To Protect A New Democracy


As the statistics of the Omagh atrocity translate into names, faces, occupations and relationships, the anguish deepens. Abstract figures for the dead and injured take on flesh and blood. Children's school photographs reveal cheeky and winsome personalities which are no more. Mothers who will never hold their children again look shyly into the cameras that recorded them in earlier moments of happiness. The bright faces of teenage boys and girls shine out, the promise of young lives destroyed.

The outpouring of sorrow is perhaps without precedent in the 30 years of the Troubles. It is not merely that the Omagh massacre has been numerically greater than any previous atrocity in Northern Ireland. It may have something to do with the fact that so many people, in so many places, recognise that they themselves might have been doing what the families on Market Street were doing on a holiday afternoon. They empathise with victims who were shopping with their children, watching the entertainment or enjoying a drink or an ice-cream.

Veteran reporters on the scene found that Omagh shocked, deeply and profoundly, even more than previous mass-killings. Phone-in radio programmes have carried ceaseless streams of sorrow and sympathy. They also carry messages of urgency and anger to those in political authority, demanding that action be taken swiftly to take out of circulation the monsters who fashioned and executed this barbarism. But public outrage and grief cannot immediately point the politicians towards a course of action which is unquestionably the right one. It may take a little time to fashion a set of responses which are effective and capable of simultaneous application North and South.

Simultaneous internment cannot happen immediately because Northern Ireland has no legal basis for such a measure at this time. Persons could be charged with IRA membership under the Republic's emergency legislation but convictions would be unlikely unless the Garda could adduce supplementary evidence over and above the sworn opinion of a superintendent. And, since Northern Ireland does not have a similar statute, fully co-ordinated action North and South would present difficulties. That public opinion should demand swift action is understandable. But it is not a simple question of rounding up supposedly well-known suspects and locking them away.

Nobody will recognise these facts more readily than the Commissioner of the Garda and the Chief Constable of the RUC, who met yesterday in Belfast. They and their officers are in the invidious position of knowing precisely who is involved in this campaign of murder while lacking the legal instruments to take them out of circulation. Both forces have committed enormous resources to the gathering of intelligence and the monitoring of these suspects and have had a sequence of successes. Yet those who laid the Omagh bomb succeeded in slipping the net.

The police forces have not been inactive. But the two Governments are not immune from charges of tardiness. Perhaps after the pinnacle of the Agreement and the tensions of the Drumcree crisis an element of exhaustion or some loss of concentration came about. For what happened at Omagh was not unpredictable. The so-called "Real IRA" had already made six bombing attempts, of which the most recent was at Banbridge. Their murderous intent was clear and their capacity proven. There is nothing known about these people's intentions or capabilities which was not known before last Saturday. It should not have taken the outrage at Omagh to mobilise the governments to action. The measures which are now to be taken - and they are almost certain to include new law - must be considered carefully and then put into place with speed and resolution.