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.
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.
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.
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.