Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 15 September 1998 (continued)
Rev William McCrea:
For 14 years I had the privilege of representing the people of Omagh in another place. They are a courageous people. The dignity with which they have borne their grief ought to have touched the heart of every decent citizen.
Omagh was a tragedy of immense proportions. Twenty-nine innocent victims were blown apart by a bomb designed, coldly planned and detonated by evil men. As a member of a family that has endured similar barbarity, I unreservedly condemn the IRA action in Omagh. I have heard it said that no one can fully understand the pain people suffer except he has been there. That is true. No one can understand the darkness of the night the families pass through unless he has been afflicted in like manner. The atrocity of Omagh cannot be fully described in words.
The heartache and the grief that were experienced by so many families have rent the hearts of so many others over the past 30 years. The genuine expressions of sympathy by those from every walk of life were admirable, but many families have suffered throughout the province over the years. It must take a brass neck for certain people to sit in this elected body and not blush when they think of the atrocities of the past. The pain of Omagh was not the commencement of heartache. Over the past 30 years other families have endured similar tragedies. When we talk about 29 families we talk about 29 individual families. But think of the countless hundreds of individual families who to this very day grieve for loved ones who were brutally done to death.
I stood on the bridge in Omagh with my back to the awful carnage and wreckage in the town. I looked to my right down the Ballygawley Road, where 13 young soldiers were brutally done to death. And then there is Teebane. I looked down the Cookstown Road and remembered the innocent workmen that got into the van in Omagh to make their way home to Cookstown and Magherafelt - men who had done a hard, honest day's work, trying to make a living for their families. As they made their way home that night they were watched until their van came to the place where the bomb was detonated right on time. Those men were blown to bits. I stood amidst the broken bodies and helped the security forces and members of the other services pick up the pieces.
No words of condemnation or regret have been uttered concerning those bombings. And when I hear Members in this Chamber condemn the Real IRA, I ask myself if this is the day when we are going to hear Mr Adams condemn the Provisional IRA. Is this the day when we are going to hear Mr McGuinness condemn the Provisional IRA? It is interesting that they have condemned this atrocity because it was the work of the Real IRA, even though the Real IRA was using the weaponry of the past. It is a different organisation; it is not the Provos. That is why they could say "We condemn this action" because it made them blush. They did not blush when the bodies were being picked up at Teebane.
They did not come on to the television and condemn Warrenpoint, La Mon, Ballygawley, the Droppin' Well Inn or Oxford Street. Perhaps some Members could tell us all the sordid details. And, of course, we have the two young corporals who were so brutally done to death. The persons who did that deed were certainly not squeaky clean.
But words are cheap. It is totally insincere to condemn the Real IRA without condemning the Provisional IRA and every other grouping, irrespective of which side of the community it comes from, because every other paramilitary grouping has carried out acts of terrorism. I think of the tragedies that have happened throughout Mid Ulster. We went to Government after Government and begged for action. We went to security chief after security chief and begged for action. But nothing was done. Today, however, political manoeuvrings demanded that something had to be done, and so anti-terrorism legislation was rushed through the House of Commons.
Let us have decommissioning of all the weapons that are in the hands of terrorists and paramilitary organisations. I salute the security forces that have protected the people of this province. It is interesting to note that over the years even Sinn Fein/IRA has been very happy to lift the phone and ring when help was needed.
I have heard today in this Chamber that Omagh will not go away and that Omagh is different. What is the difference between Omagh and Teebane? I know a woman whose husband was murdered at Teebane. She asked me if everyone had forgotten her husband, if anyone cared about her child, who is being brought up without a father and who cries himself to sleep even to this day. He is begging for a father who will never come home again. Then I think about those who condemned the incident.
What is the difference between Omagh and what happened to my family? Fifty bullets were fired at my home from an AK-47 in an attempt to kill my wife and children. But there will be no words of condemnation because those words are selective. This province has endured the nightmare of terrorism, and the terrorists must be defeated.
La Mon and Enniskillen may be forgotten, but it is said that Omagh is different. I say to the people of Omagh that their grief is genuine and their hurt such that no one can ever imagine or understand its depths. But I also want to say to the people of Omagh that if the Government do not bring to justice those who were responsible for all those deeds, whose hands are stained with blood, that if they think that they have escaped into the darkness of the night and got away with their evil deeds, and that if they think that they will get political gain through the power of a gun, there is a day to come that God has ordained.
That is the day when men shall stand before God and every deed will be brought before Him. The Bible says
"The wicked shall be cast into hell, as shall all the Nations that forget God."
There is forgiveness with God, and there is pardon with God, but there is only one pathway to that pardon and forgiveness and that is repentance. The Scriptures say
"except you repent, you shall all likewise perish".
Those are solemn words, said not by anyone in this Chamber but by the Saviour Himself.
A Cheann Comhairle, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, ar mo shon féin, ar son Sinn Féin agus ar son muintir Iarthar Thír Eoghain go háirithe, seolaim ón áit seo comhbhrón ón chroí dóibh siúd a d'fhulaing ar an Ómaigh ar na mallaibh. Bhí aithne agam go pearsanta ar chuid mhór acu agus tá sé deacair coinneáil suas leis an tragóid, tórramh i ndiaidh tórraimh.
