Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 15 September 1998
The sitting begun on Monday 14 September 1998 was resumed at 10.30 am.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
At the end of yesterday’s proceedings Mrs Robinson, very helpfully, drew to my attention some problems with the sound amplification in the Strangers’ and Press Galleries and in some parts of the Chamber proper. I have had this matter investigated and it may be that we will need to improve the speaker capacity in the Galleries. As our staff become more familiar with balancing the amplification system, we may be able to overcome some of the other difficulties ourselves.
As far as the Chamber itself is concerned, may I draw the attention of those on the Back Benches to the small recessed speakers, in the carved rail at the top of the Back Benches. For those at the desks, please note the recessed speakers there. Yesterday, some of the staff noticed that Members’ notes were obstructing the desk speakers, and that is why there was difficulty hearing from them. That also reduced the amount of amplification in the Chamber as a whole. Our staff will try to improve the balancing, but if Members are unable to hear clearly, they should check that their papers are not obstructing the speakers and then incline their ears towards them — either on the Back Benches or at the desks. I hope we can overcome this problem.
I am grateful to Mrs Robinson for drawing this matter to my attention. If there are any other teething troubles either inside or outside the Chamber, I would be very grateful if Members would draw them to my attention as well.
That this Assembly do now adjourn to a date and place to be determined by the Secretary of State. — [The Initial Presiding Officer]
The Initial Presiding Officer:
With the agreement of the party Whips, it has been decided that this debate should last for three hours. Speeches will, of course, be limited to 10 minutes. As I have a very long list of Members who wish to speak, it would be helpful if the speeches were kept as short as is reasonably practicable.
To echo the words of one of those injured by the Omagh bomb, let me say "The devil visited Omagh."
On Saturday 15 August at 3.10 pm the deadliest tragedy ever witnessed in our long 30 years of conflict was inflicted upon the innocents in Omagh’s Market Street. I ask that the names of the dead be inserted in Hansard.
[Following are the names: Brenda Mary Logue (17 years) (Omagh), Gareth Conway (18 years) (Carrickmore), Mary Grimes (65 years) (Beragh), Avril Monaghan (30 years) (Augher), Maria Teresa Monaghan (18 months) (Augher), Alan Radford (16 years) (Omagh), Lorrayne Ann Wilson (15 years) (Omagh), Elizabeth Amelda Rush (57 years) (Omagh), Anne McCombe (49 years) (Omagh), Rocio Abad Ramos (23 years) (Madrid), Fernando Blasco Baselga (12 years) (Madrid), Philomena Skelton (49 years) (Drumquin), Fred White (60 years) (Omagh), Brian White (26 years) (Omagh), Adrian Gallagher (21 years) (Omagh), Jolene Briege Marlow (17 years) (Omagh), Esther Nora Gibson (36 years) (Beragh), Debra Anne Cartwright (20 years) (Omagh), Julia Victoria Hughes (21 years) (Omagh), Sean McLoughlin (12 years) (Buncrana), James Victor Barker (12 years) (Buncrana), Oran Michael Doherty (8 years) (Buncrana), Samantha McFarland (17 years) (Omagh), Breda Catherine Devine (20 months) (Donemana), Vide Elizabeth Short (56 years) (Omagh), Geraldine Agnew Breslin (43 years) (Omagh), Olive Hawkes (60 years) (Omagh), Brian McCrory (54 years) (Omagh) and Sean McGrath (61 years) (Omagh), who died on 5 September.]
We hope and pray that that list will not get any longer.
We have all expressed our sympathies many times over, but I am certain that other Members will wish to join with me at the beginning of this debate to record sincere sympathy and condolences to all those families who have been devastated by this atrocity, and especially to those who have lost loved ones. We also think of those who are still recovering from their injuries, and we think too of our fellow Assembly Member, Mr Gibson, whose family also suffered directly.
Omagh is one of the two main towns in my West Tyrone constituency. It was my home for the first half of my life; it is where I grew up, went to school and socialised. Most of my family still live there. Omagh is one of those towns where everyone knows everyone else and where people get on well together. That is not to say that it has not had its share of bombings and murders over the past 30 years. In spite of this, good relations have generally prevailed in Omagh.
But bombs do not discriminate. The explosion has left 29 people dead — and let us not forget the unborn either — and hundreds injured, regardless of age, creed, class or, indeed, country. This evil and indiscriminate act has left so many homes, throughout Tyrone and beyond, shrouded in sorrow and despair. There is the heartache of those grieving for lost family members and friends; there is the pain of those sitting by the bedsides of the injured, praying for the best; and there is the trauma of those involved in the rescue attempts. The pain of Omagh has been felt by many thousands of people who were not directly affected.
Tribute must be paid to all those who became involved in the rescue operation after the explosion. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, firemen, ambulance personnel, doctors, nurses, bus drivers, the Army, the Royal Air Force, council workers, and the man and woman in the street. They all deserve the very highest praise possible. All involved did the very best they could, and no one could have asked for more. I have nothing but the highest admiration for all involved.
Many hospitals throughout Northern Ireland swung into action to receive victims. The Erne, Altnagelvin, South Tyrone, Musgrave Park, the Ulster, the City and the Royal Victoria are all deserving of praise. In particular, the task undertaken by Omagh’s own Tyrone County Hospital must be highlighted. The skill and expertise of its staff, and the performance of emergency operations to stabilise the injured prior to their transfer to acute hospitals undoubtedly saved lives. The value of such local hospital services cannot be overstressed and must not be forgotten in any future health board plans.
The excellent and speedy co-ordination of an incident centre, and the subsequent counselling services undertaken by Omagh District Council, the social services and the local clergy are all deserving of commendation. Indeed, I welcome the fact that a task force has been brought together to deal with the tremendous trauma felt by survivors. The ramifications of this atrocity will be with us all for a long time to come. It is vital that everything possible is done to cushion the ongoing difficulties that have to be faced by so many.
