Northern Ireland Bombing May Imperil Peace Process

DUBLIN, Ireland—Northern Ireland's worst ever terrorist atrocity, a car bomb in Omagh, County Tyrone, which killed at least 28 people and injured over 200 others, has been branded “a totally evil deed” by the Primate of all-Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh.

The bomb, planted by a nationalist splinter group calling itself “the Real IRA,” exploded Aug. 15 at 3:10 p.m., 40 minutes after what police call “a totally misleading bomb warning” was given. The warning said the bomb had been placed outside the Courthouse in Main Street and people were evacuated from that area towards where the explosion took place in High Street.

Among the 28 dead were 13 women and nine children. Hundreds were injured by flying glass and shrapnel causing horrific injuries requiring the amputation of limbs or resulting in blindness. As the Register went to press, more than 100 of those remained hospitalized in critical condition.

Three generations of one family were killed in the incident, a 65-year-old woman, her 30-year-old daughter, who was pregnant, and the pensioner's 18-month-old grandchild. Other victims included two Spaniards, a teacher and a pupil, part of a group visiting Omagh to learn about Northern Ireland's history and heritage. Such was the devastation that three packed buses were used to ferry the injured to hospital and local radio was used to appeal to all medical professionals in the province to report for duty.

Omagh town would normally have been packed with Saturday shoppers at the time, but the market was busier than usual because a carnival was taking place there as part of a Peace Festival, the culmination of a series of cross-community events organized in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement which promised a long-term end to “the Troubles” which for 30 years have dogged Northern Ireland.

While Sinn Fein, the political wing of Northern Ireland's largest terror group, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had backed the agreement, some of its members disagreed. Last November, a group of republican dissidents met in Donegal and formed a splinter group, “the Real IRA,” which vowed to continue “the armed struggle.” This group is estimated to have no more than 100 members, but, because one of its key organizers includes the IRA's former quartermaster, it is wellarmed and knowledgeable in techniques of mass murder.

The group had carried out three previous bomb attacks, but luckily, until Saturday, no one had been injured. Intensive activity by British and Irish security forces had also thwarted other “Real IRA” bomb attacks, but there were fears that they might launch an attack, like that in Omagh, which could destabilize the peace process. Following an attack last month in Bannbridge, David Irvine of the Progressive Unionist Party warned that Loyalist terror groups would have to reconsider their cease-fires if anyone was killed in a “Real IRA” bomb attack. Already, paramilitaries belonging to the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the Ulster Volunteer Force have met to consider what their response will be to the Omagh bombing.

Following the atrocity, Archbishop Brady said: “We must name it for what it was — a totally evil deed; the callous murder of men, women and children which no cause can justify. At the moment, we are reeling under the shock and sorrow of what has happened. The first task of the Church and of all Christians is to offer consolations.

“We must not lose sight of what has been achieved by the [Good Friday] agreement which has been agreed to by the majority of the people. We must not give way to despair. We were hoping against hope it would not take place. People must resist the temptation to turn back to violence. The prayer of everybody is that the peace process will continue. It was never going to be easy, we knew there would be setbacks.” Sinn Fein's leadership were clearly shocked by the attack. The group's president Gerry Adams has in the past refused to condemn previous IRA bombings and assassinations, saying it was not for him to “indulge in the politics of condemnation,” but following the Omagh bombing he said:

“I am totally horrified by this action. I condemn it without any equivocation whatsoever.” His deputy, Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's MP for Derry, said the atrocity was “indefensible” and called on those responsible to “stop immediately.”

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the Catholic Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty, and his auxiliary Francis Lagan, visited the scene offering what comfort they could to the bereaved and injured. Others who visited Omagh included British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish President Mary McAleese.

Blair called the bombing “an appalling act of savagery and evil” and he vowed to pursue “to the utmost” those responsible. His Irish equivalent, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, pledged to “ruthlessly suppress” the “Real IRA.” Blair and Ahern met in Belfast on Sunday night to discuss their governments’ response to the attack — both men had returned from holiday following the bombing.

McAleese, who was born in Northern Ireland and whose own family suffered at the hands of terrorists, described the bombers as “a posse of serial killers.” She said: “Even if the peace process continues and the Good Friday Agreement remains in place, so many will be affected by unbelievable grief and agony. This uncaring and careless act will have thrown their lives out of kilter.”

Speaking from London Aug. 15, Basil Cardinal Hume, the archbishop of Westminster, said: “To bring such sadness and suffering to the people of Omagh is a crime against humanity. I am calling on all Catholics to remember in their prayers at Mass tomorrow all those who have been so cruelly killed, those who were injured and those who are grieving, as well as all those who have been left to sort out the aftermath of such a thoughtless act.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.