I want to reiterate many of the sentiments expressed by other Members. All those who have suffered through injury or bereavement still have our sympathy. A great sadness has been visited upon the Omagh district, Co Tyrone, Co Donegal, Spain and the length and breadth of this island. A community is sharing tragedy, and I do not pretend to understand what those worst affected are going through. Horror, pain and grief have affected many people in many communities. It is heartbreaking. All of the adjectives that could be used have been used. I acknowledge and recognise the hurt that Unionists have felt, and I ask for similar recognition and acknowledgement of our hurt. We have suffered as well.
I regret - I say this mildly and not stridently - that some Members cannot resist political point scoring even when we are all united by the horror at what happened in Omagh.
I heard the news of Omagh on the radio at 7 o'clock as I was driving home from Dublin. I just heard enough to know that something very serious had happened in our county town. I began to think about my daughter Niamh, my wife Paula, my parents, my brothers and sisters and everyone else who might be affected by the tragedy. I went directly to the Omagh leisure centre where recently I had had a political debate with Mr Maginnis, Mr Durkan, Ms McWilliams and Mr Ervine.
Mr Byrne chaired those proceedings, and the leisure centre will be familiar to some Members from outside Co Tyrone. We stayed in the leisure centre for more than 20 hours. It was my birthday, and I recalled the seven happy years that I had spent at the Christian Brothers Grammar School and my walks through the streets now affected by the bomb. I had made many friends, socialised and shopped in Omagh. What happened next was a seemingly never-ending succession of wakes and funerals.
Those present will never forget what happened at the leisure centre: people were queuing up to go to the morgue and identify their loved ones.
Then the funerals began. The first were those of Mrs Grimes, her daughter, Avril Monaghan with her unborn twin girls and her daughter, Moira. The most recent funeral, was that of Sean McGrath. Few people know that Libby Rushe's mother, Mrs Eileen McCulla, has subsequently died at the age of 96, heartbroken to the end.
A dignified candlelight vigil was held at the Drumraw Avenue/Ulsterbus car park in Omagh. Many prayers have been said in Ireland and abroad, including Donegal and Tyrone and places like Fintona, Dromore and Castlederg. The dead and injured were young and old, an amazingly diverse grouping who happened to be in the one place, at the one time. There was parity of suffering: boys and girls; men and women; Irish people and Spanish people; people from Tyrone and people from Donegal; and Nationalists and Unionists. From one family a father and son died, and from another a grandmother and her daughter and granddaughters. Many were close friends and good neighbours. It is hugely devastating for everybody.
All who helped deserve commendation. The professionalism of the Tyrone County Hospital staff stands out for me. Voluntary helpers answered the call. Having been born in Tyrone County Hospital, I shudder to think of the consequences had plans gone ahead to remove the acute services from the hospital before 15 August. The total of 32 deaths - if the accident victim from Co Antrim is included - would have been more.
I am reluctant to make a political point, however, I have no doubt that the death toll would have been significantly higher but for the existence of the Tyrone County Hospital. That is a compelling argument for ensuring that the Tyrone County Hospital is retained as a first-class acute services hospital. Indeed, it should be upgraded and expanded. It would be terrible if it were not retained - that whole swathe of rural territory west of the River Bann would be disadvantaged.
A Chathaoirligh, tá muid uilig ag mothú na péine. Aithním go bhfuil go leor leor duine in Éirinn a thuig an brón agus atá ag iompar ualach an bhróin. Chonaic muid pictiúr ar an Ómaigh, áfach, a síleadh a bheith fágtha san aimsir chaite.
It is difficult to dwell on the political implications. If there is to be a political response, let it be the speedy implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; let everyone hold his nerve.
Many of those bereaved by the carnage in Omagh have pointed to the way forward for all of us. They have very earnestly said that they want to see the further development of the peace process. Even in the depths of personal despair they have communicated that message to us very clearly and coherently.
There is a long road ahead for the people of Omagh. Those in that area, district and county will need every conceivable help. We are all still coming to terms with what has happened, and we need to tread gently. Hearts will continue to bleed in Omagh for a long time to come. However, there is hope: hope that is represented by Sean Clarke and Alan Rainey at an official level, hope in the birth of baby Chloe Emery from the Campsie area who was born in the South Tyrone Hospital and is now about four weeks old.
For me, the hope and spirit of Omagh shone through when Niall McSorley took his place for Omagh St Enda's in the Tyrone County final against Ardboe O'Donavan Rossa's at Pomeroy St Plunkett's on Sunday afternoon.
I want to commend everybody - low profile and high profile - who came to Omagh. Let us all take our responsibilities seriously with a visible, speedy and real enactment of the Good Friday Agreement - that is the least we can do. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
I want to be associated with the expressions of sympathy and sorrow towards the people of Omagh - to those who died, to the injured and to their relatives who are trying to come to terms with what happened and with the pain, physical and mental, which they are suffering as a result of the trauma of a random bomb set off for a political end. I have close family in Omagh who had the good fortune on that Saturday to break their routine - they were not on that street when they normally would have been. It is the juxtaposition of that with the cruel fortune of those who were on that street then which is, I suppose, impossible to understand, to rationalise and to come to terms with.