I have no doubt, given the nature of their warning and the geography of Omagh’s main shopping area, that it was the intention of the so-called Real IRA to kill and maim as many ordinary citizens as possible. To plant a bomb in such an area on a busy shopping day, during school holidays, and to have timed it to explode just prior to a community event speaks for itself.
How can anyone understand the mind that can contemplate, much less carry out, such an action? Such people are beyond the comprehension of a normal, civilised society and they do not deserve to be part of it. They have claimed that their so-called warnings were not properly passed on. Such a despicable attempt to transfer blame adds insult to the pain and misery they have already created. I trust that the entire House will join with me in expressing our disgust and unequivocal condemnation of those responsible for this outrage.
I must add that there are those in the House who know who these people are. They should be sharing such knowledge with the authorities, North or South, so as to assist in their apprehension. I quote the Adams statement:
"Sinn Fein believe the violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone."
Is it so?
The Confederation of British Industry has said that the Omagh bombing focused attention on the issue of explosives and weapons. Its director, Nigel Smyth, said
"The existence of significant amounts of explosives and weapons and the capacity to use them with such horrific impact is deeply worrying and highly dangerous."
It calls on all of those who have influence over such arsenals to do everything possible to secure their early decommissioning. That would be a crucial step forward which would also provide an important, confidence-building measure.
While we consider Omagh, let us not forget the many other tragedies, murders and atrocities which have resulted in multiple deaths that have plagued our land for so long.
If violence is now to be a thing of the past, why the need to maintain these arsenals? The leader of the Real IRA, a former Provo quartermaster, surely knows where supplies are held. He therefore had, and still has, access to such materials as were used to make the Omagh bomb and the others as well over the past few months. The potential for another Omagh must be removed. That is the overwhelming public expectation, and, further, it is a political imperative, if we are to advance the return of right and proper powers to Northern Ireland’s elected representatives.
I welcome the anti-terrorism legislation, North and South, that has been passed in the wake of the Omagh bomb. However, I must also point out that the security Minister was warned in no uncertain terms in the aftermath of Banbridge of the probability of an even more devastating attack. I am also disappointed by our Government’s failure to match the South’s internment capacity, thus rendering that option virtually unworkable for the Southern Government. We now wait to see if the new legal options available will be used to apprehend and bring to justice those who carried out the attack on Omagh and those who give succour to such actions.
The security response is one thing, but our Government must commit all the resources necessary to assist Omagh to resurrect itself physically and mentally. The after-effects of this act of depravity on that dark August afternoon will remain with everyone for a long time to come and will require a long-term commitment from medical and trauma care experts.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
May I ask you to bring your remarks to a close.
Every assistance has been promised by the Secretary of State, but I understand that extra medical staff need to be committed to the Omagh area to help ease the tremendous burdens still being carried by doctors and nurses.
The wishes of the people of Omagh must also be fully considered by those responsible for restructuring the lower market area, and funds must be made available to assist with that. Let us not see officialdom frustrating this progress. The Government must ensure that everything possible is done to help Omagh and the area around it to return to some sort of normal life.
We have witnessed the great, the good, and the mighty visiting Omagh and those affected. Certain scepticism may have been expressed about some of these visitors, but, in general, the visiting dignitaries gave welcome support to the bereaved and injured, and their visits were, and are, aiding the healing process. All must be thanked for their time and concern.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I must ask you to bring your remarks to a close.
I will finish in a moment.
One could not fail to see the genuine effect which the courageous and dignified people of Omagh had on all their visitors. The truth is that the real impact of terrorism on our community was at last, perhaps, being understood by outsiders.
It would be wrong to conclude without referring to the cruel phone calls and letters being received by some of the families who have lost loved ones and to the recent spate of hoax bomb warnings that have been perpetrated on the people of Omagh. Such actions are to be abhorred, and I call for an immediate cessation of such activities which are causing intense extra pain, concern and worry to people who have already suffered more trauma than anyone should ever have to endure. Surely it is the wish of us all that the Omagh bomb is the last bomb and that we will have to endure such things no more. Therein would be a fitting memorial to the death, heartache, pain and trauma created by evil in Omagh, this day last month.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I appreciate that, particularly for those who represent the area and its surroundings, this debate is a deeply painful and emotional one. I also appreciate that many Members will have a good deal to say — and rightly so. However, I want to prevail upon all those who wish to speak to try to keep within the 10-minute allocation. Many Members wish to contribute, and the more who are able to do so, the better. I understand that there is a lot of pain, especially for those of you who were directly affected or who represent those who were directly affected.
The Omagh bombing on 15 August came as a horrific shock to everyone in Omagh and beyond, especially at a time when most people felt that a more peaceful climate had been developing here. I believe that the Omagh bomb was a defining moment in our political development, principally because so many civilian people were killed and injured — people from throughout Tyrone, Donegal and Spain. The people of Ireland were shocked and saddened that at this time in our history, Irish Republicans could be so off beam and act in a way so alien to the wishes of the people. The enormity of the casualties caused by the Omagh bomb sickened everyone, as did the fact that some people were still pursuing political objectives by using deadly physical force.
We all know that dissident Republicans wanted a so-called spectacular, at this time, in order to wreck the current peace process and prevent the new political structures, including this Assembly, from functioning. The timing was right and the town of Omagh ideal, in their view, to provoke a derailment of the entire peace process.
It is, however, a sad fact that it took the deaths of 28 people (now 29) and over 200 injuries — many of them very serious — to bring everyone, including most senior politicians, to their senses. Public opinion throughout Ireland was clearly one of revulsion. No one could justify such an atrocity. The Social Democratic and Labour Party Members want to extend their sincere sympathy to all the bereaved families and to those who are still suffering from injuries.
