Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Colm Murphy

Omagh Part Two

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday September 14 2015

Mandy2

The Law’s Delay

 

On 15 August 1998 at 3.04 p.m. a 500lb bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, killing 31 people (including unborn twins) and injuring 220. This was done in the pursuit of a united Ireland by dissident republicans who were against the peace process. There had been a warning call to Ulster Television in Belfast at 2.29 p.m. saying there was a bomb timed to go off in 30 minutes outside the Courthouse on Main Street. There was another call at 2.31 to the Samaritans in Coleraine. That caller said the bomb was about 200 yards up from the Courthouse on High Street. There was another call to UTV at 2.31. The callers used a code word associated with the Real IRA.

Warnings and Hoaxes

Perhaps the various brands of IRA terrorists might seem more “civilised” than the Tamil Tigers – they do tend to give warnings before they slaughter civilians. That is of small comfort to the thousands of people affected by their tactics. At Omagh, the first of three confused warning calls came less than half an hour before the car bomb went off. Superintendent William Baxter told the inquest in September 2000 that since August 15 1998 there had been 68 hoax bomb alerts in the town. Although many thought the warnings on August 15 were a hoax, the police took them seriously and immediately went into action with well-established procedures. The duty sergeant, Phil Marshall, was pleased that they managed to clear 200 premises in the short time available. “My initial thought that it was perfect, that we couldn’t have done better. Omagh was like a ghost town, I thought, if anything goes up now, it’s buildings only”.

There is no Main Street in Omagh. The courthouse is roughly 400 metres from the spot where the car bomb was parked in a stolen maroon Vauxhall Cavalier. It seems that the courthouse was the intended target but the bombers could not find a parking space and left the car outside SD Kells’ clothes shop in Lower Market Street, on the southern side near the crossroads with Dublin Road. The police had, in effect, been evacuating people towards the bomb rather than away from it. The bombers claimed it was not their fault and that they had given adequate warnings. If they had been concerned about loss of life they would have triggered the bomb at 3 a.m. not 3 p.m. on a public holiday when the streets were full of people.

Civil Action

On January 20 1999, Mo Mowlem, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary, pleaded with the MP Andrew Hunter not to use his parliamentary privilege to name six suspects in the Omagh bomb murder inquiry. They told Mr Hunter, chairman of the Conservative backbench committee on Northern Ireland, that such action would prejudice any prosecution.

Frustrated by delays, the families took action. On 28 October 2000, the families of four children killed in the bombing – James Barker, 12, Samantha McFarland, 17, Lorraine Wilson, 15, and 20-month-old Breda Devine – launched a campaign to bring a civil action against the suspects named in a BBC Panorama programme. On 15 March 2001, the families of all twenty-nine people killed in the bombing launched a £2-million civil action against RIRA suspects Seamus McKenna, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.  The civil action began in Northern Ireland on 7 April 2008.

Jason McCue

Human rights solicitor Jason McCue fought the case for the families over many years. He has been described as a “rock ‘n roll lawyer” – he married TV celebrity and journalist Mariella Frostrup (her father was Norwegian but she was brought up in Ireland) and they hang out with George Clooney. He wrote of the families: “Their achievement is important for Ireland and for the UK. It is a happy irony that their civil action did more to unite Ireland than the murderers that killed their families. But more than that, the Omagh civil action drew support from across the 32 counties and when the verdict came in, households throughout Ireland raised a toast to their achievement.”

Peace, Compromise, Impunity

The case was not concluded until 2009. Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as historian Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments, who for varied reasons thought their actions misguided, counterproductive or unhelpful to the peace process”. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness expressed their support but refused to give any information that would help bring the bombers to justice.

Peter Mandelson

Former Northern Ireland secretaries Peter Mandelson, Tom King, Peter Brooke, Lord Hurd, Lord Prior, and Lord Merlyn-Rees signed up in support of the plaintiffs’ legal fund. Mandelson took the lead in coordinating this.

In 1999, Peter Mandelson had succeeded Mo Mowlem as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mowlem was popular with the British media and public; her willingness to speak her mind, often without regard to the consequences, was seen as strength. Mandelson was regarded as a cold Machiavellian manipulator. However, the campaigners warmed to him and he to them. Mowlem wanted to do everything to avoid undermining the peace process which was her monument.

Ruth Dudley Edwards was heavily involved in the campaign and wrote a book about it. She had worked in the British civil service, and was impressed that, soon after taking office, Mandelson had taken the unusual step of writing to her, commending her article in the Telegraph. He wrote that such articles “play an important part in changing the environment in which the terrorists operate”. “I agree with you entirely that everything possible should be done to try and bring those responsible for the Omagh bomb to justice”. He was distancing himself from Mowlem, who had seemed, according to Edwards, more comfortable with ex-terrorists than with victims and whose seeming indifference to the Omagh relatives had been “scandalous”.

Mowlem had discouraged ministers and civil servants from meeting the families and wanted to play down expectations of bringing the bombers to justice. Mandelson insisted on meeting the families. He was so affected by an exhibition of children’s art work. One of the relatives said: “Peter Mandelson is the nicest man, the best man…He cried, he cried in there and he put everyone out of there, even his Private Secretary. All politicians want to do is look after themselves. They don’t care about anything, but Peter Mandelson did care”. The Mail published a picture of his grief-stricken face. He said: “I feel a tremendous sense of loss every day I wake up and find yet another day has passed without these prosecutions taking place”.

Mandelson continued to offer practical help after he ceased to be Northern Ireland Secretary. He played a very active role behind the scenes and with the media. He also contributed generously from his own money.

