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20 August 1998 Edition

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They must not wreck the peace

The devastation of a quiet market town



By Laura Friel
There was a loud bang, a moment's silence and then cries of pain, bewilderment and the wail of security sirens. Through clouds of dust and debris survivors staggered to safety, separated relatives searched for each other. Amongst the rubble of three collapsed buildings lay the dead and the seriously injured.

Omagh is the busiest market town in rural County Tyrone. Saturday is the busiest day of the week, with shoppers travelling to Omagh from surrounding townlands and outlying villages. On Saturday 15 August a holiday carnival in the town had attracted even greater numbers. By mid-afternoon the streets were teeming with shoppers and daytrippers.

At 2.30pm a telephone call to a Belfast television newsroom warned of a bomb planted in Omagh town centre in the location of the Courthouse, ``Main Street''. Omagh courthouse lies at the top end of the town's High Street. At 2.35pm the RUC and British Army began to move people away from the courthouse into Market Street. At the corner of Market Street and Dublin Road, 400 yards from the courthouse, people gathered waiting for the all clear.

Many believed the bomb warning was just a hoax, everyone believed they had been moved to safety behind the cordon; in fact they had been moved directly into the path of the explosion.

At 3.10pm a 500lb bomb exploded in a car parked at the junction of Market Street and Dublin Road killing 28 and injuring over 200 people, the majority seriously.

For the next four hours the scene was one of mayhem as the emergency services, assisted by many ordinary people caught up in the chaos, recovered bodies and battle to save lives. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, door and benches were utilisised as makeshift stretchers, buses and cars were commandeered to transport the injured to hospital.

At Tyrone District Hospital resources quickly became stretched to their limit and beyond. A fleet of helicopters transported the critically injured to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, the seriously injured were dispersed to hospitals throughout the Six Counties.

In Omagh hundreds of people gathered at the hospital waiting for news of missing family members. It was 2.30am on Sunday before the number of dead and injured were confirmed. It took a further 48 hours before all the dead were identified. For families and friends it was a terrible ordeal.

Amongst the dead were three generations of one family, 65 year-old Mary Grimes was shopping with her daughter Avril (30) and 18 month old grand daughter Maura. Avril was eight months pregnant with twin girls. 21 month old Breda Devine was with her mother shopping for shoes to wear at her uncle's wedding next week. Breda died at the scene, her mother Tracey remains critically injured with 60% burns, her uncle Gary McGillian and his fiancee, Donna Marie are also seriously injured.

Sean McLoughlin and James Barker both aged twelve and 8-year-old Oran Doherty had travelled from Buncrana in County Donegal on a day trip to the Ulster American Folk park with a group of Spanish students. A Spanish teacher, Rocia Abad Amos and a 12-year Spanish student Fernando Blasco Baselga died with them. Five other students from Madrid were injured with one 12-year-old girl still critical on life support at the RVH.

Teenage best friends, Lorraine Wilson and Samantha McFarland, died as they worked voluntarily in the town's charity Oxfam shop. 17-year-old Jolene Marlow, a keen sportswoman, a camogie and gaelic football player, had met her younger sister in town for lunch. The two girls had met their aunt Rosie McNelis by chance. Jolene died at the scene, her sister and aunt were seriously injured. Philomena Skelton died as her two daughters tried on school uniforms in a local shop.

The loss of an only son, Adrian Gallagher, the death of father and son, Fred and Brian White, the loss of a beloved wife, Elizabeth Rush, Anne McCombe, each individual tragedy tells its own story.

As each day passed trauma and horror began to be replaced by grief and sorrow, as the focus shifted from the scenes of devastation in Omagh town centre to the parade of funerals, 16 in a single day, as each individual family mourned their loss and buried their dead. For the bereaved, the injured, the traumatised and saddened, for the people of Omagh, of County Tyrone and further afield, it will be a long haul towards recovery.

 

Strong and swift nationalist anger



By Laura Friel

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams described himself as ``totally horrified'' after arriving in Omagh to meet relatives of the dead and injured. ``It is now time to show solidarity with the families of the bereaved, of the injured, of the people of this town and the people of County Tyrone''.

Adams said the great expectations people had in their hearts should not be allowed to be shattered by what had happened in the town. The Sinn Féin MP called on the bombers to reflect on the enormity of their actions. ``We are saying they should stop and stop now.''