The two Governments have had to act in unison, as never before, in order to reflect public anger. Omagh is a unique town, as my fellow Member from West Tyrone, Mr Hussey, said earlier. It has always been a model of tolerance and accommodation. People who live, work or shop in Omagh have always been comfortable with each other. Omagh is the county town of Tyrone. It is a good, well-integrated provincial town where community relations have always been good. People feel very angry, therefore, that a terrorist group should decide to bring a bomb into the heart of the town on a busy Saturday afternoon, intent on causing maximum damage and destruction to people and property.
As a public representative of the people of Omagh, I have to ask "What kind of patriotism is this? What kind of humanity allows the bombing of a crowded civilian shopping scene, such as Market Street, Omagh?" Quite simply, nothing in the wide world could justify the killing of people in such an inhuman and callous way.
One key fact has emerged. The Omagh bomb has, I hope, at long last done away with ambivalence about political violence in Ireland, as we approach the end of this millennium. Many people who have been reluctant in recent times to speak out about bombings and killings have been shaken to their moral and political foundations. The so-called brave people who plan and plant bombs are not so brave when it comes to helping those who have been injured as a result of their evil deeds — to say nothing of those killed.
The ambulancemen and women, the firemen, the police officers, the voluntary-care groups, the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, the clergy and the ordinary people who help others at the scenes of bombs like the one in Omagh are much braver people than those who plan and plant such bombs.
It is a terrible shame on our land and on our society that some people can inflict such inhumanity on other human beings — fellow Irish people. It has been quite apparent to most observers that the people of Omagh, in the aftermath of this terrible massacre, have behaved in a very civilised and restrained way, displaying great humanity and Christian feeling. The collective grief and sorrow of the people has been quite remarkable at this very trying time.
I want to address the way in which the town of Omagh and, in particular, the Tyrone County Hospital responded to the bomb. It is remarkable how the medical and nursing staff at the hospital in Omagh responded to this large-scale emergency. The Tyrone County Hospital is only a small-scale hospital, which, sadly, has been steadily run down over recent years. I can tell Members that the families of the injured, and the injured themselves, deeply appreciate the care and attention they received at this hospital. Many patients had to be treated quickly before being transferred to other hospitals throughout Northern Ireland. Mr Pinto, our senior consultant, his entire medical team and all the other staff at the Tyrone County Hospital deserve the highest praise and appreciation for their dedicated and highly professional efforts in the midst of such terrible injuries and trauma.
Many patients were transferred to the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen, Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon and, by helicopter, to the hospitals in Belfast. Omagh is a garrison town, and many patients were very glad of the helicopter lifts to the hospitals in Belfast. Many patients were also taken to hospital in private cars and buses. Everyone did what he could to help. Many other groups of people and individuals did remarkable work in helping people after the bomb, and that was deeply appreciated by Omagh District Council and the community in general.
Omagh District Council, under the leadership of its chief executive, John McKinney, quickly set up an emergency disaster centre. This was very important for the families who were looking for those who were lost. Omagh was put on the world media’s map because of the bomb, and many journalists and reporters came to our town to relay the horror story and its aftermath of funerals to the world. The coverage of the many important people who visited Omagh in the days after the tragedy was, on the whole, covered sensitively. Coping with this tragedy has been both difficult and trying for the bereaved families, the relatives of the maimed and injured and the owners and workers of the shops and businesses affected. It will take Omagh a long time to recover.
I want to say a special word of thanks to the clergy from all the churches in Omagh who did a magnificent job consoling and dealing with the many families that suffered death and injury. It was the local clergy who organised for the victims the very moving and solemn memorial service which was shown throughout the world the following Saturday.
It is my earnest hope that the Government and their agencies recognise what Omagh represents. Sadly, in recent years, we have only witnessed minimal Government help and support.
It is sorely felt that the central Administration has not dealt Omagh a fair hand. In particular, it has been obvious to local people that Tyrone County Hospital has been gradually and steadily run down by those who simply do not listen to the concerns of those in the west. Quite simply the people of Omagh want an assurance from the relevant Government authorities that their hospital will be sustained with proper resourcing to provide a viable level of acute medical services in the future.
It is to be hoped that now that we have had visits from senior Government Ministers and heads of state, we will be listened to with regard to some of our social and economic problems. I welcome the fact that yesterday Mr Ingram, the industry Minister, announced plans to build an advance factory in Omagh. Young people in particular need reassurance that they will have better access to higher education locally and that jobs can be created in their area.
The people of Omagh are still in a traumatised state. Many families of the bereaved and injured are suffering terrible grief and pain. Many business people are trying to come to terms with damage to buildings, but some of them have also been affected deeply by the loss of colleagues and workers who were killed or badly injured.
We welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has appointed a senior civil servant to liaise with the local agencies involved in the reconstruction of Omagh. I want to place on record the deep gratitude of the Omagh people to all who have visited us or sent messages of support since the bombing. Many Members of the Assembly came to Omagh and expressed their solidarity with us. We are very thankful for that. In particular, the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) came a number of times and attended funerals. This was appreciated by all concerned.
We have been deeply touched by all the messages of support from Ireland, Britain and around the world. We can only hope that there will be no more Omagh bombs, and we should all work for that. Surely the public revulsion throughout these islands to the Omagh bomb must mark a new beginning in political relations here. The victims and their families have paid a terrible price for the political stagnation which has existed here for such a long time. Indeed, all of the victims of violence over the last 30 years have borne the same enormous pain and grief that Omagh experienced so tragically just weeks ago.
The path is very clear for all of us in the Assembly. Certainly the people of Omagh wish to see the new political structure working, so that there will be no more of these atrocities.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I deeply regret that the Assembly was not recalled immediately after the bomb. It is wrong that this elected body was refused the right to meet at that time. Other bodies were able to do so but, because of the influence of the First Minister (Designate), his deputy and the Secretary of State, the Assembly was not. I regret that it has taken so long for us to have the opportunity to express our views here.