The people of Omagh that I met in the aftermath had a simple message: they want the Agreement to work; they want peace. People in the province want security; they want to live in peace. As Fr Denis Faul would say, they want to live in peace; they want to die in peace; and they want to rest in peace. It seemed to me that that was the strong message coming from Omagh in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, and other Members have alluded to that.
The point was made to me by people living in the town that if Omagh was to mean anything at all - if anything good was to come of it - it must be that this process would somehow succeed, that the Agreement would be made to work, and that the will of the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland would be adhered to by the politicians in this political process. The people who set off that bomb did so deliberately, in a ratcheting up of their bombing campaign - Moira, Banbridge and then Omagh - to ensure that the political process that we are all engaged in was firmly knocked off course, or even destroyed.
If we fail in this process, the Real IRA will have succeeded. We do have problems with it. Indeed, the United Kingdom Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party spent most of yesterday talking about those problems and giving their opinion, for example, that decommissioning was not being treated as a sine qua non. That is a major hurdle, obviously, but we are trying to get over it, and we do need some progress on it.
We are currently acting under the part of the Agreement which sets out the transitional arrangements. Those transitional arrangements require an absolute commitment to democracy and non-violence. That is the principle underpinning everything that we are about, the basic building block of the process. That was the demand in Omagh in the aftermath of the bombing, and it was the demand of the overwhelming majority of our people. To me, it is self-evident that having a military wing is the antithesis of a commitment to democracy and non-violence. This is not a Unionist point of view, it is a tenet of civil society and the basis of a democratic society, and you cannot go forward claiming to have a commitment to democracy and non-violence and yet having armed military wings.
So how do we move forward? It seems to me that steps have to be taken. We have waited 20 years for what we have now, and the demand to rush forward has severe risks. What are a few weeks here or there after these 20 years with all the atrocities, hurt and pain that were mentioned this morning? It seems to me that on decommissioning, for example, we have Gen de Chastelain sitting with his commission and getting very little co-operation, as I understand it. It seems to me essential that we move forward and at least agree the mechanics of decommissioning, some form of stocktaking and a timescale.
I do not think that anyone on this side of the House believes that all the guns and ammunition can be delivered on day one in one fell swoop. But look, for example, at the negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States on nuclear disarmament: the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties I, II and III - a step-by-step process. Taking one step at a time and making progress with an agreed programme is the very least that the people of Northern Ireland expect.
There is a difference between requiring terrorist organisations to surrender their arms to a lawful authority and international negotiations between states about reducing nuclear arsenals. However horrible nuclear arms are, the two are not analogous. To suggest that you can proceed in the same way with a terrorist organisation as with Governments is to legitimise the very people who are holding the terrorist arms.
May I thank Mr Roche for sharing that with me. It seems that he does not want any progress in this area. [Interruption] It appears to me that what we were listening to yesterday was justification for a situation in which there is no progress. All we heard yesterday was a particular interpretation of the Agreement. I do not care what the analogies are. All I am interested in is the end result, getting through this process, getting us into a situation where we can live in peace, die in peace and rest in peace. I am prepared to be pragmatic; I am prepared to take chances; and I am prepared to accept and be aware of the difficulties that the other side has with this.
In conclusion, if Omagh is to mean anything it must mean that we deliver somehow or other practical steps and in pragmatic form the Agreement for which the overwhelming majority of people voted. I am a democrat, and as a democratic politician that is the imperative that I will work to.
I rise from a side of the House which has never been ambivalent about violence. We have always confronted violence from every quarter - and it has come from many quarters - and we continue to confront and challenge the attacks on human rights and assaults on the human dignity of individuals in this community.
The bomb in Omagh did not discriminate on grounds of nationality, tradition, age or gender. We saw that in the trail of suffering from Barcelona to Buncrana to Omagh and beyond. It extended to my own constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone where we lost one of the youngest victims, Maura Monaghan, together with her mother Avril and her two unborn children and Philomena Skelton who lived with her husband Kevin in Ederney, County Fermanagh.
I wish to extend my sympathy to the families of the 29 people who were killed and to all of those who were injured, to those who witnessed the aftermath, to those who worked with the injured and to all of the people of Omagh.
The heads that planned the bombing, the hands that put the bomb together, those who delivered the deadly cargo and so callously walked away in the sunshine were all driven by some savage hatred which obliterated their humanity.
Without deflecting from or taking away from the tragedy and the grief and the horror of the Omagh bombing, would the Member agree that but for the grace of Almighty God further human tragedies of similar proportions could have happened in Banbridge and Portadown, not to mention towns like Moira, Markethill and Newtownhamilton? Would the Member also agree that traders and residents who have suffered devastation of their property and livelihoods at the hands of the barbaric Irish Republican war machine are also deserving of our support at this time as they try to re-establish their lives, reconstruct their homes and reinstate their commercial businesses?
Coming as I do from Belleek, which in recent months has also suffered a terrorist attack, I am well aware of the difficulties that flow from such an attack, and I understand what my colleague is referring to.
When I gave way I was making the point that a great deal goes into putting hatred into the hearts of individuals who are capable of carrying out this kind of atrocity. Hate-filled words have had no small part to play in making minds capable of doing what was done in Omagh. Yesterday and today we have again heard hate-filled words, words of accusation and words of suspicion. As public representatives in the Assembly, we have a responsibility to use words wisely.
