Justice rather than vengeance must be aim in the wake of Omagh bomb


We have supped so full of horrors that it is understandable that the debate in the wake of the besmirchment of Omagh should centre on retribution. In a sense this is right and proper; the slaughter of the innocents must be atoned for. But we must keep before our eyes the image of justice, not of vengeance - that way the Birmingham Six lie. The pursuit of the dastards responsible for the blot on all our reputations as Irish people should be imbued by two central principles.

1, The spirit which animated the South African Truth and Reconciliation Conference. Reconciliation to be pursued before vengeance and truth. A second precept cannot apply here, namely that justice should be sacrificed to truth. In the case of Omagh there must be justice, but it must not be justice in a form which in any way satisfies the ambition of those responsible for what happened last Saturday. 2, What we witnessed was an inevitable outcome of a hidden struggle for the hearts and minds of republicanism. Those who preferred - and here I am being generous and ruling out all questions of personal animosities towards the present Sinn Fein leadership - to hold fast to the Bobby Sands tradition of infliction and endurance in the pursuit of the goal of a 32-county Brits Out United Ireland as opposed to those led by Gerry Adams, who looked around their world and the larger world of America and sued for peace.

Tragically, however, the unionist grip on the Tory party enabled them to introduce delay into the process on the issue of decommissioning, which allowed dissension in the ranks to mount against the peace process in some of the higher echelons of the Provisional leadership. As the delay continued the "Ballymaceligott factor" grew also. The Ballymaceligott factor was described to me by one of the leaders of the abortive 1956 IRA campaign, which was ended, not by internment, as some would argue today, but by the inherent weakness of the IRA, the fact that it was led and carried on largely from the South, consisting mainly of cross-Border attacks. As this realisation was bearing in on the leadership of the then IRA the republicans met in a spirit of gloom, guilt and horror to ponder the next move - a ceasefire, mass suicide, whatever. The meeting was interrupted by a messenger with a missive which announced that the "Ballymaceligott unit is angry at lack of action".

Not in any spirit of armchair warriorism, but because they simply did not live through the day-to-day abrasion of Northern Irish life, numbers of southern republicans in places like Tipperary and parts of Limerick and Kerry began swinging over to the 32-County Sovereignty people. For their own purposes both sides played down the internal rift. Sinn Fein spokespersons spoke of a tiny handful of "drifters and fanatics".

The 32-County Sovereignty people took care not be seen to be provoking dissension and said: "Of course, we've nothing against Gerry. We're not going to provoke a split, but we all know that the peace process will fail, the unionists will concede nothing and the Brits won't stand up to them."

This flawed analysis overlooked the realities of the growth of the nationalist population of Northern Ireland, which is inevitably going to bring about far-reaching change anyhow, the international dimension of the Irish-Americans, the influence of figures like Jean and Ted Kennedy and, above all, President Clinton, and the bedrock fact that the unionists are a spent force at Westminster.

However, given the solidarity of former comradeship, the ideology of republicanism with its emphasis on sacrifice, commemorations, the invocation of heroes from Emmet to our day, this debate was kept within the ranks of the Provisionals and of Sinn Fein.

That decent reticence is no longer possible as the dead of Omagh are buried. The crossroads which Michael Collins came to when he signed the Treaty inescapably loomed up for Gerry Adams when he signed the Belfast Agreement.

He has immeasurably more going for him than had Collins. Instead of the Machiavellian de Valera beside him deliberately creating a divided Treaty delegation, he has figures like Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, Siobhan O'Hanlon, Rita O'Hare and Martin Ferris. The agreement he signed was worked out with the co-operation of the British and Irish Prime Ministers. It was announced to the world by a former American senate majority leader, flanked by a former Finnish prime minister, an ex-chief of staff of the Canadian army. Behind all of these loomed the White House and Bill Clinton. Gerry Adams had achieved one of his principal goals, the internationalisation of the conflict. However, another has visibly failed him - the traditional nemesis of republicanism, the Split, has not been avoided.

This was a central plank of the peace planning. Now that it has gone down, it is important to remember that the Belfast Agreement still stands. It still offers the prospect of permanent peace on this island.

Nobody should let slip that prospect through out-dated position holding, in its way as dangerous as that which the 32-County Sovereignty Movement's "Real IRA" has adopted. The decommissioning issue must not be used in such a way as to support rather than smother the dissident republicans.

The unionists, in their own interest, have to shut their ears to the cheap-shot attacks of the Paisleyites and the Jeffrey Donaldsons on prisoner releases, and talk to Sinn Fein. The only way to prevent further Omaghs is to make the Belfast Agreement work. Talking at Stormont is preferable to weeping over graves in Co Tyrone.

Tim Pat Coogan is a columnist with Ireland on Sunday and the author of a number of books on Irish history