I am glad to associate myself with all the tributes that have been paid by those Members who have already spoken. The terrible crimes of those responsible for that bomb in Omagh and those killings and murders throughout the province should not be allowed to be forgotten.
I utterly deplore the fact that the President of the United States of America came to Omagh and unveiled a carefully worded plaque which contained no indictment of the so-called Real IRA. We had the same thing in Enniskillen as well.
Why are we constantly reminded by politicians of the crimes perpetrated by those on the Loyalist side? This should go on the record fairly and squarely: there is no difference between the villainy, the hellishness and the hideousness of what took place in Omagh and all the killings of the past. Do the parents and loved ones of the 299 murdered policemen, put to death by the Provisional IRA, feel any differently than the people in Omagh who mourn their loved ones?
The people of Northern Ireland, who have opposed what is happening in this province have a right to say something today. We were promised tranquillity, but instead we got terror. We were promised peace, but instead we got war. We were promised quiet, but instead we got grief. We were promised the end of killing, but instead killings have multiplied.
Since this so-called Belfast Agreement was signed 37 people have been murdered by terrorists. Every paramilitary group supposedly on ceasefire has breached that ceasefire and the terms of the Mitchell principles of non-violence. There have been 691 people injured by paramilitary inspired violence; 75 separate bombing incidents, including the atrocities in Omagh, Banbridge and Moira; a growing list of largely unreported incendiary devices, many of which have destroyed businesses; six car bombs; 49 separate punishment shootings and 55 serious assaults carried out by all the paramilitary groups; and there are more persons detained in custody this year than during the mid-1970s, when the troubles were at their height. Some peace process.
The Government claim to be doing everything possible to counter these violent acts, but there is little evidence to prove that. The Government are neither tough on terrorism nor on the causes of terrorism today, and the time has come when people have to face up to reality. This was not the first bombing or the first killing in Omagh. The whole mid-Ulster area has been a killing field, an area of IRA activity. One has only to see the graves of gallant men of the Ulster Defence Regiment to know how serious the killings have been.
The Prime Minister keeps saying that the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein are closely identified with one another. One side is the IRA and the other side is Sinn Fein. These people, whose representatives sit here in this House, were responsible for all the violence that led up to what happened.
We are told by the security forces that the detonator for this bomb was purchased along with other detonators by the Provisional IRA in Phoenix, Arizona. The time has come to face up to reality. We are being asked to take representatives of this organization to our bosom and put them on the Executive to have a part in the Government.
There is no difference between the killings of the past, on both sides of the religious and political divide, and this killing in Omagh. The only thing that happened this time was that the Governments had a vested interest in their so-called peace process, so that is why they had such a quick and swift answer to this matter. I would say that this matter is not over. I would like to think that no more bombs will follow.
All my political life I have been hearing about the day when the gun will be out of Irish politics. But the gun will never be taken out of Irish politics until those people realise that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland are not going to accept a united Ireland, are not going under Dublin rule and are not going to be pushed around by either a British Government or anyone else on that issue. Until they learn that, they will never cease from their violence. The violence will continue: there will be more sorrow and more deaths. To say that the speeches made by the IRA/Sinn Fein Leader is some sort of going back on what they have always stood for, is to fly in the face of the evidence.
I do not see any repentance. I do not see a turning. The best way for them to demonstrate a turnaround would be to hand in the remainder of their arms, give up the murder weaponry and dismantle their arsenal. That is the only proof of their having turned from their wickedness and their lies that we can accept.
It behoves all of us to understand the real issues that are involved. An attempt is being made by concession and concession and concession to buy off the bombing of the mainland. That is what it is all about. Mr Blair is prepared to keep making concessions to ensure that no more bombs go off on the mainland. But when those who control the arsenal find that things are not going completely their way, they will return. As one of their members — now a Member of this Assembly — said during the talks, they will return to that which they do best. So what can we do but heed what they are saying?
This is a sad and a bitter day. I have spoken to many of the victims’ loved ones. What was reported by Mr Clinton and Mr Blair about their attitude was untrue. They spoke to both the President and the Prime Minister, but their feelings were not portrayed by both these gentlemen when they addressed public meetings.
The sorrows are deep, and the wounds go to the very quick. There is only one healing, and that is to see every murder weapon surrendered and complete and final decommissioning and destruction of the arms used to murder people.
Mr P Doherty:
One month ago the atrocity of the Omagh bomb was visited on the people of Tyrone, on the people of my own county — Buncrana, Donegal — and on people from Madrid. I would like to reiterate my condolences and sympathies and those of my party to all who were bereaved and injured. The dignity with which the family members, relatives and friends of those who were bereaved conducted themselves was a humbling experience for any of us who were around Omagh in the days after the bomb went off. The courage of the emergency services, the doctors and the nurses was also exemplary.
In the weeks and months ahead when accountants’ figures and management reports about hospitals appear, let them fade into insignificance against that courage.
We have been reminded by other Members of the awful summer that we have come through: the three children murdered in Ballymoney; Nationalists driven from their homes; and Drumcree and the Garvaghy Road. When we reflect on these things there is an onus and an awful responsibility on us as politicians to move forward and resolve them.
The attack on Omagh was also an attack on the peace process. There is therefore a great responsibility on us to sustain that process and bring it to fruition. We also have a responsibility to build a memorial of lasting peace to all those who have died, not only in Omagh but throughout the troubles. The foundation stones of that memorial should be not only the resolution of the conflict but the resolution of the issues that lead to the conflict in the first place.
Exactly a year ago today we were invited, on the basis of our electoral mandate, to start the process of negotiations. After months of negotiations we produced what has become known as the Good Friday Agreement. It is our duty as politicians to implement that Agreement. We did our best. We brought forward our concerns, our aspirations, and we matched them against the concerns and aspirations of the other political parties. We now must build on that and implement the Agreement with as much speed as we can muster. Omagh will renew itself, and I hope that we can move beyond renewal to rebuilding all that has been lost.