The people who voted for the majority of Members assembled here do not want to see this chance for an end to the conflict squandered. They want to see real efforts made to lay to rest and put behind us the bitterness, the hatred and the divisions. That is our task, and the building of that new society is the only fitting monument to the people of Omagh.
I wish to thank, first of all, those who have sincerely brought condolences. On behalf of my immediate family, I want to say how much we appreciate the deluge of sympathy that has come from all over the world. We, and, I am sure, the other 28 families that are grieving, very much appreciate that massive outpouring of sympathy. It has certainly helped those families, and it has been a comfort and a balm at a time of deep agony and grief.
We in Omagh were overcome by that immense sympathy, and we feel we have to respond, in a reasonable way, to that genuine outpouring. We should recognise that we have terrible trauma yet to come because, while we have buried our dead, there are 30 people in hospital who are maimed, disfigured and physically and mentally scarred. They have to be welcomed back into our community, to be re-integrated, accommodated and assured of a quality of life that is the best that we can provide. That is one of the long-term demands that we will have to meet in future.
The Omagh atrocity was of an unprecedented nature. We have heard much this morning about the heroic efforts of those who came and made a contribution to the saving of life. It was immense, but perhaps one verse of a poem that was sent to me - 'The Bomb in Omagh Town'- in its simple words says it all:
"The many folk who rallied round and gave heroic aid -
The memory of their efforts from our minds will never fade.
They worked so hard for others, in a true, unselfish way.
What would we have done without them on such a dreadful day?"
The police, the Army, the doctors, the nurses, the bus drivers and the taxi men: they all helped - and even someone called Joe. I heard him say on the radio, in a very simple way,
"The house gave a terrible shake. I knew something desperate had happened. I put on me and went and done what I could."
An Omagh man, in his own way, understating the heroic efforts which every person in the community made.
I propose that, as well as the obvious people who will be truly and genuinely rewarded, everyone who helped in the aftermath of that atrocity should be given a special citation. They should all be brought together, as part of the process of mourning and healing, from humble Joe, who put on him and did what he could, to the skilled surgeons who saved many lives, and acknowledged in a noteworthy way by some royal personage.
It was very important that no one died in Omagh because he was unable to get to the emergency services and also that the special efforts made by staff trained to deal with catastrophes - and we have had many, unfortunately, in our area - were successful.
John McKinney's claim to fame - or notoriety - is now that he has probably turned out to be the best disaster manager. He has suddenly risen to fame because of the important contribution he made in successfully managing the catastrophe, where the number of deaths could otherwise have run to hundreds rather than tens. All those people are to be commended, be they helicopter pilots, the taxi men or whoever. Unfortunately, another tragedy occurred outside Knock Presbyterian Church when one of the ambulances which was dashing was involved in an accident. A family was enjoying its in-car entertainment and did not hear the screaming sirens.
We are mindful in Omagh, in the midst of our grief, that others are left behind. And I think particularly today of someone else whose world has fallen apart: Esther Gibson is dead and buried, but her boyfriend is left behind. That reality has yet to be dealt with.
I listened intently this morning to glean how people from outside the area view the atrocity. Of course the atrocity in Omagh was different, not just because of its scale, not just because of the horrific havoc that resulted and not just because the emergency services did such a brilliant job - it was different too because it internationalised terror.
The business of terrorists is terror, but what happened in Omagh was not like the Shankill bomb, which was equally horrific. People from Spain and from another jurisdiction on this island also suffered. Suddenly the grief and the agony that the people of my constituency have been suffering for 28 years, not all of them Unionists or Protestants, some of them Roman Catholics, was discovered.
And when I look down through this photograph album that has been given to me, I get some idea of the extent of that horror in previous times. These are the photographs of 24 tombstones in a little graveyard outside Castlederg - each one a memorial to the terror of the IRA. That is the reality of the pain and the suffering.
I would not want to forget in the middle of this atrocity those who are perhaps sitting, listening to this so-called debate. As far as I am concerned, this is not a proper debate. We are simply stating the facts of terrorist horror committed not just in the constituency that I represent, but in every constituency in Northern Ireland. So terrorism has been exposed on the international scene for what it really is.
Yes, we will rebuild Omagh. This is the twenty-ninth time the town has been bombed, so almost every building in Omagh has been rebuilt, including the courthouse. In fact, the scene of the greatest devastation of all was all the new-build. The shops that are devastated now were rebuilt only recently.
We will rebuild Omagh. But first of all, we still need time to grieve, to mourn, to recover and to welcome home and reintegrate those who have suffered mental and physical scars. But we want to go further than that. As part of that rebuilding, we want to make sure that there is, somewhere in this province, a scene, a pastoral scene, an idyllic scene, where the people of Northern Ireland can come for those moments when they wish to reflect, mourn or grieve in privacy. We are country people, and we do not live with our nostrils in a microphone. We want to bury our dead with dignity and solemnity and mourn in private. Grief is not something that we wear on our sleeve.
We had many important visitors to Omagh. We had presidents, princes, party Leaders and all the rest. They brought one unfortunate thing to the scene. No sooner had they mouthed the words of condolence than they set about defending their political ideas. What is the relevance of the Belfast Agreement to a family in the midst of deep agony and grief? Is it relevant when a family is mourning?
