It happened one year ago this Sunday. Less than three months earlier, voters on both sides of the Irish border had given their overwhelming endorsement to the Good Friday peace agreement. In the intervening weeks, the members of the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly chose David Trimble of the UUP and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP as, respectively, their first minister and deputy first minister. It should have been a time of unprecedented hope in Northern Ireland, a time when a true political process had arrived.
But Northern Ireland is a place where expectations can be dashed in an instant. In this case, that instant — that tragic instant — came at 3:10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15, in Omagh, Co. Tyrone. At that moment, an estimated 500-pound car bomb planted by the Real IRA, a breakaway republican group, exploded, indiscriminately killing 29 people and injuring 380 others, young and old, Catholic and Protestant.
There had been a warning, as there often is with paramilitary bombings, but whether through evil calculation or callous error, the bomb was not where it was supposed be: near the courthouse to the north of the town center.
The unwitting police responded by herding people from the courthouse area toward Market Street, the hub of the tiny downtown. The center was already jammed with market-day shoppers, including entire families buying clothes for school. It was here, on this congested street, that the bomb did its heinous work.
There has never been a more deadly single incident in the three decades of deadly incidents known as The Troubles. That it should come when hopes for peace seemed so high made it doubly tragic.
Indeed, even the murders a month earlier of the three Quinn brothers in a loyalist firebomb attack in County Antrim could not dampen the people’s desire for peace. In fact, that incident caused such widespread revulsion that it seemed there would be no quarter given the men of violence anywhere on the island. But Omagh was another story entirely. By the very scale of its carnage, it was a depressing reminder of how elusive true peace can be.
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Today, in the wake of Omagh, the hope of 1998 has all but dissipated. The peace process is in shambles. Though the paramilitary cease-fires remain officially intact, who dares call the North a peaceful place? Think of Rosemary Nelson last March. Think of Charles Bennett just two weeks ago.
The monsters who perpetrated these killings, loyalist and republican, remain at large, poised to strike again. And they are likely to remain so as long as the political will needed to stop them is absent.
For their part, a majority of politicians in the North failed to seize on the Omagh atrocity as a chance to push an agenda of peace. Rather, they took the coward’s route, using the tragedy to justify their old hard-line positions, thus creating both a roadblock to progress and a vacuum that rogue paramilitaries have been only to eager to fill.
As long as politicians refuse to yield to the will of their constituents, as long as they fail to display real courage, as long as compromise remains for them a dirty word, the door will stand open to other massacres like that at Omagh. Through their intransigence they sanction only death. Only they have the power to bring change. Omagh, they need to be reminded, must stand as the last gasp of violence in Northern Ireland, not a symbol of the futility of the peace process.