We all have our memories of the event and of the days after. I had just landed in Portugal for a week’s holiday with my wife, and I had to return immediately. My clear and undying memory is of lists — lists of funerals, lists of those in hospital (and the length and the indignity of those lists) — and of so many people killed and so many people in hospital.
My other clear memory is of two men — one an Ulster Unionist councillor and vice-chairman of Omagh District Council, the other a Sinn Fein councillor and chairman of Omagh District Council — and of the way in which they worked together. They performed their civic duties in a way which matched and mirrored the dignity and the courage of all who had been bereaved, of all who had suffered and of all who had worked to save the people caught up in the bomb. They have shown us how we might move forward. There is an onus, a deep and heavy responsibility, on us to do so.
We must ensure that Omagh is the last atrocity. We must put all of that behind us. We can, as politicians, recriminate. We all have memories of suffering, of loss and of indignities, but we must match the courage of the people of Omagh, move forward, find a solution and make the Omagh atrocity the last.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I wish to express deep sympathy to the families of all the 31 people (including the unborn twins) who were killed at Omagh and to those who were injured. Sadly, some will have desperate injuries for the rest of their lives. Again, I would like to express our sympathy to Assembly Member, Mr Gibson, whose family was touched by the atrocity as well.
This probably was the darkest summer in the history of Northern Ireland. But Omagh was a tragedy waiting to happen. It could have happened in Banbridge or Moira. The sad thing is that Omagh has always had excellent community relations. Omagh was the unfortunate victim of the Real IRA.
I heard about the tragedy on the second day of my holiday with my family. You remembered where you were when John F Kennedy and Princess Diana were killed, and Omagh is rather like that. The enormity of the tragedy did not come all at once. It unravelled gradually: 10 were dead, then 20, then, eventually, 28, and hundreds injured.
I visited the hospital in Omagh on the Monday afterwards, accompanied by Seamus Close, David Ford and Cllr Ann Gormley. I wanted to say my thanks to the staff, but I also wanted to speak to some of the injured. I was struck by the large number of young people who had been injured, and I could identify with them because some of them, like my own children, were waiting for the GCSE and A-level results due the following week. Suddenly the results seemed irrelevant.
I went to the leisure centre, which had been the incident centre, and I must pay tribute to the staff who took on a very difficult job, informing loved-ones that it was their father, mother, daughter or son who had been killed. Never have I seen police officers so touched by the savagery of the bomb that had been planted.
I met Mr Byrne, Mr Hussey and some councillors in the high street, and there was an eerie silence. I met people like Tom Watterson, who lost three members of the staff of his shop. Those images are for ever etched on my mind.
On the Saturday I went back again with Seamus Close to the service, and I was struck by the dignity of the occasion.
I would like to put on record my thanks to John McKinney and all his staff at Omagh Council. He showed true leadership at a very tragic and difficult time.
The Governments, North and South, reacted quickly, and it was proper that both the Dáil and Westminster were recalled to deal with the issue — that was what everybody wanted — and I was impressed by the way in which both Governments worked in tandem on it. Both Parliaments passed draconian legislation which must be kept under review.
If the culprits are known — and we hear that the dogs in the street know who the members of the Real IRA are — it is important that surveillance be kept on these people morning, noon and night so that evidence can be collected to convict them in the courts — I would rather see convictions than internment dealing with this.
We are told that the Real IRA is on ceasefire. I am somewhat sceptical of that. The Continuity IRA has not yet called a ceasefire, so there is always a fear that these misguided morons will commit another atrocity.
However, despite what happened in Omagh we see daily the poison of naked sectarianism on our streets, particularly in Portadown. It is a poison that we must not allow to spread throughout Northern Ireland; and there is a danger of this poison spreading. It can kill: we have only to look at Ballymoney and the murder of the three Quinn children to see that. It can injure: only a week ago a policeman, doing his duty, was severely and savagely injured by a pipe bomb. And it can destroy. There are many people who want to destroy the Assembly and the peace process, and they must not be allowed to succeed.
I am calling today for all those involved in the conflict at Drumcree and Portadown to get round a table and talk. Dialogue can work. We saw it happen in Derry with the leadership of the Apprentice Boys and all the other groups involved in the conflict there. Dialogue can work — that is why we are here today. The Assembly provides a new chance and a new opportunity for Northern Ireland. It is therefore important that the situation at Drumcree should not be allowed to drift; it must be dealt with now.
The enormity of the tragedy at Omagh united the entire community in Northern Ireland. The following Saturday hundreds of thousands of people right across the province — Catholic, Protestant, people of every religion — came onto the streets to show their solidarity and sympathy with the people of Omagh.
Surely that must inspire us all to want to create a society in Northern Ireland where, at long last, we can truly live in peace and reconciliation.
I join with everyone here in paying tribute to the medical and emergency services who did so much to lessen, insofar as it could ever be lessened, the tragedy of Omagh. No words can adequately describe the horror of Omagh, and ordinary people cannot comprehend the mindset of those who were responsible for that outrage. Yet except in terms of its scale, that outrage was little different from others in Oxford Street, McGurk’s Bar, Enniskillen, La Mon, Teebane or the Shankill. All of these outrages, including the one in Omagh, were committed in the belief that they would accelerate progress towards achieving the political goals of those who committed them or prevent others from reaching or maintaining their goals.
At this moment, the Provisional IRA retains all the armaments necessary to perpetrate a hundred Omaghs. The Real IRA was almost certainly making use of explosives and detonators which had formerly been part of the Provisional IRA arsenal. What distinction or difference, if any, is there between the Real IRA and the Provisional IRA? The Provisional IRA is acknowledged everywhere as being inextricably linked with Sinn Fein. The word "inextricably" means that it cannot be separated from Sinn Fein — Sinn Fein, 18 of whose members have seats in this Assembly, two of whom may shortly be placed in government over the people of Northern Ireland.
