President Clinton, meanwhile, was planning a September visit to lend further U.S. support to the optimism that had begun to take hold after nearly three decades of sectarian hostilities.
But despite such upbeat developments, the summer of 1998 remained one of discontent. Though there were hints of ceasefires from some fringe paramilitary groups, violence remained a part of everyday life in some parts of Northern Ireland. In July, three young brothers of a mixed marriage — Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn — were killed when a firebomb was thrown through the window of their home. Two adult Catholic brothers in Derry were shot and wounded, one critically, by loyalist gunmen. A North Belfast man was killed in a botched republican kneecapping. Ten Catholic churches were torched in rural areas of the North on a single night in early July. But perhaps most ominous of all, on Aug. 1, a 500-pound car bomb was detonated in the County Down village of Banbridge, injuring 35 people, two of them seriously, and damaging 20 shops.
That was the backdrop to Saturday, Aug. 15, a sunny market day in the bustling town of Omagh in County Tyrone. With school supplies and groceries to buy, one could be forgiven for believing the Troubles were a million miles away. But they weren’t. They were present. Right there in the center of town, in the form of another 500-pound-plus bomb, this one hidden in a red Vauxhall Cavalier parked on Market Street. At 3:10 p.m., 40 minutes after the first of two ambiguous warnings were delivered, it went off. Twenty-nine people were left dead or dying. Hundreds more were injured, some of them horribly disfigured. The Real IRA, the dissident republican group responsible for the Banbridge bomb, had done its deadly work. The future of Northern Ireland’s peace process seemed to hang by a thread.
Some would argue that it still hangs by a thread. But hang it does, five years after the worst single atrocity in almost 30 years of atrocities. It hangs despite five years of political fits and starts, five years of sporadic sectarian violence.
In important ways, the tragedy of Omagh solidified support for the peace process, if not the complex political process that should be its guarantor. That support lasts to this day. It does so in part because Omagh continues to stalk our collective memory, a grim reminder of what political failure would mean. Failure, Omagh’s victims seem to shout to us, is not an option. Peace, they say, is the only way forward.
Those who have suffered most, the families of the dead and injured, can take some small measure of solace in the fact that their sacrifice has helped keep the peace process on the rails. The conviction and sentencing last week of Mickey McKevitt, the former leader of the Real IRA, should rekindle their faith, and indeed the faith of everyone, in the ability of the Irish and British governments to bring to justice those who use violence to attain their political goals.
The world in recent years seems to have become inured to the kind of attack witnessed at Omagh: planes are crashed into the World Trade Center, suicide bombings continue to be an almost daily plague in the Middle East, tourists are targeted by fanatics in Indonesia. With every atrocity, the world seems to spin a bit more out of control. And yet there is hope. All the proof we need can be found among the sturdy survivors of Omagh, who stand steadfast as a bulwark against a descent in chaos.