Martin McGuinness said he believed that nationalist and republican voters who had supported the peace process would put pressure on the bombers to stop.

Deputy Minister Seamus Mallon described the actions of the bombers as ``totally against the wishes of the vast majority of the people of the people of Northern Ireland and of their political representatives who have tried so hard to find a peaceful way foreward.'' SDLP Leader John Hume said the bombers were ``clearly attempting to impose their will on the people of Ireland as a whole against the will of the people of Ireland.''

Ruairi O Bradaigh of Republican Sinn Fein said he deplored the ``absolute inhumanity'' of the ``slaughter of the innocents'' and concluded, ``It is a severe setback to the project of achieving British government disengagement from Ireland and blurs the British responsibility for the situation here.''

Describing the bombing as ``an attack on democracy'' Taoiseach Bertie Ahern warned that the Dublin government would ``ruthlessly suppress'' those organisations seeking to ``defy the will of the Irish people.'' Speaking on Tuesday night, Ahern issued a 24 hour ultimatum for dissident republican groups to declare a ceasefire. Noting a recent statement by the IRSP encouraging the INLA to call a ceasefire, Ahern called on Republican Sinn Fein and 32 County Sovereignty Movement to urge the military groupings associated with them to end their campaign. It would be ``insanity'' said Ahern, ``for them to go against the wishes of the Irish people. If they don't, we will intensify every single effort to break these organisations.''

Michael Pierse adds:

Irish America was swift and unambiguous in its response to the Omagh bombing. The President of the Irish National Caucus, Fr. Seán McManus said, ``Irish-Americans totally condemn this monstrous act of savagery. If a few misguided Irish-Americans were ever tempted to support the group responsible for the Omagh bombing, then surely they must now reject such a group.'' President Clinton said that ``on behalf of the American people, I condemn this butchery.''

South African President, Nelson Mandela was also scathing of the bombers. ``The overwhelmingly positive results in the recent Irish referendums showed a determined desire for peace rather than conflict and violence. So much goodwill and faith should not be lost to the mindless violence of a few,'' he said.

In the Basque Country Herri Battasuna condemned the bombing. They said it was ``the work of certain sectors opposed to dialogue who wish to destroy the peace process.''

A joint statement from three German solidarity groups typified the disgust and contempt with which the massacre was received. ``There is absolutely no excuse for endangering the lives of innocent civilians, which was obviously the case in Omagh, either by mistake or intent, even more when the result is the cold-blooded slaughter of infants and children'' said the Irlandinitiative Heidelberg, Irlandinitiative Bielefeld and Irlandgruppe Cologne.

Robert Ballagh, speaking for the Irish National Congress, adressed the bombers directly: ``To those who were responsible for the deaths and the mutilation of children, women and men, the INC says - you represent no-one but your own misguided selves, you share in none of the republican objectives which aim to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter and to achieve justice, peace and equality for our fellow citizens''.

In Clonakilty, Co Cork the 1798 Republican Commemoration Committee cancelled their planned ceremonies for the bicentenary. In a joint statement from Sinn Féin's four Co. Cork elected representatives, Councillor Martin Hallinan from Youghal, Councillor Kieran McCarthy, Cobh, Commissioner Ann O'Leary, Bantry and Councillor Cionnaith O Súilleabháin of Clonakilty said ``we want to stress in the strongest possible terms to the public that those who calculated, planned and perpetrated this awful dastardly deed in no way represent Sinn Féin and the true meaning of Irish Republicanism''.

 

A collective sense of grief




Barry McElduff talks to Laura Friel about ``the indescribable anguish'' in Omagh and West Tyrone

Barry McElduff was driving back to Tyrone from Dublin when he first heard news of the Omagh bombing over his car radio. Sinn Féin's representative for the Mid Ulster area for many years, Barry was recently elected to represent West Tyrone in the Assembly. He drove immediately to Omagh where he met several Sinn Féin colleagues at the town's leisure centre, now an incident centre where families waiting for news of relatives who may have been caught in the bombing had been told to gather.

``I want to speak of the great sadness that has been visited on this area,'' says Barry, ``like a pebble thrown into a pool, the ripples continue to extend outwards. Just as you begin to think you have the full measure of the sorrow facing this community, then you hear another name, another death or injury, another connection which adds to the sense of loss. It was Monday before I discovered the sister of a party colleague was amongst the injured in Omagh District Hospital. Even for those who have been fortunate enough not to have suffered directly, the accummulation of dozens of small personal connections generates a collective sense of grief.''