The Real IRA and the Provisional IRA share the same political goals; both have as their political objective a united, socialist Irish Republic. Both believe that terror and violence, murder and mayhem may be justified in the pursuit of their objectives. There are no moral or ethical differences between the Real IRA and the Provisional IRA. They differ only in their tactical views as to when violence may be most efficiently and effectively used for attaining their political goals.
The statement of Mr Adams, the Assembly Member for West Belfast, that the violence was over and done with was, of course, qualified: it will be over if the present process continues to deliver the political aims and visions of Sinn Fein. But should Unionists — or anyone else — obstruct what it considers to be the inevitable progress towards those goals and ambitions, violence may once again have to be resorted to, and for that reason it is absolutely necessary that armaments, explosives, guns and detonators be retained in order to exert, when necessary, the appropriate leverage in negotiations or discussions which are ostensibly part of the democratic process.
After Omagh many people had a sense of déjà vu. Those who remember Enniskillen will recognise remarkable similarities: then, as now, the Provisional IRA, like the Real IRA, had not just committed indescribable murder and destruction, it had occasioned a public-relations disaster. Then, as now, Ireland was aghast. Fifty thousand people signed a book of condolence in Dublin. The Catholic Church apologised — in my view quite unnecessarily — on behalf of those who had committed the atrocity. Mrs Thatcher visited Northern Ireland. The great and the good shed their tears and gnashed their teeth. But such emotional outpourings did not prevent the renewal of violence by the groups that had committed such atrocities as those in Enniskillen, La Mon, Oxford Street, Teebane and Whitecross when, once again, it became politically necessary to resort to violence. And they will do the same again.
Mr Doherty, the Member for West Tyrone, well appreciates that Omagh was once again — even if one step removed — a public-relations disaster for the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein who have been struggling ineffectively with the condemnation of their former associates. The Real IRA has done and is doing nothing which is contrary to the ideology of Sinn Fein/IRA.
In the recent debate in the House of Commons on the new anti-terrorist legislation it was pointed out that since 10 April some 38 people had been murdered in Northern Ireland, 11 of whom were not involved in Omagh, including people murdered by "good terrorists". By "good terrorists" I mean terrorists whose organisations and the political parties fronting them are ostensibly within this process.
More than 37 punishment shootings, some of them fatal, have been committed in an effort by these parties and organisations to maintain control over those areas which they dominate. There have been over 59 brutal punishment beatings, inflicting injuries which are orthopaedically and physically very often more grave than shootings, all of which were sanctioned by organisations fronted by political parties in this Assembly. That is why I referred yesterday to the need to have democratic, non-violent principles as the touchstone for participation in the Assembly or its Executive.
Let me close with this anecdote. When Parliament was recalled to debate the anti-terrorist legislation I spoke to a former member of the Shadow Northern Ireland Labour team and pointed out this distinction between "wicked" terrorists outside the process and "good" terrorists within it. I pointed out that the "good" terrorists had committed nine murders and umpteen beatings and shootings. I said "Is it not immoral for any Government, and particularly for the Mother of Parliaments, to be sanctioning such a distinction?" His reaction was "I do not consider it immoral, because the peace process must go on." The peace process must, therefore, sanction murders of the kind to which I have referred as long as they are perpetrated by people who, ostensibly, support the process and can offer us their hypocritical expressions of grief about what happens.
It is not sufficient for Omagh to be the occasion for an emotional outpouring of grief, necessary though that may be. There must be a rational, cold analysis of the underlying factors, principles and ideologies which permitted it to occur, and it is the duty of the Assembly, as it is the duty of the House of Commons, to purge itself of those who think otherwise.
I do not think that I, or any Member here, fully understands the immeasurable pain and suffering of the people of Omagh. Many have pointed out that the size of the atrocity in Omagh sets it apart from the many other atrocities that we have had to live with over the last 30 years. Maybe we will never fully understand the grief and suffering and pain that is abroad in our society. But Omagh will not go away; Omagh will not be forgotten.
The physical and mental legacies are two reasons for that. It will be seen in those who were disfigured, left limbless or blind or had other serious injuries. Some of us are not in Omagh very often, and every time we drive through, we may see someone on crutches, or someone with a guide dog. We will be being reminded for a very long time to come, more especially because of the ages of some of the victims.
I share in the tributes to the carers, those heroes and heroines who saw and dealt with that which no human being should ever have to deal with. Yet I heard the voices coming from Omagh — soft, determined and dignified, wanting Omagh to be the last. Whether they were on the "Yes" side or the "No" side, they certainly wanted Omagh to be the last, and I hope that it was the last. I am not clairvoyant, and predictions have been made here today, but I sense that Omagh was a watershed. There was the strong attitude of the Government, determined — some would say for the first time — to be the moral guardian of democracy.
Politicians, in the main, are coming to their senses and realising the level of brutality and pain there, and we are sensing that it has to be different. Then there has been the attitude, more especially, of the ordinary people. From wherever it came, there was absolute condemnation, revulsion and anger that more bodies and last breaths had been taken away from us on a vehicle of ideology, inflicting again that which has already been inflicted — against their will.
I have heard talk about ambivalence, and in the past there has indeed been ambivalence from all sides. Prior to the Omagh bombing, I heard the leader of Sinn Fein being accused of ambivalence towards the bombing of Banbridge and Moira. But was it ambivalence, or was it fear on his part? All groups have three sets of people: the thin band that is the leadership, the thin band that are the moralists, and the vast swathe of people in between who wish that the leader, or leaders, could say the things that would get the moralists off their backs. We are experts about that, are we not? The predictors, the prophets, who tell us what we really do not want to hear — even though they have no concept of how they are going to take us beyond the brutal subculture of violence, they condemn all and sundry. I can say this because I have stood and taken such condemnation.
