OMAGH, Northern Ireland — When a massive car bomb killed 29 people and ripped through this quiet country town in 1998, many feared that the recently signed Good Friday peace accord for Northern Ireland would be torn apart as well.
The agreement survived the attack and its aftermath. But nearly seven years later, the Omagh bombing remains unsolved, and the wounds from the last major act of terrorism in Northern Ireland have not healed.
Now, however, survivors and the relatives of those who died have cause for hope. A prosecutor said in court Thursday that a 35-year-old electrician, already in custody on suspicion of several other terrorism crimes, will be charged next week with 29 counts of murder and other offenses in connection with the Omagh attack.
The suspect, Sean Gerard Hoey, was identified by a review of forensic evidence, the public prosecutor's office said without elaborating. Although a breakaway group of the Irish Republican Army, the Real IRA, apologized long ago for the bombing, Hoey will be the first to face murder charges in the case. A retrial was ordered early this year for the one person convicted in the attack, a man accused of aiding the plot.
"It's quite a turning point," said Michael Gallagher, the soft-spoken leader of the victims' families. "I've always felt very bitter that nobody had been held to account. The message for the last 35 years has been, you can literally create mass murder here and get away with it."
Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son, Aidan, was killed in the attack, has a clear view of the bombing site from the families' campaign office down the street. New buildings house a department store, trendy boutiques and cafes on a block that was reduced to rubble by the bomb, which injured more than 300 shoppers and workers. The street remains under reconstruction and is only partially accessible.
Speaking in the spartan office, Gallagher recalled that sunny Saturday of Aug. 15, 1998. Aidan, who worked for his father doing auto body repair, said he was going downtown to pick up a pair of jeans to wear on a date that night.
Gallagher was working on a car when he heard the explosion. His daughter Sharon was also downtown but wasn't injured.
After 16 chaotic hours and three hospital visits, Gallagher was taken to identify his son. "I was fortunate," Gallagher said. "Some had to wait up to three days and had very little to see."
The aggrieved families soon decided to mount a campaign they hoped would prevent the victims from joining the list of some 2,000 unsolved killings from "the Troubles," the conflict over whether Northern Ireland, a British province, should be made part of the Republic of Ireland.
Gallagher, a Roman Catholic whose younger brother had served in the British security services and was allegedly killed by the IRA in 1984, was elected to lead the Omagh Self-Help and Support Group. He found it impossible to return to fixing cars, especially as he saw the investigation going nowhere, and decided to work solely on the campaign for justice.
"I'd have my tools in my hands, trying to work, and thinking I should be banging down someone's door and saying, 'What can you do about this?' " said Gallagher, whose effort inspired a 2004 television movie, "Omagh."
The families weren't the only critics of the initial investigation. A 2001 report by the police service's ombudsman said police had ignored warning signs that a bombing was imminent, then bungled the inquiry. Northern Ireland's police chief eventually retired amid a storm of criticism.
Frustrated, the families decided on an unprecedented legal move: suing the Real IRA, the illegal organization that had admitted to the bombing, in civil court.
Five men accused by the families of plotting the attack are also being sued. The British government agreed to contribute nearly $3 million to the families' legal fight, which has not yet gone to court.
Among the five named in the case is the Real IRA's alleged leader, Michael McKevitt, who is serving 20 years in prison in Ireland. McKevitt was convicted of directing terrorism, a charge created amid the public outrage over the Omagh bombing.
Hoey was not among the defendants listed in the lawsuit.
A new criminal investigation in Northern Ireland led police to Hoey. Prosecutors decided to charge him after an 18-month review of the forensic evidence by an international panel of scientists.
Accused by prosecutors of being a member of the Real IRA, Hoey has been in custody since September 2003. The previous charges pending against him involved explosives and alleged possession of timers linked to mortar attacks and roadside bombs in the months before Omagh, according to news service reports.
As Hoey's trial looms, the Omagh families are again calling on Sinn Fein, the political wing of the mainstream IRA, to encourage its supporters to give evidence.
The families want Sinn Fein to make the same kind of public appeal it eventually made after a Belfast man was killed, allegedly by IRA members, after a barroom argument in January.
"Sinn Fein is happy to challenge the British state and complain about its system of injustice, but when it comes down to the other side of things, they are less willing to act," said Victor Barker, who lost his 12-year-old son, James, in the Omagh bombing.
Although someone might finally be held to account for the killings, the trial will be difficult for a town that has just begun to move on, several Omagh residents said. Some, like Paul Maguire, a 25-year-old office worker, are reluctant to expect too much.
"Everyone knows who did it, everyone knows their names," Maguire said, referring to the families' civil suit against McKevitt and the four others.
"Nobody had ever heard of this guy [Hoey] before. Hopefully he's not just some scapegoat."