We had to castigate the media from across the water for a despicable programme broadcast on Carlton Television. I have taken that up with the company, and I hope that it will compensate for that dreadful programme by helping us to make a video that will present a more positive picture of Omagh, nationally and internationally. But I must also pay tribute to the local media. They have been kind and sensitive to us all, and we should not brand all the media with the sins of one particular programme.
We met Mr Jim Lyons, special adviser to President Clinton, on the Tuesday before the President's visit, and I made one appeal to him. It was not for money. Some people were so crass as to say that we wanted the mighty American dollar. You can not measure the pains of the bereaved in financial terms. I asked him to use his influence, as a representative of the most powerful nation in the world, to persuade the South of Ireland to act as a mature political state and not to hide the terrorists that perpetrated those dreadful deeds, not to provide an operational headquarters, and not to give them training grounds or allow the arms dumps to exist.
The greatest tribute to the people of Omagh would be for the two Governments to take responsibility for ensuring that democracy can operate freely, and that means that we must have good order. We must remember that the business of terrorists is terror. The hoax bomb warnings that we have had in Omagh are also part of that terror. Last Saturday, we had two of them, which badly disrupted business in our town. We will not be able to rebuild our businesses if the terrorists continue to terrorize us.
Mr M McGuinness:
Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. As an elected representative from a neighbouring constituency, of Mid Ulster, I should like to express my condolences to Mr Gibson, to all the other people who have lost loved ones and, indeed, to all those who were so grievously injured in the bomb explosion in Omagh.
It was a terrible event. It was a shocking event. It was an event that had a very deep impact on every single Member of this Assembly - there is no question about that. It has been described as a watershed, and I believe that it was a watershed. There can be no doubt that the people who planted the bomb in Omagh and who described themselves as Republicans set out to destroy the peace process. All they have succeeded in doing is destroy themselves.
Within hours of the bomb exploding, Sinn Fein made its position clear through its party Leader. We condemned it - unequivocally - and we called on the bombers to stop. We called on the Republican and Nationalist people throughout the island of Ireland not to support them but to challenge them. And they did, and in doing that, they brought them into a position where they were compelled to call a cessation. It was the weight of Republican opinion which brought about this cessation; these people have enough intelligence to know that there is no way that they can hope to succeed without the support of the people.
The bomb explosion in Omagh - that sad event - strengthened the hand of the people who support the Agreement. My assertion of this fact in the debate yesterday was challenged by some members of the Democratic Unionist Party, who said that it may have increased support for the Agreement in the Nationalist community but that it did not increase support in the Unionist community. I dispute that. The support within the Nationalist community for the Nationalist politicians who supported the peace process was almost total anyway, and I am convinced that, in the aftermath of Omagh, more and more Unionists recognised that the only way forward was to move forward in agreement.
Sinn Fein is very conscious of the implications of the Agreement and what we have committed ourselves to. Indeed, there is a declaration of support at the beginning of the Agreement which says that the participants in the multi-party negotiations believe that the Agreement offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning.
Sinn Fein, the representatives of Irish Republicanism, have come to this Assembly for a new beginning. The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or have been injured and their families, but we can honour them by making a fresh start whereby Members firmly dedicate themselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and to the protection and vindication of human rights for all. Sinn Fein want to be a part of this fresh start.
Listening to the debate this morning it is obvious - and it is also understandable - that people have a difficulty with Sinn Fein's assertion that we want a fresh start. I understand that. I know it is difficult for Unionists of all descriptions, for the Democratic Unionist Party, for Mr McCartney and for the Ulster Unionists. I understand that completely.
The people we represent have difficulties also. Unionists deeply suspect that we are not genuine and not for real. The people whom we represent are also suspicious of Unionists and the British Government. They have lived in a state for over 70 years in which, they believe, they were treated as second-class citizens, treated unjustly, with inequality, discrimination and domination.
I am not recriminating. We have to deal with these realities. Unionists point out my responsibilities to me and urge me to face the difficulties that Unionism has. I am prepared to do that. But I appeal to Unionists, including those in the Democratic Unionist Party, to face up to the reality that they too must look at us as the elected representatives of many tens of thousands of people living in this state who also want to see a new beginning. The question now is whether or not we can bring that new beginning about.
The decommissioning issue has been raised to assert that Sinn Fein is not serious. We have moved on that issue because our aim is to take all the guns - British and Irish - out of Irish politics. This morning we have heard speech after speech about the damage that IRA guns have done over the last 30 years, and the IRA has been named on countless occasions.
People have made sweeping references to Loughinisland and Greysteel. Nobody mentioned "bloody Sunday". Nobody talked about the damage caused by British guns. Nobody talked about the Dublin/Monaghan bombings. Nobody talked about the children killed by plastic bullets. I am not getting into the politics of "whataboutery". I just think that we need to have an honest debate.
There has been much injustice in the past. We can, if we wish, rake all of this up for the next five months, five years or 50 years. If we do that, we are not going to make a new beginning and we are going to fail the overwhelming majority of people on this island who have placed so much faith and trust in us, as their political leaders, to find a way out of the morass that we have all been in during the last 70-odd years.
I believe we can succeed. Yes, there are people out there who describe themselves as Republicans and who may attempt to continue to destroy the peace process. I believe they will fail miserably. I believe that many of them now know that. There are Unionists out there who will also try to destroy the process because - and we have to be very clear about this - it is not only guns and bombs that kill: words can kill also.
