Militant convicted of conspiring in Northern Ireland's deadliest bombing

Tuesday, January 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ A veteran anti-British militant was convicted Tuesday of aiding the dissident Irish Republican Army car-bombers who killed 29 people in the single deadliest attack in Northern Ireland's three decades of bloodshed.

Colm Murphy, 50, did not speak as the three judges of Ireland's Special Criminal Court found him guilty of conspiring to cause the Omagh explosion, a charge that carries a possible life sentence. His sentencing was scheduled for Friday.

The senior judge, Justice Robert Barr, said he and his colleagues accepted evidence that Murphy had supplied two mobile phones used by the Real IRA bombers who abandoned the 500-pound car bomb in the middle of Omagh's crowded shopping district on Aug. 15, 1998.

The phones were used for the explosives-laden car to communicate with a scout car and, possibly, the person who made three misleading phone warnings that contributed to the death toll.

Relatives of the 29 slain and more than 300 injured welcomed the conviction, the first connected to the Omagh bombing. They appealed to police in both parts of Ireland to keep seeking evidence that would put the entire bombing team behind bars.

``Perhaps, finally, we are starting to see justice done,'' said Laurence Rush, whose wife Libbi died in the blast.

Rush, who sat less than 10 yards from Murphy in the courthouse _ and beside more than a dozen relatives and supporters of the militant _ broke into tears outside. Later, Murphy showed no sign of emotion as he was led away to Portlaoise Prison under the guard of a dozen armed soldiers.

In his verdict, Barr said the judges had concluded that Murphy lied to borrow a mobile phone from one of his employees, and lied again to police when he initially denied supplying two phones to a senior Real IRA activist, Seamus Daly, who has not been charged in connection with the Omagh bombing.

The judge said Murphy confessed that he had given the phones to others after he learned police had solid evidence that both phones were used in Omagh on the day of the attack, as well as in another Northern Irish town for a car-bomb attack two weeks later.

Murphy's admissions to police ``had a firm ring of truth about them,'' Barr said, adding that they served ``to distance himself from direct participation in the Omagh bomb'' and may have concealed a more hands-on role in the operation.

The judge cited Murphy's long history of involvement in violence in neighboring Northern Ireland.

Murphy was convicted of arms possession at the same Dublin court in 1972. After escaping from prison, he was convicted again in 1976 of possessing illegal arms and membership in the IRA.

He was arrested once again in an FBI sting in the United States in 1983, when he was trying to buy M-60 heavy machine guns. He served two years of a five-year sentence and returned to Ireland, where he became a successful pub owner, building contractor and land owner.

After the IRA called a cease-fire in 1997, Murphy built ties to a new dissident group dubbed the Real IRA. It was founded that year in Murphy's hometown of Dundalk, which borders Northern Ireland. The group in 1998 planted several car bombs in hopes of preventing, then derailing, the Good Friday peace accord struck by the province's politicians that year.

Police emphasized Tuesday they haven't given up hope of convicting more Real IRA suspects in connection with Omagh. Two of the group's alleged leaders, Michael McKevitt and Liam Campbell, have been imprisoned on the lesser charge of membership of an illegal organization. Murphy still faces a second trial on that charge.

``This conviction is a hard-won milestone,'' Assistant Commissioner Kevin Carty said. ``We sincerely hope it is not the last.''