By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – Angry Dundalk people held their biggest ever pro-peace demonstration last Saturday after a week of bad publicity about the town.
About 12,000 people marched through the town to an ecumenical service for the people of Omagh but the silent procession was also a protest against the leaders of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee living in the town.
An unprecedented media spotlight had been turned on Dundalk because of founder member of the committee Bernadette Sands McKevitt, and her partner Michael McKevitt, live with their three children in the town.
Dundalk Urban District Council Chairman Seamus Byrne received loud applause at Saturday’s protest when he said the gathering was a demonstration of the community’s clear and utter repudiation of those who had any involvement whatsoever in the Omagh atrocity.
He said they were sending out a message to Ireland and the world that Dundalk was "a peace loving town."
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"Dundalk does not support violence whatsoever and voted by a 94 percent majority in the recent referendum for the peace process. Dundalk and Dundalk people have no truck with those who engage in violence for political ends," he said.
McKevitt had been named as the alleged head of the Real IRA breakaway faction and a former IRA quartermaster.
According to a local priest, Sands McKevitt, an outspoken opponent of Sinn Fein’s peace policy, burst out crying when she rang him four days after the Omagh bomb.
Father Desmond Campbell said she broke down after asking him "what is going to happen to my children?" He said she had telephoned because there had been a meeting of Blackrock residents and she feared people were going to march on her home the following day.
Local residents did hold a candlelight vigil in Blackrock attended by about 600 but did not march on her home.
Campbell said McKevitt took the phone after his partner broke down and denied he had anything to do with the bombing and claimed the first he had heard about it was on radio.
"He said he had neither hand, act nor part in it. He knew nothing about it whatsoever. He was adamant on that.
"But he was also adamant about the fact that life was being made impossible for him and especially for the lady that he lives with and his children," the priest told RTE radio.
Sands later went on a phone-in radio program to welcome the Real IRA’s cessation of violence and hoped it was permanent. Asked if she condemned the massacre in Omagh she said, "It is condemned. We will not condone it. The loss of innocent lives could not possibly be justified. We have had to come out several times. Our chairperson Francie Mackey has condemned it. I don’t agree with that violence."
After the Omagh bombing, Sands and McKevitt found their home, and a shop they own, besieged by reporters and cameramen.
By the end of the week Sands was unable to get entry to the shop – the locks apparently having been changed by the landlords.
The huge groundswell in support of peace in the town is the second time in recent years that Dundalk has strongly protested against republican violence.