Our responsibility is to give political leadership, not just to the people of Omagh, but to the relatives of the "bloody Sunday" dead and to the relatives of those people who were killed on the Shankill Road, in Enniskillen and in other attacks right throughout the course of the last 30 years. People have lived through all of that because politics have failed.
We are here for a new beginning. We are deadly serious about the search for peace; we are deadly serious about the search for justice; we are deadly serious about the search for equality; and we are deadly serious about the search for freedom. Either we can rise to the challenge or we can fail. We in Sinn Fein are geared to succeed and to make the Agreement work - and that should be the bounden duty of every serious elected representative in this room.
Mrs E Bell:
I am conscious that a number of things have been said that I do not want to repeat. However, I do want to join with others in extending my sympathy to Mr Gibson, his family and the people of Omagh.
Dr Paisley commented earlier that today's debate was too late. Perhaps I can give some words of comfort. My church and a lot of the people who were relatives and victims in Omagh will be celebrating what is known as a "month's mind". There will be services today in Omagh, and this debate should act as another show of respect, sympathy and remembrance for all the people, Catholic, Protestant and others, who lost their lives that day. So I find this debate timely.
There is not one Member who will have difficulty remembering, as with countless other tragedies, where and when he first heard of the Omagh bombing. Like Mr McElduff's, my birthday is on 15 August, and I was having a birthday meal in Tenerife when the news came out on CNN. My birthday will never be the same again.
Northern Ireland has suffered many tragedies: McGurk's Bar, the Shankill Road - and I make no apology for repetition because we should never forget even one - Darkley, La Mon, Loughinisland, et cetera, and there was the murder of the three Quinn brothers from Ballymoney as well.
My personal memory is of a narrow escape from the Abercorn explosion, where friends, whom I was supposed to meet, and their children were injured. One was a 10-year-old boy who now has a mental age of three because of what happened on that day. The horror and fear came back to me, and I thought then that it would never happen again - but I was wrong.
It is horrifyingly sad to have had so many such tragedies time and time again, and I can only repeat the hopes expressed by many of the grieving relatives and victims of Omagh that this must be the last. As has been mentioned in other debates, if relatives thought their tragedy would mean the end of all killings, they would be able to feel that their suffering was not in vain. We must always remember the victims of all tragedies and try to make sure that they are the last.
To achieve this, the people of Northern Ireland should consolidate their disgust by saying loud and clear to the people still engaged in violence that enough is really enough. The Assembly should support this by Members working together in a constructive way that would help to stabilise and create the conditions that would result in the reduction and eventual eradication of sectarianism and all its ramifications.
As a peace activist and community worker I have seen at first hand how beneficial attempts to encourage inter-community and cross-community contact in a generally beleaguered community can be. There can be direct improvement in mutual understanding and tolerance of diversity, and that could be another avenue of work for the Assembly.
It was clearly demonstrated at Omagh that the men and women of violence are no respecters of age, gender, religion or tradition. We must therefore build institutions and systems that will ensure that violence is met with severity from all sections of society - from the community to the Assembly. Words have never been enough. Language can be as violent as any actions, but our words of sympathy must be linked to constructive support, and support is urgently needed in Omagh today.
A proper representative Assembly could lead the way and show everyone that the only way to stop more Omaghs is by people working together in all aspects of government and daily life. In that way we could sustain a safe society for everyone. We were under no illusion on 10 April when we signed the Agreement that the violence would end.
We had only to look at places like South Africa and the Middle East, where violence actually escalated after such agreements. But that should make us more determined not to indulge in saying "Oh, it is never going to happen, peace is never going to happen." It should make us more determined that violence will stop and that we will have peace. We have a chance of a new beginning, and we must grab that chance and end the nightmares that have set us against each other for far too long.
The political process that we are now developing will, I hope, create conditions that will further and develop a real peace process. We owe that to all the victims and their relatives whom we have talked about this morning, to those victims of other tragedies and to future generations.
I finish by expressing my appreciation to every person who has given assistance in the aftermath of atrocities over the years - the hospitals, the ambulance services, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Fire Authority and the many others.
Omagh brought all traditions together: people from the North and the South and from Spain were brought together in grief and friendship. True reconciliation was portrayed at every funeral. Let us hope that the war is really over for all of us and that we can go forward together having learnt from the past. The Alliance Party will certainly play its part in this process and hope that progress will be made. Let peace begin. Indeed, I would ask everyone to say to himself "Let peace begin with me."
Mr C Wilson:
What happened at Omagh was an atrocity and an obscenity by anyone's calculation. As reports started to filter through, one became aware of the enormity of the incident and the scale of the carnage - reports of men, women and children, grandmothers, an expectant mother and two unborn children. Graphic descriptions by eyewitnesses and harrowing scenes of dismembered pieces of bodies being washed down the High Street in Omagh as a result of a burst water main will remain with many of us for a long time, and undoubtedly with the people of Omagh for a lot longer.
In the aftermath, and given the anger and the sense of revulsion that swept across the entire United Kingdom, the Irish Republic and, indeed, the rest of the world, one would have thought that the window of opportunity - although opportunity is perhaps the wrong word to use on this occasion - would have been taken by the British and Irish Governments, undoubtedly with full world-wide support, to implement a new root-and-branch approach to security. The incident itself was obscene, but the response of the two Governments who are responsible for law and order on this island was also obscene and totally inappropriate. That window of opportunity was squandered.
