1972 when he was sentenced to two years after police found a loaded revolver in his car. Three years later he was in court again, jailed for three years for further firearms offences .

After his release, Murphy went to America on an INLA gun-running mission. He was caught in July 1983 attempting to buy M60 machine guns for shipment back to Ireland.

After serving a prison sentence in the United States, he moved to Dundalk in 1985 to set up The Emerald Bar, which became known as a republican meeting place. Disillusioned with the Sinn Fein leadership and the peace process, he was drawn to the dissident Real IRA group, which has a strong following in the town. Its leader, Michael McKevitt, and his wife, Bernadette, sister of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, live just outside the town.

Intelligence has also linked Murphy to the Army Council of the Continuity IRA.

Murphy had remained out of the courts during the past 15 years but retained close links with active dissident terrorists. As well as his pub, he started a successful building company in Dundalk, which employed more than 30 people and held prestigious contracts, including developments at Dublin City University.

His business interests were estimated to be turning over 1 million a year and he owns 30 acres of land in Drogheda, Co Louth.

Among those who have worked for him are Seamus Daly and Oliver Traynor, two men suspected of involvement with the Omagh bomb. Daly collected two mobile phones from Murphy the day before the bombing.

After trawling through data stored by Vodafone computers, it emerged that 11 calls were made to and from Murphy’s phone in the Omagh area on the afternoon of the atrocity.

Murphy’s phone was used in Omagh itself and a phone he had borrowed was again used in Omagh less than an hour before the bomb exploded.

In October 2000, a BBC Panoroma programme named Murphy, Daly and Traynor as suspects in the bombing, along with Liam Campbell, a 38-year-old "officer" in the Real IRA.

Murphy is the only one charged by the police, showing his wealth by coming up with the 100,000 punt bail.

Some relatives of the Omagh dead were convinced of Murphy’s guilt the first time they saw him.

Stanley McCombe, who lost his wife, Ann, in the blast, said: "At first sight I knew he was guilty as hell. He knew that many of the relatives of the dead were in court, he could feel the anger and I could tell by the way he was sitting how guilty he felt. I was close to him in court and he made my blood boil.

"Words do not exist that describe the way I feel about him. Hate is too soft a word."

Families of victims of the Omagh bomb are planning a civil action against the other men suspected of involvement in the atrocity. They are attempting to raise 1 million to pursue a legal action against Murphy, Daly, Campbell and Traynor. Real IRA chief McKevitt and his wife are also expected to be named in the writ.


THE splinter group behind the Omagh bombing has taken a relatively short period to emerge from the shadows of the Provisional IRA, to be established as one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups.

The Real IRA was born out of a bitter republican split in October, 1997, when the IRA’s quartermaster-general, Michael McKevitt, left over the direction Sinn Fein was taking in the peace process.

McKevitt founded the Real IRA as a response to a significant body of staunch republicanism which believed Sinn Fein had "sold out" by beginning negotiations towards a compromise with unionists.

With a power base in the hard-line republican heartland in the notorious "bandit country" of County Louth, security sources estimate the Real IRA has 100 or more members, including former IRA bomber Oliver Traynor, suspected of involvement in the Omagh bombing.

The group is believed to have successfully replicated the IRA’s highly disciplined "active service units" - a handful of members living apparently ordinary lives on the British mainland.

There have also been reports that Real IRA members have stolen arms from their former organisation, while other indications have pointed to a closer, complicit, relationship between members of the two groups. It is widely understood that the Real IRA has had access, at the very least, to IRA arms dumps.

Within ten months of its creation in 1997, the Real IRA imprinted its name on the consciousness forever when a car bomb exploded on a busy shopping street in the market town of Omagh.

Briefly cowed by public outrage and the arrest of its founder, McKevitt, after an undercover FBI agent infiltrated the organisation, the Real IRA temporarily called off their hostilities. But not for long.

In September, 2000, the group launched a high-profile missile attack in London on the headquarters of Britain's intelligence services at Vauxhall, and last year shook the BBC headquarters with a huge car bomb.

In August, the group claimed responsibility for a car bomb at Ealing Broadway.

Closer to home , the Real IRA has been responsible for a steady growth in the number of attacks on security bases in Northern Ireland - including assaults last year at Armagh, Glassdrumman and Ebrington.

Earlier this month it emerged that police on both sides of the Irish border believe the Real IRA has earned more than 40 million from smuggling since 1999. Security sources believe their funds have been boosted by a cigarette, petrol and drug smuggling operation which has turned them into one of the most effective criminal groups in the Republic.

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