Barry described the dignity and courage of relatives waiting, hour upon hour, for news of missing family members, engulfed in their own grief and witness to the grief of others. ``Inside the leisure centre the scene was one of indescribable anguish,'' says Barry, ``but somehow people held themselves together, finding the strength not only to face the tragedy which directly touched their own family but also to offer solidarity and comfort to other families facing a similar ordeal. There was a lot of handshaking.''

Barry described how families waiting in the main hall would be called to queue, maybe for over an hour, along a particular corridor from which they would be taken to the mortuary to formally identify the dead. It was a long process, each stage extinguishing a little more of the hope in the hearts of those who were compelled to wait.

``I particularly remember Joe Marlow; it was 3am Sunday morning when Joe and his wife were asked to join the queue to go to the morgue to identify the body of their daughter Jolene. Joe turned to wave at everyone before he left. There was just something about that big strong man, determined not to be broken as he took his place in the queue. It seems wrong to pick out particular names, but I also remember Lawrence Rush, who spoke with such moving affection of his wife, Libby, as he waited for the final confirmation of her death.''

``Tá brón an domhan orm,'' were the words Irish President Mary McAleese chose to describe her experience as she visited families at the leisure centre. ``Sean Clarke, Sinn Féin's chair of Omagh District Council and myself were called to the entrance to greet the Irish President on her arrival,'' says Barry, ``I spoke in Irish and she replied in Gaelic with the phrase, `the sorrow of the world is on me'. It was just the right thing to say. Mary McAleese has attracted a deal of criticism in the media recently but of the many dignatories who visited Omagh, I thought the Irish President's gentle sincerity was particularly welcome. I must also take time to mention my Sinn Féin colleagues who worked around the clock at the leisure centre.

Omagh is a busy market town and it provides a focal point for many rural communities. ``The town draws people from a wide surrounding area, to shop, to socialise, attend schools and chapels and go to work,'' says Barry, ``the tragedy which struck the centre of Omagh on Saturday, struck at the heart of Tyrone. It's almost impossible to describe the impact of Saturday's bombing on this community. First there are those who were killed and injured and their families, neighbours, friends and colleagues, the chapels and schools they attended, the local shops they patronised, their places of work. But even beyond all that, there are the hundreds of people in this community who are counting their blessings, those who were at the scene but miraculosly escaped injury, those who were in Market Street minutes before but had already moved away, those who were shopping in the town but not in Market Street, those who normally would have been shopping in Omagh but stayed away last Saturday. It will take weeks, month, perhaps years for the people of Omagh and County Tyrone to put their lives back together again.''

 

Group suspends operations



In a statement released on Tuesday the group calling itself the Real IRA claimed responsibilty for the Omagh bombing.

The group said there had been three 40 minute warnings, two to UTV and one to the Samaritans in Coleraine. The statement claimed the warning had given the location of the bomb as 300 to 400 yards from the courthouse on the main street. ``Despite media reports it was not our intention at any time to kill civilians. It was a commercial target, part of an ongoing war against the Brits,'' ran the statement. In a second statement issued within hours of the first, the dissident group announced that ``all military operations had been suspended.'' ``As a direct result of the Omagh tragedy and also in response to the appeals of Bertie Ahern and others we are currently embarking on a process of consultation on our future direction.''

 

The futile path of militarism



Sabotage against Irish republicanism



    
Defeat looms for a struggle which allows itself to become caught in a spiral of conflict, losing sight of the political context, the strategic objectives, and ultimate effects of armed force
After such an appalling tragedy it is difficult even to attempt political analysis. Only words of sympathy for the bereaved and maimed seem appropriate at such a time. Yet we must try to assess why this atrocity happened and how further deaths and injuries can be prevented.

Words such as `psychopaths' and `serial killers' have been used. In the heat of anger and grief this is understandable but the people who carried out the Omagh atrocity do not fit that description. The Omagh bombing was carried out by a splinter group which claims to be republican. The group brought about this tragedy because it is mired in militarism.

Any struggle which adopts the tactic of armed force is in danger of succumbing to militarism. Militarism means that military considerations come before all others. The political nature of the struggle is obscured. The continuation of the armed campaign itself becomes the objective.

