British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Ashford Castle, County Mayo on August 26, 1998. They join forces to fight terrorism and discuss laws which will be introduced in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing, which took place eleven day earlier on August 15 in Omagh, County Tyrone, 110 kilometres west of Belfast, and resulted in 28 deaths.
Leading the way in a return to the past is Ahern’s Dublin government, which has introduced the toughest anti-terrorist legislation in the history of the Irish Republic. He concedes that the measures are draconian, but says that his government is determined to do everything in its power, “working closely with the British government to defeat and suppress this murderous conspiracy against the people of Ireland.”
Prime Minister Blair promises that he too plans to introduce extreme measures. “We will bring in similar measures to those proposed by the Irish government, so we will then have the toughest anti-terrorist measures for the whole of Ireland, the Republic and Northern Ireland, that we have ever seen.”
With no plans to recall the British parliament, it is thought that existing legislation will be applied, since it already includes measures similar to those announced by the Irish government.
Oppressive British legislation has sustained British rule in Ireland for decades. This includes internment without trial, non-jury courts, entry and search of homes without a warrant, seven-day detention with unrecorded and unsupervised interrogation, denial of access to lawyers, exclusion orders and more. Most of these are still in use in 1998.
The Ahern package includes withdrawal of a suspect’s right to silence — refusal to answer questions can be used as evidence that a suspect is a member of an illegal organisation, the seizure of property that has been used for storing weapons or making bombs, and the creation of a new offence of directing an unlawful organisation. This is expected to carry the penalty of life imprisonment.
Omagh is 75% nationalist, with good cross-community relations, and has largely escaped the worst of the conflict. Although Republican dissidents have carried out a spate of similar bombings in the previous year, the towns targeted are mainly Unionist and further east.
In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, Republican splinter groups remain on a military footing. These groups — the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA — have announced their determination to fight on.
The group that claims responsibility for the Omagh bombing is the Real IRA, which was formed in protest at the IRA’s 1997 cease-fire. Irish police have insisted that the Real IRA is the military wing of the recently formed 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM), although this is denied by that organisation.
Although both the INLA and the Real IRA have declared a unilateral cease-fire since the Omagh bombing, media focus has settled on Bernadette Sands McKevitt, sister of the 1980s IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who is a leading figure in the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. Sands-McKevitt has condemned the Omagh bombing, but her home in Blackrock, County Louth, has since been targeted by local townspeople who have staged protests against her and her family. She has also been denied a visa to enter the United States on a speaking tour.
The Omagh bombing could not have come at a better time for Britain. With the war formally over and Sinn Féin penned, the bombing delivers an opportunity to smash the Republican left once and for all and wrench it from any semblance of ongoing support in Ireland.
All nationalist opponents of the Good Friday Agreement must now cope with being stained by the blood of Omagh. With the massive referendum vote in favour of peace to back them up, the British and Irish governments can be satisfied that the Good Friday Agreement now looks more in place than at any other time. As one nationalist describes the situation, “If the Good Friday Agreement was a defeat for the cause of Irish nationalism, the Omagh bombing has turned it into a rout.”
(From: “Blair, Ahern make the most of Omagh bomb” by Dave Riley, Green Left (www.greenleft.org), August 26, 1998)