Omagh, consumed by an almost incomprehensible grief, began burying its dead on Tuesday. After 30 years of often extreme violence, how deeply, how tragically ironic that the worst attack in the history of Northern Ireland comes a scant four months after the most hopeful political development ever.
Despite the bombing, which killed 28 people and wounded more than 200 others, Catholic and Protestant alike, the peace deal signed on Good Friday remains the best hope for long-term peace in the North. The subsequent Drumcree crisis could not derail the process it set in motion. Neither could the loyalist firebombing that claimed the lives of the three Quinn brothers. Nor could the bombing two weeks ago in Banbridge, Co. Down, that injured 35.
Why? Because politicians, responding to the public’s deep yearning for peace, and perhaps their own as well, have shown a welcome determination to keep it on track. That level of commitment is needed now more than ever.
Perhaps because the public revulsion was so great, it was a full three days after the Omagh attack before anyone claimed responsibility for its deadly result. To the surprise of no one, the bombers are members of the so-called Real IRA, a splinter group made up of Provisional IRA dissidents who are linked to the 32 County Sovereignty Committee. An official for the committee, which can claim almost no political mandate, is Bernadette Sands McKevitt, sister of the late hunger striker Bobby Sands and wife of Mickey McKevitt, the former Provisional IRA quartermaster. Last November, McKevitt and several other leading Provos, including Val Lynch, the chief engineer, defected over the Provisionals’ embrace of the peace process. With the Provos’ chief bombmaker now working side-by-side with the man who knows where the weapons are hidden, it’s no wonder that security forces on both sides of the border have feared the new group’s capacity for mayhem.
Indeed, the Real IRA has been busy, if not, until Saturday at least, particularly deadly. A number of attacks in recent months have been attributed to the group, including the one two weeks earlier in Banbridge that, like the Omagh attack, involved a 500-pound car bomb.
But if the Real IRA — or "True IRA," as it is also known — is a lethal organization, it is one with few friends. For one thing, U.S. support, the kind so vital to the Provos, is scant. And the public outcry over the Omagh attack continues to resonate throughout Ireland and the rest of a horrified world. Among those expressing his revulsion was Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, who for so long issued mealy-mouthed apologias for the atrocities committed by the Provos. His condemnation is welcome, if somewhat overdue.
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There is, of course, a possibility that the Omagh bombing will send the North into a violent tailspin, but that seems an unlikely result — at least for the moment. The Irish National Liberation Army, for its part, is poised to call a halt to its resistance to the peace process. And for months most loyalist paramilitary groups have demonstrated an admirable restraint that seems stronger with each passing day.
What’s more likely to happen is that the Omagh bombers will be hunted as though by a pack of jackals. Indeed, their attack was not so much against Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland but against an innocent town and its people. In a larger sense, it was also an attack against the peace process itself, a process embraced North and South, and for which many on both sides of divide have taken great personal and political risks.
There is reason to hope, therefore, that some good will spring from this overwhelming tragedy. If nothing else, if there is no retaliation, the Omagh bombing could well obliterate violent republican resistance to the Good Friday deal and cement the loyalist cease-fire. If that is the case, the victims of Omagh will not have died in vain.