When this happens the tactic of armed struggle - rather than the political objective for which it is carried out - is elevated to a principle. In a protracted struggle such as that in Ireland the danger of militarism is increased. When the militarism of the state intensifies the war through repression the danger is greatest. Defeat looms for a struggle which allows itself to become caught in a spiral of conflict, losing sight of the political context, the strategic objectives, and ultimate effects of armed force.

Succumbing to militarism increases the danger to non-combatants because of ill-conceived or wreckless military operations by the insurgents. It plays into the hands of the oppressive state because it greatly enhances the efforts of the state to isolate the insurgents politically.

There comes a stage where isolation is so complete that the insurgent group becomes insulated from the political effects of its actions. That is, it becomes isolated from its own people. It falls back behind the defences of its dwindling support and unless it extricates itself from militarism by a change of strategy it is bound for certain defeat.
 
There comes a stage where isolation is so complete that the insurgent group becomes insulated from the political effects of its actions. That is, it becomes isolated from its own people. It falls back behind the defences of its dwindling support and unless it extricates itself from militarism by a change of strategy it is bound for certain defeat.

It is obvious that the splinter group responsible for the Omagh bombing is totally militarist. It has passed through the stages above and gone further. This group has no community or political support base upon which to fall back. Its miniscule support is confined to the immediate associates of its activists. Now, as revulsion at the Omagh atrocity grows, it faces a wave of repression North and South.

Republicans will not join in the clamour for more repression, such as `selective internment'. There is a dangerous argument abroad now that ``only a security response'' can address this situation. The danger here is that the cycle of armed repression and armed resistance, albeit by a very small group, could be intensified. Recruits could be won on the basis of sympathy, as they surely must have been following the killing of Rónán MacLochlainn in Wicklow earlier this year by gardai who could have arrested him. The reality is that only continued political progress can see the ending of this futile militaristic campaign.

What are the objectives of this group's campaign? Accusations that they intended to kill a large number of civilians in Omagh seem wide of the mark. Nonetheless they bear full responsibility for the deaths. Their campaign itself is ill-conceived; their modus operandi was deeply flawed both in placing such a bomb in the middle of a busy street on a Saturday afternoon and, apparently, in their botched warning.

They themselves would argue that their aim is to destabilise British rule in the Six Counties. But anyone with a modicum of political sense can see that their actions strengthen the hand of those who most resist political change and who seek not only the maintenance of the status quo but a return to the failures of the past. Repression has moved to the top of the political agenda; the sterile decommissioning argument has been revived; the name of Irish republicanism has been sullied.

Irish republicans have given five years of commitment to the peace process and have made significant gains. The Good Friday Agreement, while far short of our ultimate goal of unity and independence, is now the political context of struggle, containing as it does the potential to move us closer to our goal. By agreement among the broad range of republican opinion the peace process is at the centre of republican strategy. Republicans have always acknowledged that where a peaceful route forward, an alternative to armed struggle, is available, then they are morally and politically bound to take it.

It is against this consensus among the republican people that the splinter group is struggling, rather than against British rule. There is no other logic or political purpose to their campaign. Their actions amount to sabotage against Irish republicanism. Is this the purpose of people who claim to be republicans? Now is the time for them - and for those who might have considered supporting them - to step back and consider the futility of the path of militarism which they have chosen.

 

List of dead




Sean McLoughlin (12) Buncrana, Donegal
Oran Doherty (8) Buncrana, Donegal
James Barker (12) Buncrana, Donegal
Philomena Skelton (39) Drumquin, Tyrone
Breda Devine (21 months) Donemana
Brian McCrory(54) Omagh
Anne McCoombe (49) Omagh
Elizabeth Rush (57) Omagh
Veda Short (56) Omagh
Alan Radford (16) Omagh
Julie Hughes (21) Omagh
Gareth Conway (18) Carrickmore
Brenda Logue (17) Omagh
Joelene Marlow (17) Eskra
Mary Grimes (65) (grandmother) Augher
Avril Monaghan (30) (pregnant daughter) Augher
Maura Monaghan (18months) (grandaughter) Augher
Samantha McFarland (17) Omagh
Lorraine Wilson (15) Omagh
Fernando Blasco Baselga (12) Madrid
Rocia Abad Amos (22) Madrid
Esther Gibson (36) Beragh
Geraldine Breslin (43) Omagh
Aidan Gallagher (21) Omagh
Fred White (60) Omagh
Brian White (26) (son) Omagh
Deborah Cartwright (20) Omagh
Olive Hawkes (60) Omagh

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