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes, flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real IRA into giving up an “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies.

Unfortunately, the Real IRA are still in business. Recent events indicate that the Provisional IRA might also still be active. Eternal vigilance is essential. Could the LTTE also rise like a Phoenix?

More next week about the unraveling of peace in Northern Ireland.

 

Omagh Part One – The Road of Tears

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 8 2015

Colman's Column3

roadtears1

roadtears2

After the bombing, Cathy could never settle back into her university studies at Derry and Patsy was often on the road to bring her traumatised daughter back home. In the car mother and daughter would be keening uncontrollably for Aiden, the son and brother forever lost to them. They christened the road from Derry to Omagh ‘The Road of Tears’.

On 15 August 2000 my wife and I were having a post-shopping Murphy’s at Le Chateau on St Patrick Street, Cork City in Ireland. I was going to write “enjoying a pint of Murphy’s” but that would not be appropriate because, like everyone else in the bar, we had tears streaming down our faces. The TV was on and the news programme was marking the second anniversary of the Omagh bombing.

 

On August 15, 1998, just two months after we had gone to live in Ireland, a huge bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, a small market town in rural County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. A total of 31 people were to die as a result of the bomb, and 220 were injured. The dead included a  woman 4 months pregnant and her unborn twins girls; six children, three of whom had been visiting from County Donegal in  the Irish Republic and one of whom was on holiday from Spain (Fernando’s mother, Lucrezia, had previously been traumatized when her husband had been seriously injured by an ETA car bomb) and six teenagers. Death was ecumenical; nineteen of the dead were Catholics, eleven were Protestants.

It Was People who Died

Each person who died represented a crushing loss to a wide circle of people. The bombers killed two babies and two about to be born, three schoolgirls, four schoolboys, six students, three shop assistants, a despatch clerk, a shopkeeper, a crane driver, a mechanic, a horticulturalist, and an accounts clerk. These were the targets of the “soldiers” of Éireann, the “freedom fighters”.

It was the time of year when parents and children went to SD Kells or Watterstones to buy new school uniforms. Most of the people in the centre of Omagh on August 15 1998 were from the town or surrounding countryside. It was an uncommonly sunny day for that part of the world and crowds were gathering for the processions that mark the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. The original plan was for the procession to start 200 yards from where the bomb exploded. Thousands would have been close to the explosion if the plan had not been changed.

Damages

Recent horrific pictures of drowned refugees have sparked controversy about the ethics of displaying such images. I want to convey to you the horror of Omagh but I want to respect the sensibilities of my readers and the dignity of the dead. Buses were used to ferry victims to hospital and blood was flowing down the steps on to the road. In the rain, the gutters ran red with blood and rose petals. A young girl sat in the street holding a severed hand saying: “I don’t want her to be alone”. A policeman who had wandered up and down the street carrying a head had to be invalided out of the RUC. Steve Buttle was so affected by Omagh that he functioned badly at work and his relationships deteriorated. Eventually he wrapped himself in a body bag and shot himself in the head.

The poison administered on August 15 1998 did harm not only to those who were present in Omagh on that day. It spread far and wide and for a long period, for generations into the future. Thousands had their lives blighted by intense sorrow, physical pain and depression beyond imagining.

Who Was Responsible?

Unusually, no group claimed responsibility on the day of the attack, but the Royal Ulster Constabulary suspected the RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army).Indeed, three days after the attack, the RIRA claimed responsibility and apologised for the attack. The RIRA had few members and the authorities knew who most of them were and where they lived. Two months after we had been crying in our Murphy’s, BBC put out a Panorama programme called Who Bombed Omagh? hosted by journalist John Ware. The programme gave the names of the four prime suspects as Oliver Traynor, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.

 The Law’s Delay

Daly was not charged with the bombing in a criminal case until April 10 2014. However, a civil case brought by the victims’ relatives was concluded on 8 June 2009. Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly were found to have been responsible for the bombing and held liable for £1.6 million of damages. It was described as a “landmark” damages award internationally.

The Campaign

Because of frustration at the slow progress of the criminal investigation, the families of the victims created the Omagh Support and Self Help Group (OSSHG) soon after the bombing. The organisation was led by Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son Aidan in the attack. In the 30 years of The Troubles, there was no precedent for a group of victims challenging the system in this way.

In the tribal society that is Northern Ireland it was surprising that the OSSHG included hard-line and moderate unionists as well as nationalists; there were Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, and a Mormon.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

I draw in these articles on the work of,  among others, Ruth Dudley Edwards. Ruth was deeply involved in the campaign and her 2009 book about the Omagh bombing was named the Sunday Times current affairs book of the year and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for non-fiction. The book, Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice, should be of interest to Sri Lankan readers. Ruth is a distinguished Irish historian from a distinguished family of Irish historians.  She was born and brought up in Dublin and educated at University College Dublin (UCD), Girton College, Cambridge and Wolfson College, Cambridge. She has worked in the London civil service.

She is also a crime fiction writer and a prolific columnist, often stirring up controversy in the British and Irish press.  She now lives in London and describes herself as British-Irish and is comfortable with being culturally both Irish and English. She takes a particular interest in Northern Ireland and her writings have had her placed in the category of “revisionist”. That is to say, she has no time for myths about heroes and martyrs. She once told a hostile audience: “I wear the badge ‘revisionist’ as a badge of honour! Patrick Pearse had a right to sacrifice himself but not all those civilians! If seven people can determine these things, the Continuity IRA has the right to style themselves the heirs of 1916. There is a flouting of democracy.”

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real  IRA into giving up the  “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies. How did that work out?

Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as Ruth puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments”.

More on this next week

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