By Harry Keaney
The massive bomb explosion that tore through the heart of Omagh just after 3 o’clock on the Saturday afternoon of Aug. 15, 1998 will probably echo forever through Northern Ireland’s brutal and bloodied history.
With 29 people killed, among them a pregnant woman and an 18-month-old child, and with more than 200 injured, it was the North’s worst single act of mass slaughter since the Luftwaffe targeted heavy industry in Belfast in 1941.
The center of the Omagh was full of people attending the town’s annual festival. Many parents were out shopping in preparation for their children’s return to school in September.
The Real IRA, a Republican breakaway group dissatisfied with the North’s peace process, claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Five suspects were soon arrested, questioned by RUC detectives at Castlereagh Interrogation Center, and released.
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Toward the end of September, in an intensification of the Gárdá and RUC hunt for the bombers, 12 people were detained for questioning on either side of the border. In dawn raids in Monaghan and Armagh, six people were arrested in the North and three in the South. Later the same day, another three were arrested by gárdaí in Monaghan.
At special emergency sittings, the Oireachtas, in Dublin, passed an amendment to the Offenses Against the State Act, and Westminster voted through the Criminal Justice Terrorism and Conspiracy Act. The new legislation allowed the courts in both jurisdictions to convict suspects on the opinion of a senior police officer that they were members of a paramilitary organization.
At the end of February, 11 more people — five in the Republic and six in the North — were arrested for questioning, again in a series of raids on both sides of the border. Among them was Francie Mackey, a former Sinn Féin councilor in Omagh and chairman of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee. Mackie’s son, Shane, was among those questioned and released soon after the bombing.
County Armagh native Colm Murphy, with an address of Dundalk, Co. Louth, was brought before the Special Criminal Court in Dublin and charged with membership of an illegal organization and conspiracy to cause explosions.
The case has yet to be heard. He is currently out on bail.
Murphy, who lived in the U.S. for several years, had been sentenced to four years in prison in New York in 1982 for attempting to export arms.
In June, eight man and two women were arrested and questioned in connection with the bombing. All were later released.
This Wednesday, RUC and Gárdá investigation teams will meet in Omagh to review their work during the year since the explosion.
In the aftermath of the bombing, Bernadette Sands McKevitt, the vice chairperson of the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, was denied a visa to enter the U.S. for a fund-raising and speaking tour. Former Irish northern Aid spokesman Martin Galvin described the move as censorship by visa denial.
Sands McKevitt, brother of Bobby Sands, the first of 13 hunger strikers to die in Long Kesh in 1981, is a founder member of the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, which is regarded as the political wing of the Real IRA.
Among those who visited Omagh after the bombing was President Clinton, who arrived within three weeks to survey the damage and comfort the injured and the relatives of the dead. It was his second Irish visit in less than three years.
In a speech which resonates as strongly today, Clinton said: "The question is not whether there will be more bombs and more attempts to undo with violence the verdict of the ballot box; there may well be. The question is not whether tempers will flare and debates will be divisive. They certainly will be. The question is how will you react to it all, to the violence. How will you deal with your differences? Can the bad habits and brute forces of yesterday break your will for tomorrow’s peace? That is the question."
In retrospect, Clinton’s words seems prophetic; last March came the murder, in a car bomb, of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson. The loyalist Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility.
But, as is usual in the aftermath of such terrible atrocities as Omagh, the goodness and generosity of human nature emerged. In December, the Omagh Relief Fund Committee of New York, on behalf of the people of Omagh, publicly thanked all those in the Big Apple who raised $130,000 for victims and families of the bombing.
There were also the events that stirred hope in the shattered community, events such as the birth in Dungannon South Tyrone’s hospital five days after the blast, of a 7-pound, 6-ounce baby daughter to one of the injured, Nicola Emery, 21, a Protestant, and her partner, Michael Mulholland, 17, a Catholic.
And then there was the belated and bittersweet marriage last March between Donna Marie Keyes and Gary McCallion. They were to have been wed in the Sacred Heart Church in Omagh the week after the bombing. Among the 29 who were killed was 20-month-old Breda Devine, who was to have been the couple’s flower girl.
Keyes and McCallion were both injured in the blast. McCallion suffered third-degree burns on 35 percent of his body.
Breda Devine was his niece.
Keyes was not expected to survive, having suffered serious burns over 60 percent of her body. Her face will bear scars of the tragedy forever, but she said the Saturday of her wedding marked the beginning of a new life.
Scarred but hopeful. It could be the story of Northern Ireland itself.