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Saturday 18 July 2009

After the Aftermath

Jenny Lee speaks to journalist and writer Ruth Dudley Edwards about her emotional journey following the pursuit for justice by the families of the Omagh bombing victims

ON August 15 1998 Ruth Dudley Edwards, pictured, had been feeling unwell and taken herself to bed when her phone rang. It was her close friend Henry Reid, a farmer from Omagh telling her to switch on the news as a huge bomb had gone off in his town. The Real IRA car bomb resulted in 29 deaths – six men, 12 women, 11 children, as well as unborn twins, recalls the journalist and historian.

“I was completely frozen with shock. I forgot about being sick. I don’t even know when I began to feel again.

“I’d seen terrible things before, but this was more personal as I knew Omagh and the people.”

Dudley Edwards was brought up in Dublin to a predominately nationalist background. Her father was professor of history at UCD.

She thanks her parents for introducing her to people of many religions and nationalities as a child.

“My background made me despise tribalism,” she says.

Although the police believed they knew the identities of the Omagh bombers, there was insufficient evidence to bring charges in the criminal courts.

Determined to seek justice, families of 10 of the dead decided to pursue these men in the civil courts, where the burden of proof is lower.

Dudley Edwards closely followed their story where, for the first time, victims of terrorism had taken on a civil case against those responsible and their organisation.

She says her book, Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing and The Families Pursuit of Justice, was the hardest book she’s ever written.

“I’ve never been as emotionally involved before. I cared about these people. To be close to them for years and to see what they went through and see how they rose from it was the extraordinary thing.

“My heart and soul was in this book,” she explains, quickly adding: “As well as my head.”

Despite her emotional involvement, Dudley Edwards was able to remain professional and objective in her writing.

“Journalists must always seek and tell the truth, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t sometimes take sides.

“I always try to explain why people did what they did. In this book I don’t have any sympathy for Michael McKevitt, but I do try to explain what was driving him.

“Did I dance with joy when I was done with this? Yes.

“Am I partisan about the families? Of course I am.

“I was passionately anxious they would get the outcome they got, but there were areas I disagreed with them.

“I disagreed with them about the conspiracy, I disagreed with them about Kevin Fulton, I disagreed with Victor [Barker] about Ronnie Flanagan being responsible.”

This David and Goliath tale, which lasted nearly a decade, culminated in the judgement on June 8 2009 which found all the main defendants responsible.

Whilst she writes that the civil case was “a trial most people thought wouldn’t take place”, Dudley Edwards, like the families, never gave up hope.

“I suppose there is some bit in my atheist soul which believes that faith does move mountains and that if you go on and believe it will happen, it will happen.”

They were, however, deeply frustrated by the months and years of legal delays and Dudley Edwards believes that the legal system in Ireland, north and south, needs to be reformed.

“The delays were beyond belief. Justice is not perfect in the mainland by any means, but it is faster.

“There seems to be very little concern and sense of urgency in the Republic,’’ she says, citing the case of ColmMurphy whose appeal continues 10 years after he was first arrested.

However, she was impressed by Sir Declan Morgan, the judge who heard the Omagh families’ case and the incoming Lord Chief Justice.

“He’s on top of the law. He’s clear, coherent and he also applies common sense and this case, and experiencing the Dublin courts, will help too.

“I’d be very surprised if he’s not a seriously reforming chief justice.’’

Dudley Edwards believes that the result of the civil case will give other victims hope, but she warns they need to have “extraordinary people of the calibre of Michael Gallagher and Victor Barker leading the campaign”.

“Precedent has been set, ordinary people now know they can do it.

“I hate the word empower, but I hope it’s given strength and confidence to victims.”

Aftermath managed to fuse the human stories with the legalities, giving a thorough insight into the pain and justice of the Omagh bombings.

In the book we learn how former First Minister Ian Paisley refused to donate any money to fundraising efforts of the families’ fight for justice and how Martin McGuinness sent a text message the day before the first civil court hearing to ‘wish the case well’.

Another surprise was the role of Peter Mandelson in supporting the families not only during his time as Secretary of State but after his resignation.

“He’s got a very emotional streak,” says Dudley Edwards.

“He was changed by meeting the Omagh people and his involvement in the campaign.

He says himself it made him a better Secretary of State.

“I describe in the book his emotional reaction to the artwork from children who were victims of the bomb. Blinded by tears, he is then led into a meeting with Michael Gallagher and Stanley McCombe. He made them a promise to help and he sticks to promises.”

The dissident republican murders of two soldiers and a policeman in March and the trouble surrounding the Twelfth of July have highlighted that paramilitaries are still very much active.

Dudley Edwards believes that history needs to be rewritten for the republican mindset to change.

“I don’t think it’s going to change until the Irish nationalist people stand up to these people and treat them as pariahs,” she says.

“They are people without empathy, but feel they are entitled to act in this way because the men of 1916 were right and are honoured every year.

“I truly believe that the Irish nation needs to have the honesty and sophistication to reexamine their history. Unless that happens, this will go on and on and on.”

Dudley Edwards’s next publication marks a return to her crime novels. This time her focus is on contemporary art, which she loathes.

After that she’ll be going after lawyers.

Jenny Lee


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