I accept my complicity; I accept my responsibility; and I expect others to do the same. The moralists never do anything wrong. They are better people than everybody else; they are more honourable than everybody else; they are better Unionists or Nationalists than everybody else, but they do not take us anywhere. They take themselves to nice places. They do well for themselves, but they do not offer my society very much.
I heard a journalist say that we had to consider the cock-up theory for Omagh, that young men, not experienced in paramilitary ways, panicked. I do not accept that, but there is a historical reason for my not accepting it. I can remember bombs going off in Northern Ireland. I can remember no-warning car bombs. And I can remember worse — car bombs when the warning gave the wrong location of the bomb. That was around the time when two IRAs were created: the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA. Can some parallel be drawn between that and the present-day split between Real IRA and the Provisional IRA? Perhaps the leaders of the organization that is associated with the Provisional IRA have learnt lessons from the very acts that they themselves committed when they succeeded in taking over that organization.
The one big difference that exists now is the will of the people. That is the new dynamic in the politics of Northern Ireland — 71.12% of the people supported the Agreement. I listened yesterday to those who vociferously, and quite brutally, attacked the Leader of Unionism. They accused everyone else of not being democrats, and then by their very actions, language and attitude, challenged the single, most important democratic decision that has ever been taken in Northern Ireland.
They have the right to challenge political opinions. They have the right to ensure that their voices are heard. They have the right to share in the government of this society and begin a process of healing and building and delivering of services. But they do not have the right to rerun the referendum — not at any time. Those who have described me as "pathetic" need seriously to look at our future.
I have heard the decommissioning issue being dealt with along with Omagh. I understand that there may be a bit of brinkmanship here, but if Mr McGuinness cannot deliver — and I emphasize "cannot" — what happens next?
And in returning to the issue of Omagh, I hope and pray that the caring, the sympathy and the outpouring of love that have been directed towards Omagh will continue, because many people in our society who have been hurt and wounded have not been the recipients of such love, and that makes me feel that we may have only a short attention span in circumstances like these. Omagh happened to us, to our people, and it must not be forgotten.
The tragedy in Omagh has had a profound effect on all of us. Never in my life have I experienced such shock and sadness throughout the community. It has been said that none of us will ever forget 15 August 1998. We will remember the men, women, and children who lost their lives. We will remember those who were maimed and those who were injured — indeed, some are still in hospital just along the road from here. We will remember their families in Omagh, in Buncrana, in Madrid, so cruelly torn apart by this terrible and horrific tragedy.
When we speak of man’s inhumanity to man we will remember Omagh. We will also remember the Quinn family, and Teebane, and Oxford Street, and the Shankill Road and all the other atrocities. I have been able to visit Omagh, and above all I will remember the tremendous grief and the dignity in the words and the deeds of the families of the victims and those directly affected by the bombing in the days and weeks that followed.
We in the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition want to add our names to the long list of people from near and far who have sent their heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the families of the dead and injured. We also want to convey our sincere appreciation to the medical services, the emergency services, the security services, the health and social services, the volunteers and all those who responded so swiftly to the call for help. There is no doubt that they played a hugely important role in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. But we must also remember that they are still playing a vital role now and will continue to do so in the weeks, months and years to come.
We pay tribute to the determination, courage and strength of spirit shown by all those who have been touched by this outrage. We stand in their shadow. The people of Omagh and all who have suffered have shown us what real greatness is. Their determination to rebuild their lives and the life of their community is a lesson to us all. Every step we take in this Chamber towards the creation of a peaceful society will be taken in the shadow of their suffering and of all those who suffered before them.
It is inadequate merely to condemn the actions of a minority who are bent on destroying the peace process. We must go further and show our determination to stand firm against all acts of violence. We pledge ourselves — and I hope everyone else in the Chamber can pledge themselves — to work for a better, peaceful, stable, democratic, non-violent society, in which every man, woman and child has a sense of belonging and a feeling of security.
I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the work of the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate). Both have shown real leadership throughout these dark days. By their actions, they have shown their determination to move forward towards a better future. Together, they are guiding the Assembly with a combination of strength and sensitivity, and we know that that will be the hallmark of their leadership. They have our full support.
There are Members who will criticise their efforts. Some will say that they are going far too slowly; others will say that they are going far too fast. The Women’s Coalition wants to see the Agreement implemented as fully and as swiftly as possible, but we will caution against any knee-jerk reaction. We cautioned against the introduction of new emergency legislation in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing. We agree with what Mr Neeson has said, that the perpetrators must be brought to justice, and the sooner the better, but we are concerned that any possible miscarriage of justice could be counter-productive. The Omagh bombers are isolated in our society, and they must continue to be starved of the oxygen of support. Never, never, never can the use of violence be justified as a means to an end — political or otherwise.
The Women’s Coalition welcomes all statements saying that violence must end, and we also welcome the recent ceasefire announcements. We commend the courage and determination of the people who have held firm to their commitment of non-violence. We continue to call for an end to all acts of violence, and we call on all those with influence to work for a future in which every weapon of war is removed from society for ever. The Women’s Coalition is working towards this end, and we will continue to do that in the Assembly and by building a culture of tolerance in society.
Much has been said about the cost of this violence in monetary terms, but not enough has been said about the cost in human terms. Much greater priority should be given to the victims, to those who are condemned to live with the legacy of war. Even after the guns are silenced, and more than anyone else, the victims of violence deserve our support. The Women’s Coalition recognises this in the Good Friday Agreement, and today we reiterate the demand more forcibly than ever that no door should ever be closed to a victim of violence.
Children who have lost their parents and grandparents or who have witnessed events on their doorsteps that would be X-rated in our cinemas must be guaranteed our unflinching support. The Assembly must not be found lacking in its support for such victims, and until we have the power to provide that assistance, we call on the Government to introduce sensitive measures quickly to ensure help for the people of Omagh, the Quinn family and all the others who have suffered so terribly over the last 30 years or so on their journey towards emotional and physical recovery.
