Omagh ceremony overshadowed by claim bombing could have been prevented
Priest publicly puts it to the bombers to say sorry and look for forgiveness at commemoration
White rose petals are thrown into a pond at the Omagh memorial garden by those who attended the ceremony for victims of the car bomb on Market Street on the 15th August 1998. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Close to the 3.10 pm time of the Omagh bombing a bell was sounded 32 times on Wednesday in the Co Tyrone town. Thirty one of the tolls were for the 29 people and unborn twin girls killed in the Real IRA attack on August 15th 1998. The final toll was for all the victims of the Troubles.
Prayers were said by clergy from the main local churches, hymns were sung, a poem was read. There was a two-minute silence observed by hundreds of people gathered at Market Street where the devastating car bomb exploded twenty years ago. People were then invited to take little white petals and place them in the pond in the nearby memorial park or drop them to float in the River Strule.
Some of the more than 200 people injured in the attack were among those gathered at the bomb memorial site. Not all the bereaved families and injured attended of course, some still finding such occasions too emotionally testing, some preferring to deal with their grief and their memories in other ways.
This is expected to be the last such major event marking the bombing. The focus was on commemoration and showing solidarity and support to the bereaved and injured. The simple, short and moving ceremony achieved that very well although there was no disguising that comments by former Police Ombudsman Baroness O’Loan while not overshadowing the ceremony intruded on the day.
But perhaps because this would be the last significant public commemoration for Omagh she felt she had no option but to make her intervention now. Some of the families want a cross-border public inquiry into the atrocity, others don’t.
Baroness O’Loan in saying that it was her “firm” belief that the bombing could have been prevented if the police had acted on earlier intelligence about a planned attack on police in Omagh was supporting those who seek a public inquiry - and some degree of truth, if not justice.
She certainly annoyed the PSNI chief constable George Hamilton, made headlines and reshaped the nature of the day to one slightly more of recrimination than reflection.
Richard Scott, a former RUC constable, was one of the first at the scene after the bombing 20 years ago. At Wednesday’s commemoration he read a poem by Tracey and Paula Skelton, whose mother Philomena was killed in the bombing - “To Market Square we went without a fuss/Not knowing what was awaiting us”.
He was so traumatised by the experiences of August 15th 1998 that he was forced to take early retirement on medical grounds. Speaking to The Irish Times he couldn’t contain his exasperation with Baroness O’Loan.
“I think the real message that has to go out today is that there are only several people who can help us here in Omagh and that’s the people who left the car at that spot over there,” he said pointing at the bomb site. “They are the people who can end the endless cycle of inquiries,” he added.
He believed Baroness O’Loan should apologise to the Omagh families and to the police. “If she wants to blame anybody then lay the blame fairly and squarely with the people who drove that bomb into Omagh. Let those people come and tell us what they did. Why won’t they? Because they are cowards.”
Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife Philomena, was comforted by the ceremony, and the cross-community turnout - “it touched the hearts of everybody” - but he too was irritated with Baroness O’Loan. Her comments made him “sick to the stomach”.
Mr Skelton had no issue with some of the victims seeking an inquiry but was certain that the 20th anniversary was not the day to press for it.
“Why today? She could have done it on Sunday, she could have done it last Friday, she could have done it tomorrow. She done it today to have the greatest impact it could have and it was an insult to everybody who came here today. Today was about what happened in Omagh 20 years ago; it was not to do with the police or anything else,” he said. “She should have stuck her head in the sand.”
While people such as Michael Gallagher who lost his son Aiden in the attack want a public inquiry Mr Skelton feels it would be a pointless exercise: “An inquiry is not going to change anything.”
It was an emotional day, made visible by the tears of some in the crowd, and also by the heartfelt words of Fr Kevin Mullan, who as a curate tended to the dying, dead and injured 20 years ago.
“Come you who 20 years ago did this to Omagh,” he said in addressing the Real IRA bombers. “Please come back now once more among us to this market space, which you tore up with your bomb, to this street and its shops where you left our relatives, friends and visitors broken, bleeding, dead. You were not afraid then. Come with your tears, and do not be afraid now. In your eyes we may read the apology of your heart. In our tears we may not know how to respond. We too must step out of the darkness.”
Fr Mullan afterwards told The Irish Times that it was only now he felt he could publicly put it to the bombers and those who planned and ordered the attack to say sorry and look for forgiveness. He was “nervous” about making his point but felt as part of the Christian message he should say it was never too late to seek repentance.
Fr Mullan was more detached on Baroness O’Loan’s comments. “She is a woman of integrity. I think she is genuine,” he said. “If it had to be said it had to be said.”