Not for the first time was the aftermath of carnage and death, instead of uniting all believers in democracy and the rule of law and order, used in a very wrong manner. Not for the first time was it used to drive forward what is referred to as the peace process, a process that has been driven by terrorism and fuelled by concessions to terrorism.
I back that suggestion up by asking Members to remember that at every stage in this process, when those who have been engaged with Sinn Fein/IRA have dragged their feet or refused to pay the instalments required of them, there has been a terrorist incident.
One can go back to Canary Wharf, to the Baltic Exchange and, indeed, to the incident that brought the current negotiations into being - the murder of two community policemen in Lurgan. There is a history, a catalogue of events that demonstrate that what I am saying is right.
For 25 years the people of Northern Ireland resisted the suggestion that the way to peace was to pay the price required by the terrorists. Indeed, on the radio this morning a journalist asked why this Assembly could not have happened 25 years ago. Many watching the television reports of these proceedings see a veneer of democracy, but it is only that.
There is a belief that Members gathered here have a similar standing and legitimacy to be here today. The reality is that that is not the case. The reality is that we have a role to play. We have to hold the line and say that there is a difference in our values. There are those who come into this Chamber armed only with reasoned arguments and there are those who possess arsenals capable of replicating Omagh many times over.
It would be sad if Omagh were not to prove a turning point in the history of this province, a time when the days of the men of terror were gone for ever. The reality is that its legacy will be two-tier terrorism, and it is a disgrace that the British Government - my Government - have allowed this to happen.
There is now a belief in some circles, and indeed it is held by some in this Chamber, that as my Colleague, Mr McCartney, has said "If you are a good terrorist and support the peace process, any of these actions that are to be taken, all of this security that has been or will be implemented, will only be directed against the bad terrorists, against the Real IRA."
The truth is that the Real IRA's true description should be "disgruntled members of the IRA". The explosives that were used in the bomb and the detonating equipment came from arms dumps which members of the Ulster Unionist Party and others see as the subject of negotiation. Is it not a disgrace that there are parties in this Chamber who condone the notion that it is legitimate for IRA/Sinn Fein to retain those weapons? We, of course, are aware of the reason for this complicity - Mr Adams, Mr McGuinness and their colleagues are vital to the peace process.
The indictment today has to be against the security forces. Members will recall that after other atrocities and incidents at least we always had - even though it may have been insulting in some cases - the cosmetic announcement that a large quantity of explosives or guns had been found by the Gárda or the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
To my knowledge it did not happen on this occasion because it would have upset the position of Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness in the peace process. So it was politically expedient not to allow the security forces to go and collect the weapons and explosives, even though they know where they are in most cases.
The people of Omagh have our heartfelt sympathy, and we are greatly indebted to all those who were involved in the security and emergency operations.
I have a view about the future, and it involves our contributing a three-point plan. First, we, as democrats, must continue to insist that the only people entitled to take part in governing this province are those who are solely and totally committed to the democratic process. We cannot see the process perverted any further. We must try to reclaim the ground. Secondly, the police and the authorities of law and order must have the shackles of political expediency removed from them. They must be allowed to deal with all terrorists, real or imaginary. And thirdly, the people of Omagh need the assistance and support of the Assembly to help rebuild their lives and their town - in this they will not find us wanting.
Sir John Gorman:
On yesterday's 'Thought for the Day' some Members may have heard Fr Michael Collins - quite a name - quoting from a poem by Kipling:
"The tumult and the shouting dies.
The captains and the kings depart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget."
I come from Omagh and was born in Mullaghmore. My father went there from the Royal Irish Constabulary in Dublin, and my first education from the age of five to seven - in those days we did not have pre-school education - was at the Loreto Convent, where I was taught by Mother de Sailes. It was she who taught me not only how to read but to love my religion and to have a feeling of self worth. It is that sort of spirit which is alive and well today in Omagh, a town with extremely fine people who live together in peace and who think well of each other.
At the beginning of my time in the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue - I called my first day "Capt Mainwaring's day" - I was interviewed by a lady from Dublin who asked me what I thought of Mr Gerry Adams. I told her that I admired Mr Gerry Adams, but she did not record what I went on to say. I said that I admired him particularly for his leadership and for the discipline which he exercises on Sinn Fein and its military outlet, the IRA. I have met Mr Adams only once before when he came to a youth forum chaired by me as part of my ideas for the Forum, and he behaved impeccably. He had every opportunity to make political points, but he did not do so, so I thanked him for that. Now is the chance for Mr Adams to show that leadership and discipline which I know he is capable of. Mr Adams brought the Semtex here. What about a big bang to get rid of as much of it as the Member can get hold of? It could make a huge difference.
As well as being an Assemblyman, I am the head of the Order of Malta in Northern Ireland. Three of our ambulances attended Omagh, one at great haste from Monaghan. They behaved impeccably. They did not want to be mentioned here today because the Order of St John, the Ambulance Service and all the other people involved in first aid activity did wonders, and thus did not want exceptions made. But I am so proud of them that I feel I must mention them.