Omagh must be the last atrocity, and the greatest memorial that the Members of the Assembly could give to the victims of Omagh and to the others who have suffered so tragically would be a re-doubling of their efforts to work for peace.
Many words of sympathy have been expressed in the Assembly this morning. I am sure that they were all well meant and said with feeling. Let me quote some that express the agony of Omagh:
"I left him down to the bus and he was so excited that he jumped out of the car before saying goodbye. But he did look at me and smiled in the way he normally did. He had a beautiful smile and was such a happy, gifted child.
To see him lying there with half his head gone and those most beautiful green eyes looking out as if he was waiting for me was devastation. I never realised how green his eyes were. That image will stay will with me for the rest of my life. They have taken away my baby; they have robbed him of his future, and for what? I will never forgive the evil men who carried out this deed."
Such are the poignant words of a broken-hearted mother.
How could they? The heartache, the heartbreak, torn and rent bodies, the bloodlust, the absolute horror of Omagh are all so inconceivable. How anyone could plot, plan, co-ordinate and then activate such horror on any community is beyond comprehension. Our hearts bleed for the victims of the Omagh carnage. Only they will understand the real trauma of such evil. Our prayers are for them at this very sad time.
In my home town of Enniskillen almost 11 years ago 11 people died in similar circumstances. Two people died in my hands as I tried to console them. My neighbour lay dead behind me. I assisted in pulling a survivor, Mr Jim Dixon, who still suffers from the injuries sustained, out of the rubble where he would have perished. I think of Mr Ronnie Hill who has lain in a comatose state since that fateful day. I became the social worker to the Enniskillen Fund, completing 130 visits to the victims and the bereaved. I refer to all of this, not out of bravado, but to emphasise that Omagh suffered, to an extreme degree, what others throughout Northern Ireland have also suffered.
It is in the event of such carnage that it is realised just how much outlying areas of the province value the acute hospital services. They are vital. What would have happened to the victims of Omagh if the Tyrone County had not been an acute hospital and if the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen and the South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon had not been available to render invaluable medical support? Access to a hospital when life or death issues are presented is absolutely vital. The death toll could have been so much greater without the availability of those hospitals.
I cannot pay tribute enough to all the hospitals throughout the province for the services they provide, to the agencies which offer help and to all who showed such tremendous bravery and courage in the face of horrific scenes of bloodletting. Thank God for the compassion of all who serve this afflicted community.
However, the obvious question is this: have Mr Adams and his Sinn Fein associates taken any steps to discourage such heinous crimes over the years? It has already been said that they and the IRA are inextricably linked. Both Governments have stated so many times. The IRA said some time ago that IRA members who are also members of Sinn Fein may sit in British institutions. This dispensation is also verification of the inextricable link made manifestly clear. This Assembly is a British institution accepted by all who pledged themselves to the Agreement on Good Friday, and Sinn Fein is telling us that it has permission from a terrorist grouping to be here.
We trust that never again will such evil present its ugly face and that those who have been involved in any kind of terrorist activity over the years, or who presently lie through their teeth, will, if not caught by the temporal law, one day suffer the wrath and indignation of Almighty God. Such recompense is inescapable. The need is therefore for repentance and disarmament on the parts of unlawful groups. This is essential.
Republican elements and others must now activate decommissioning to evidence good faith, honesty and intent and, as the Agreement dictates, commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Never should our people ever again have to experience the pain, the deaths, the carnage of another Omagh, La Mon, Greysteel, Loughinisland, Shankill Road, Enniskillen, Teebane and such like.
In my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone we have suffered over the years along the border with the murder of so many good citizens - ethnic removal indeed.
These days peace is the word on many people's lips, and peace, therefore, is the key. When illegal weapons and materials of war are no longer available to illegal forces who bring about terror and destruction, peace will prevail. There must be evidence of decommissioning by such people now; there must be no more stunts with weapons and explosives; now is the hour; there cannot be any equivocation on this matter.
If people talk peace, they should take action to ensure peace. A provincial newspaper stated recently
"Let our entire community unite against evil. Let us commit ourselves to peace and peace alone. Let us back the forces of law and order. Let us resolve to build a new future, Unionist and Nationalist alike. Let this be our sincere and lasting tribute to the victims of Omagh."
We must now have reached a watershed, but considering all the innocent victims during the past 28 years, what a price we have had to pay.
A lasting memorial would be permanent peace. Never again would Northern Ireland become a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground for pestilence and hate. Let me quote from the local newspaper again:
"They have taken away my baby. They have robbed him of his future - and for what? I will never forgive the evil men who carried out this deed."
The onus is on terrorists and their associates; they can make or break what is good for us all.
It is with a sincere sense of service that I speak to the House today. The topic of my maiden address to this august body fills me with great sadness. I have worked and played in Omagh and, several times in the past weeks, I have prayed in Omagh.
The entire civilised world now equates the name Omagh with atrocity - the vileness of man's inhumanity to man. In the annals of our tragic history, Omagh will symbolise the levels of inhuman barbarity into which our little land has been plunged time and again.
Fortunately, we have witnessed the magnificent response of the good people of Northern Ireland to the emergency in Omagh. Doctors, nurses, police, emergency services, social workers and the entire community reacted with great love, care and compassion to help the dying, the wounded, and the broken-hearted. We have all suffered from this tragic wrath. Let me reiterate our deepest sympathy to the bereaved, the maimed and the young minds which have been blighted and disillusioned by the absence of peace in Northern Ireland.
Let me say to fellow Members that surely this is not the legacy that we wish to bequeath to our sons and daughters. There is an old African saying which is used at funeral ceremonies:
"Death is not the extinguishing of the light, rather the dousing of a candle because a new day has dawned."
The Assembly should ensure that a new day has indeed dawned. Let us work together in a spirit of co-operation and mutual respect to guarantee that that new day will bring peace, prosperity and the joy of living to our young people. Let us smooth the path for them that our forefathers were unable to do for us.