The Irish Times view on the Omagh bombing anniversary: recalling the darkest day

In these turbulent times, the planned, cross-community nature of this week’s memorial services at Omagh offers unambiguous guidance to politicians

 

The horror unleashed on the people of Omagh and unsuspecting visitors by a Real IRA car bomb some 20 years ago reverberates to this day and carries messages for us all. Individuals whose extremism and hatred of “the other” run so deep that violence is their automatic response must be deprived of reasons for such behaviour. This requires all politicians to operate the powersharing structures that were designed to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

The Omagh bomb was intended to damage the recently signed Belfast Agreement by openly challenging the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin and by offering a return to a militant campaign. Northern Ireland was in turmoil. A month earlier, 10,000 Orangemen had rioted and protested at Drumcree in defence of their “marching rights”. Change and reconciliation were being widely resisted. But the bomb backfired spectacularly. The death toll of 29 civilians – the worst atrocity in 30 years – brought international condemnation and appalled people North and South who had voted in referendums for a new political departure and balanced constitutional structures.

Within days, a militant republican body, the INLA, declared a ceasefire. Within weeks, the Irish and British governments passed emergency anti-terrorist legislation and taoiseach Bertie Ahern declared he would “crush” militant republican factions that engaged in armed struggle. Having invested two years of intensive effort in hammering out the terms of the Belfast Agreement, the two governments were determined to defend it. By the end of 1998, direct rule from Westminster had ended and a powersharing Executive was formed involving the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. It was the beginning of a difficult, fragmented process that continues today.

All of this may provide little comfort to the parents, brothers, sisters and relatives who gathered at Omagh during the week to commemorate loved ones who had been brutally taken from them. For them, 20 years may appear to be insignificant. And while nobody has been charged with the bombing, justice remains out of reach. During the intervening years, however, significant political progress has been made. The PSNI, acceptable to both communities, exists. The Provisional IRA decommissioned its weapons and left the stage. Sinn Féin recognised the courts. And the DUP entered government.

The collapse of the Executive, following a breakdown of trust between the DUP and Sinn Féin, has left the North without a functioning Assembly for almost two years. It is an intolerable situation, made more dangerous by Brexit and the United Kingdom’s uncertain future. In these turbulent times, the planned, cross-community nature of this week’s memorial services at Omagh offers unambiguous guidance to politicians.

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