One of our first-aiders, Donna-Marie Keys, is still lying in intensive care in the Royal Victoria Hospital with 60% burns. She was not there with the ambulances that day but with her fiancé and little flower girl. They took the full force of the bomb. Her fiancé was badly burned and she was desperately badly burned. She is still alive, just hanging on. Her parents, Malachy Keys and his wife, were there and they said to me "Please, for God's sake, keep this Assembly going; it is our only hope now."
Surely it should be possible for the wonderful co-operation shown by all parties at Omagh, and which has been so well and touchingly described today, to be kept going in other parts of the province. We have heard from people such as Joe Byrne, Derek Hussey and Oliver Gibson what the people of Omagh need to give them a sense of belonging and the respect which they deserve, so we should do something about it.
One such thing would be the commencement of disarming somewhere where it could be seen to have begun. Disarming has become the touchstone of our future. We have heard about the pike in the thatch. Rust brings trust and confidence-building measures such as the reconstitution of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Each of the hurdles faced by the parties has been overcome. The Trimble/Adams meeting has taken place. Surely the last hurdle left is disarmament. Start now, not in 2000. What is the need for explosives, when we have embarked on a peace process? What defensive quality has a bomb got? Let us stop dismissing the plea for decommissioning with weasel words like "word games" and irrelevance.
We had a really good day yesterday. There was no shouting; there was courtesy; reason ruled. If we can get rid of the bomb, we can achieve the wonderful future of peace, prosperity and pluralism, as advocated by the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) yesterday.
I listened very carefully to Mr Gibson's speech, and I was very moved. I sympathise with him on the slaughter of his niece. He made an important political point - that the Agreement would mean nothing to some families that he had spoken to. I understand that and respect his opinion, but there are other families who lost loved ones in Omagh, and families right across the North of Ireland who have lost loved ones over the last 25 years who do very much support the Agreement.
I believe that the future peace of Northern Ireland depends on the Agreement. I associate myself, of course, with those who have condemned what happened in Omagh, and I fully appreciate the suffering of the families who have lost their loved ones or had loved ones very badly injured. I have good reason to do so.
In a medical capacity, I have visited many homes over the years of people who have lost loved ones. Their suffering is every day of the week and every week of the year. I very deeply resent that young children have had to grow up without a father or a mother, usually without a father.
When all the tears and the funerals are over and the great and the good have gone, the families have to pull themselves together. So often have I seen the young people of West Belfast - 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds from the Falls Road and the Shankill Road - who have had their father taken away from them getting into trouble with the law. But I will not elaborate on that point.
I visited the Royal Victoria Hospital within a few days of the explosion, and I was horrified at the injuries that I saw. One Member referred to Miss Keys, the lady who had received such terrible burns. I spoke to her family; I also spoke to other families, and I can only say that I greatly admired the dignity which these people were showing.
I want to thank the doctors, nurses and all of the staff of the Royal Victoria Hospital whose expertise helped to save lives. I was struck by their praise for the staff in Tyrone County Hospital. Those people, who were badly injured and who were transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital, could not have survived without the expertise of Mr Pinto and all of the people associated with the hospital in Omagh - and I am referring to doctors, nurses, paramedics, cleaners, porters and everybody who got in on the act of helping.
In the aftermath of Omagh, where are we now? What sort of a society are we in? There is still violence. There is still sectarian conflict. I believe that it is the responsibility of this Assembly, by its example, to make sure that the two great traditions can work together for all the people and especially for the disadvantaged.
The First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) have shown great courage and leadership, and people like Mr Ervine and Mr Adams have shown great courage and leadership. But I want to put down a marker. We are all opposed to violence, but it is a fact that on the streets of Belfast, people are still having their knees smashed; young people are still being ordered out of the country, and paramilitary organisations are still deciding when they can come back. It is humiliating for a young person or his family to have to report to a quasi-political office.
In making these points I want to make it clear that I am not pointing the finger at any Member of the Assembly or at any party. I listened carefully to what Mr McCartney and Mr Ervine had to say. Mr McCartney talked about the wicked terrorists and the good terrorists. He talked about the fact that this Chamber must undertake a rational, cold analysis. I agree that there should be a rational, cold analysis, but I hope that it will be based on the Agreement.
Mr Ervine said that what happened at Omagh was a watershed. He talked about moralists - and I agree that some people do see themselves as being on some sort of higher moral ground. They have a right, as Mr Ervine said, to challenge political opinions, but they do not have the right to rerun the referendum.
Some people seem to be begrudgers; they seem to resent the fact that there is a peace movement. We want all the paramilitary organisations to disappear off the face of the earth, but I sometimes wonder what certain politicians would do if that were to happen.
There have been many attacks on Sinn Fein, and, having fought Mr Adams at four Westminster elections, I am not a spokesman for that party, but I believe - and I do not mean this in any condescending way - that he has shown great courage and leadership. Let all of us in the Assembly resolve to work together for all of the people of both traditions so that our children and our children's children can have a meaningful and worthwhile future.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
We have come to the end of our agreed time. Many Members from almost all of the parties wished to speak in this debate to express their sympathies but did not have the opportunity to do so. And people outside this Chamber should be aware of that.
Adjourned at 1.30 pm.
14 September 1998 / Menu / 5 October 1998