Poor Omagh. With the cold-blooded murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, tragedy has made it famous again. This little town achieved a notoriety it never wanted in August 1998 when a car bomb killed 29 people, including one woman pregnant with twins.
What shocked the world was not just the horror of the carnage wreaked on shoppers on that sunny Saturday afternoon, but that this had happened at a time when Northern Ireland was thought to be at peace, following the Good Friday Agreement.
Supposedly signalling an end to paramilitary brutality, the accord meant that unionists (who wanted to keep the province part of the United Kingdom) would share power with nationalists (who wanted a united Ireland). There would be no constitutional change without majority agreement. Democracy had triumphed over terror.
Destruction: The scene in the Highfield Close area of Omagh after Kerr was murdered in an under-car bomb attack
But as republicans Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness made peace, some of their old colleagues were busy planning a continuation of their war. The people who made the bomb that brought death, mutilation and bereavement to Omagh were furious that the IRA had ‘sold out’.
One of them was Michael McKevitt, the head of what became known as the Real IRA, who had once been an IRA quartermaster but had resigned in protest when the leadership renounced violence. He was married to Bernadette Sands, whose brother Bobby was the first hunger striker to die in the Maze prison during the bitter propaganda struggle with the British government.
McKevitt and the other die-hards claimed they were the guardians of the sacred flame of Irish republicanism, who would settle for nothing short of outright victory. To them, the Omagh outrage was business as usual.
When terrible things happen, it is human nature to want to believe that the suffering has not been in vain. And so it was in 1998. The Pope, monarchs, presidents and prime ministers all declared that the Omagh atrocity would draw a permanent line under political violence in Ireland.
The Irish people, we were assured, would no longer stand for such evil being perpetrated in their name. The authorities said they were determined to bring the murderers to justice and guaranteed the Real IRA and their associates, the Continuity IRA, would be hunted down. These were empty words, however.
Both the British and Irish governments were so afraid of alienating mainstream republicans that they refused to contemplate imprisonment for terror suspects the only thing that would have taken the men of violence off the streets.
Far from over: Young PC Kerr is the latest victim of Irish nationalism - and sadly he won't be the last
So, hardline republicans continued their campaign of violence, trying to kill and maim in the name of Irish unity. Although heavily penetrated by informers, the Real and Continuity IRAs still pose a threat, as does a newer splinter group, Oglaigh na hEireann (often translated as ‘Soldiers of Ireland’).
MI5 deserves great credit for having foiled dozens of murderous plots and saved many, many lives.
Yet no one is able to cut off all the heads of this vicious hydra.
In March 2009, two soldiers and a policeman were shot dead; and in the last three years, two policemen have lost legs to bombs.
TERRORISTS 'TO TARGET THE MAINLAND'
The group behind the bombing, Oglaigh na hEireann, has rapidly become the most active of the paramilitary groups operating separately from the Real IRA and Continuity IRA.
It has said it may consider attacks in mainland Britain.
The organisation, the name of which means ‘soldiers of Ireland’, is thought to have between 80 and 100 members in Belfast. Many of its recruits are former members of the Provisional IRA, the Real IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army.
Its activities, and those of the Real IRA, are thought to have prompted the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, to talk about the ‘real and rising security challenge’ posed by paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, and led to the threat level being raised to ‘substantial’ last year.
In 2010 there were about 30 attacks by dissidents, and Mr Evans said he could not rule out the possibility of Republican terrorist attacks taking place in mainland Britain.
In a chilling interview with the Belfast Telegraph in the wake of Mr Evans’s remarks, ONH leaders said: ‘Nothing is beyond our reach.’
The group said it had a ‘cordial’ relationship with the Real IRA, but did not plan joint operations at present.
Catholic police officers have been the favourite target, for they are seen by these warped minds as traitors colluding with the enemy. Constable Kerr fitted their foul bill perfectly. His killers hope his murder will deter Catholics from joining the Northern Ireland force.
There is nothing new about any of this. Whereas today, Martin McGuinness is Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and condemns the murderers of policemen, when he and Gerry Adams ran the Provisional IRA, police were at the top of their target list.
In the Troubles, from 1963 to 1998, more than 300 officers were murdered by paramilitaries, most of them by the Provisional IRA.
Politicians and the media call the present group of republican murderers ‘dissidents’, but these murderers consider themselves mainstream. They won’t end the violence until Ireland is united as they carry on the war that the Provisional IRA abandoned.
Although they constitute only a few hundred and don’t command widespread support, there is a worrying ambivalence at the heart of the Irish government’s attitude to political violence.
For the truth is that today’s republican assassins the killers of Constable Kerr see themselves as proud heirs of the Irish heroes of 1916 who declared war on the British Empire on the road to independence.
When Bertie Ahern (the Irish leader who secured the Good Friday Agreement with Tony Blair) denounced the Real IRA, he did so with a photograph of his hero Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 Easter Rising against the British, on his office wall.
In 2016, Ireland will celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising. Until the Irish people come to accept that the men they call their founding fathers used illegitimate means in fighting their British rulers, the so-called ‘dissident’ killers of Constable Ronan Kerr will claim they have history on their side.
The young, novice police officer is but the latest victim of perverted Irish nationalism. Sadly, he won’t be the last.