On August 15, 1998, members of the paramilitary Real Irish Republican Army parked a maroon car packed with 500 lbs of explosives outside a store on the main shopping street of Omagh, a town in Northern Ireland. According to later reports, they intended to blow up the local courthouse, but could not find parking close to it.
RIRA Members then made three warning phone calls to a local charity and a local television station warning that a bomb would go off shortly. Their messages about the bomb's location were ambiguous, though, and the police' effort to clear the area ended up moving people nearer to the bomb's vicinity. RIRA denied accusations that they had deliberately provided misleading information. RIRA took responsibility for the attack on August 15.
People around the attack described it as akin to a war zone or killing field. Descriptions were collected from television and print statements by Wesley Johnston :
I was in the kitchen, and heard a big bang. Everything fell on me - the cupboards blew off the wall. The next thing I got blasted out into the street. There was smashed glass everywhere - bodies, children. People were inside-out. –Jolene Jamison, worker in nearby shop, Nicholl & Shiels
There were limbs lying about that had been blown off people. Everyone was running round, trying to help people. There was a girl in a wheelchair screaming for help, who was in a bad way. There were people with cuts on their heads, bleeding. One young boy had half of his leg completely blown off. He didn't cry or anything. He was just in a complete state of shock. –Dorothy Boyle, witness
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. People were lying on the floor with limbs missing and there was blood all over the place. People were crying for help and looking for something to kill the pain. Other people were crying out looking for relatives. You could not really be trained for what you had seen unless you were trained in Vietnam or somewhere like that. –Volunteer nurs on the scene at Tyrone County Hospital, Omagh's main hospital.
The attack so horrified Ireland and the UK that it ended up pushing forward the peace process. Martin McGuiness, the leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein, and party president Gerry Adams condemned the attack. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was "an appalling act of savagery and evil." New legislation was also immediately introduced in the UK and Ireland that made it easier to prosecute suspected terrorists.
Investigations in the immediate aftermath of the bombing did not turn up individual suspects, although the Real IRA was an immediate suspect. The RUC arrested and questioned about 20 suspects in the firs six months following the attack, but could not pin responsibility on any of them. [RUC stands for Royal Ulster Constabulary. In 2000, it was renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland, or PSNI]. Colm Murphy was charged and found guilty of conspiring to cause harm in 2002, but the charge was overturned on appeal in 2005. In 2008, families of the victims brought a civil suit against five men they charge were instrumental in the attacks. The five included Michael McKevitt, who was convicted in a case brought by the state of 'directing terrorism;' Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, Seamus Daly and Seamus McKenna.