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Omagh and Bloody Sunday — unity among the grieving

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

Truths came home to roost in both parts of the island last week. And in a perverse way they did more to unify all of the people of the island than to divide them. Bombs and bullets have no pity. Only the victims and the relative’s left to grieve can appreciate the unity of shared tragedy.

The massive bomb that tore the pleasant town of Omagh apart in August 1998 had no pity. The murderously inept Real IRA planted it, an organization that seems to fail to comprehend that all violence must ultimately come to an end.

The relatives of the dead and some of the injured victims of the Omagh blast met with the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Sir Ronnie Flanagan. The ostensible purpose was a briefing on the progress of the investigation into the bombing.

But Flanagan, a chief who has done much to supervise the reform of his force, formerly known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, had another purpose as well. He is enraged at the report prepared by the Police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, regarding his force’s alleged handling of information it had before the bombing and the subsequent investigation into the atrocity. He wanted to set the record straight.

But O’Loan, who lives in Ballymena, is not a person to be trifled with. She is the first police ombudsman ever to be appointed in the North and she declared shortly afterward: “I can be very determined.”

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Flanagan, the son of a North Belfast shipyard worker, can be just as determined. He denied the report’s allegation that PSNI had information before the Omagh bomb blast that might have enabled police to prevent the carnage. He believes the RUC and he are unfairly convicted in the ombudsman’s report.

The relatives of the dead are not satisfied either. The majority made it clear that they seek a full independent inquiry.

The day after the Thursday meeting, many traveled to Dublin to hear the 14-year sentence imposed on Colm O’Brien, a long-term republican activist and a successful builder and businessman. He lives in Ravensdale, just north of Dundalk, but is a native of South Armagh.

They expressed hope that an independent inquiry will be held, a view that seems to be shared by the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

Regardless how the all that turns out, and important fact is that O’Loan, the wife of an SDLP councilor, has emerged as a powerful figure. Pity her office was not in existence 30 years ago.

Then, in the hilly streets of Derry, with its tottering terraced houses, a city battered by official discrimination and paralyzed by gerrymandering, the atrocity that has since come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” occurred.

The first civil rights march in 1968 and subsequent protests had made Derry front page news throughout Europe. The day’s foremost civil rights leader, John Hume, was not going to join the march scheduled for Jan. 30, 1972. He had been so appalled by the attack launched by paratroopers on protestors at the isolated Magilligan Camp the previous week that he feared the consequences of protest in the narrow maze of Derry’s streets.

All of the journalists who covered Derry then knew it was a matter of time before it boiled over. But nobody could have predicted that the Paras would take the murderous action they did.

However, as Hume said last week at the Saville Inquiry, the latest body appointed to investigate the event, the critical truth that still has to be ascertained is the identity of the person responsible for giving the shoot-to-kill order.

It is a question Lord Saville, who chairs the inquiry, will have to address in his final report. So far, all of the indications are that he is determined to perform his difficult task in an impartial and fashion.

There is no comparison between his investigation, which has already run for more almost 200 days, and that of its predecessor, the disgraced Widgery Inquiry. In some ways, the latter’s cynical report, based more on perceived political interest than any of the principles of justice, was as despicable as the killings that led to the inquiry in the first place.

The key to the identity of the person responsible for the order may well lie in the remark made to Lord Widgery by the former British prime minister, Ted Heath. He is on record as having said to the late chief justice that the war in Northern Ireland had as much to do with propaganda as anything else. As a result, the report that emerged was nothing but propaganda.

The British press all but ignored the obvious facts. Widgery was hailed. The dead victims in Derry and their grief-stricken relatives were ignored or even described as members of the IRA.

But truths still sometimes come home to roost. Well in advance of the final Saville report, which will almost certainly not be finalized for at least two years, two new films depict the real truth in graphically accurate terms.

They differ only in respect of the possible motivation of the paras in opening fire on unarmed civilians. The British Army now accepts that the fairy stories about blast bombs and guns, swallowed so readily by Lord Widgery, are just those: fairy stories.

One film, “Sunday,” unequivocally charges that the para killings were coldly planned and authorized in advance.

The second, “Bloody Sunday,” a Paul Greengrass production, tends to support the view that the operation was botched and that the intention was not to kill protestors.

Does it really matter? The question that still has to be answered, as Hume emphasized, is the identity of the person who gave the order to use the paras as they were used.

It is a question that continues to haunt the likes of Mickey Bradley, shot in the abdomen and arms as he stood to protest against the attacks.

In relation to the Saville Inquiry, he declared in a recent RTE production: “You are fighting the British government and the British government thinks an open check will solve everything.”

However, no number of open checks will vanquish the ghosts that still hover over the streets of Omagh and Derry. Nor will they prevent the revelation of the truth forever.

Heath himself may yet have to be called before the Saville Inquiry. And why not?

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