Omagh Car Bombing

Angered by the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent talks aimed at ending the campaign of military confrontation in Northern Ireland, members of Óglaigh na hÉireann, or the “Real” IRA, a dissident, breakaway faction of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, detonated a car bomb in Omagh, Northern Ireland. The explosion killed twenty-nine—plus unborn twins—and injured more than two hundred people. The incident represented the greatest loss of life in a single incident in the history of Ireland’s “troubles.”

Summary of Event

From the time that Gerry Adams was elected to the British parliament in 1981 as a representative of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), there had been growing sentiment within this traditionally militant organization to work toward a diplomatic solution to the turmoil raging in Northern Ireland that began in 1969. The “troubles” in Northern Ireland were perpetuated by hard-liners on both sides of the argument who refused to adhere to previous agreements, compromises, or cease-fires. On one hand, Irish Republican Nationalists would be satisfied with nothing short of British withdrawal and the assimilation of Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland. On the other hand, the Unionists, who were primarily Protestants, insisted on maintaining Northern Ireland’s political tie to the United Kingdom. Terrorist acts
Omagh car bombing
Óglaigh na hÉireann
Northern Ireland;Omagh car bombing
[kw]Omagh Car Bombing (Aug. 15, 1998)
[kw]Car Bombing, Omagh (Aug. 15, 1998)
[kw]Bombing, Omagh Car (Aug. 15, 1998)
Terrorist acts
Omagh car bombing
Óglaigh na hÉireann
Northern Ireland;Omagh car bombing
[g]Europe;Aug. 15, 1998: Omagh Car Bombing[10120]
[g]Ireland, Northern;Aug. 15, 1998: Omagh Car Bombing[10120]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Aug. 15, 1998: Omagh Car Bombing[10120]
Adams, Gerry
McKevitt, Michael
Hoey, Sean
Murphy, Colm
Ahern, Bertie
Blair, Tony
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;Good Friday Agreement
Mitchell, George
Trimble, David

However, by 1997, it had become apparent that the peace process spearheaded by Adams and moderate Unionist leader David Trimble was gaining momentum. Because of the peace process, some minority factions within the Irish Republican movement denounced Adams’s cease-fire initiatives, and formed alternate organizations. One of the most visibly uncompromising of these groups was Óglaigh na hÉireann—eventually dubbed the “Real” IRA (RIRA)—which initially operated under the direction of Michael McKevitt, with a membership of approximately two hundred.

U.S. president Bill Clinton appointed George Mitchell, a former senator from Maine, as special envoy to Northern Ireland to expedite the negotiation process. Mitchell’s proposals were subsequently supported by Clinton, Adams, Trimble, British prime minister Tony Blair, and Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern. The proposals were essentially incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement Good Friday Agreement (1998) —officially known as the Belfast Agreement—of April 10, 1998. The split between the PIRA and the RIRA widened. The PIRA took Sinn Féin’s lead and accepted a continued cease-fire, while the RIRA denounced the initiative and launched at least four paramilitary operations between June 24 and August 1, 1998.

On August 15, 1998, a red Vauxhall Cavalier automobile, stolen in the Republic of Ireland and loaded with a 300-pound explosive charge, was parked on Market Street, just off the Omagh Market Square, in Omagh’s major shopping district. The charge went off at 3:10 p.m., hurling shrapnel-like debris several hundred feet and immediately killing twenty individuals. More died of injuries in the hours, days, and weeks that followed, pushing the total fatalities to twenty-nine. This total did not include the undelivered twins of Avril Monaghan. Among those caught in the explosion were a party of schoolchildren on an outing from Buncrana, County Donegal—including Spanish exchange students and their teacher. The teacher, Rocio Abad Ramos, and four of the children perished in the blast. A burst water main and an automobile crash that killed one motorist hampered rescue efforts. Approximately 220 maimed victims were treated and survived, however.

Three days later, the RIRA claimed responsibility for the attack. A controversy erupted immediately over at least three warnings twenty to forty minutes before the bomb detonated. These messages warned of an imminent explosion in the vicinity of the Omagh courthouse. The police cordoned off the area; some people were diverted toward Market Street where the Vauxhall was parked, inevitably causing fatalities. The RIRA was condemned for trying to maximize the casualties by phrasing the warnings in a vague and misleading way. However, the authorities were castigated, both by the RIRA and by the police ombudsman, for neglecting to act on intelligence which more accurately indicated the area where the blast would occur. There were even claims that British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5) and U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were aware of the plot but allowed it to proceed nonetheless. Allegations on both sides remain unproven.

Police officers stand at the scene of the Omagh car bombing of August 15, 1998, that killed twenty-nine people.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the years following the act of terrorism, ascertaining responsibility and administering justice remained largely unaccomplished. Though six suspects were named, including McKevitt, only two were actually charged. A pub owner named Colm Murphy was tied to the crime; he was accused of allowing the perpetrators of the bombing to use his cell phones. In 2002, Murphy was convicted for alleged participation in the bombing and sentenced to fourteen years. In 2005, the conviction was overturned on the basis of allegedly perjured police testimony. A retrial was ordered for 2007. In 2006, a seventh suspect, electrician Sean Hoey, was put on trial for the twenty-nine murders related to the 1998 bombing. In 2003, McKevitt was convicted in the Republic of Ireland and jailed on charges of planning terrorist attacks. None of the charges were specifically tied to the Omagh bombing; however several family members of victims filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in civil court against McKevitt and other suspects.


Although it ranks as the most horrific single incident in the ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland, the Omagh bombing proved counterproductive to the aims of its perpetrators. Popular revulsion against the bombing was so strong that the RIRA, an allied faction known as the Continuity IRA, and an allegedly allied group, the Irish National Liberation Army, officially proclaimed cease-fires. By 2006, the RIRA was barely operational. There remained disappointment that a peaceful, political solution to the conflict was yet to be fully realized, but a more optimistic view marked the Omagh bombing as a critical milestone in the turn of public opinion toward the Good Friday principles as a framework for a permanent settlement. Terrorist acts
Omagh car bombing
Óglaigh na hÉireann
Northern Ireland;Omagh car bombing

Further Reading

  • Cottrell, Robert C. Northern Ireland and England: The Troubles. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Provides succinct and easily read information on the conflict’s background and the progress of the peace initiatives.
  • Cox, Michael, Adrian Guelke, and Fiona Stephen, eds. A Farewell to Arms? From “Long War” to Long Peace in Northern Ireland. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. Collection of essays on the conflict includes discussion of the Omagh bombing both as a significant turning point and as a disappointment in its long-range impact on the peace initiative.
  • Dixon, Paul. Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace. New York: Palgrave, 2001. This book identifies the major players, and their roles, in the political process.
  • Doumitt, Donald P. Voices of Ulster: A Cry from the Heart. Commack, N.Y.: Kroshka Books, 1999. Presents a cautionary, but passionate, plea for peace.
  • Fay, Marie-Therese, Mike Morrissey, and Marie Smyth, eds. Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Cost. Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 1999. Statistical casualty data is used to illustrate the pervasive extent of the Northern Ireland conflict.
  • McKittrick, David, and David McVea. Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2002. Sees the events in Omagh as having backfired on the perpetrators and strengthened the pro-peace movement.
  • Moloney, Ed. A Secret History of the IRA. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Emphasizes the key role played by Adams, the infighting within the PIRA, and the ramifications of the Adams-McKevitt split.

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IRA Terrorists Bomb British Parliament

IRA Prisoner Dies After Hunger Strike

Anglo-Irish Agreement Is Signed

Ulster Peace Accord

Good Friday Agreement