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1 August 2009

Aftermath review: by Richard English

TERRORISM: Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing and the Families' Pursuit of Justice by Ruth Dudley Edwards, Harvill Secker, 376pp, £12.99: THIS VITAL, powerful book tells a story of loss, resilience and terrorism. Shortly after 3pm on Saturday August 15th, 1998, a dissident republican car bomb exploded in Omagh, Co Tyrone, after hopelessly vague warnings had been given. Thirty-one people died as a result. Many more were injured.

As so often in the Northern Ireland Troubles, the horror of the atrocity was compounded when it increasingly seemed unlikely that those behind the attack would be convicted of their criminal offence. Ingeniously, therefore, some victims’ relatives decided to bring a civil case against dissident republicans whom they considered responsible for the bombing.

This was a brave gamble. But it seemed perhaps to offer a better chance of obtaining justice than criminal proceedings did. In criminal cases a defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. In a civil case, the issue is decided on the balance of probabilities, and hearsay evidence can also on occasions be admitted, meaning that some evidence excluded from criminal cases can be considered in civil ones.

Distinguished historian and journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards was centrally involved in the bringing of this Omagh civil case. In her impressive and vivid book, Aftermath , she becomes the families’ crusading chronicler. The relatives’ aim, she says, was primarily “to name and shame at least some of those they believed were liable” for the bomb. They wanted the murderers of their loved ones to be brought to court and to justice.

The most striking feature of the book is its necessary account of irreplaceable loss. Dudley Edwards introduces readers to the victims, through moving sketches of people killed by the Omagh bombing. People such as 17-year-old Samantha McFarland and 15-year-old Lorraine Wilson – friends who were working as volunteers in an Oxfam charity shop when the bomb ended their young, vibrant lives.

In reconstructing what she calls “the horror of that day”, Dudley Edwards rightly provides the hideous details of what such bombings actually involve in terms of human suffering. One witness to the aftermath of the car bomb recalled: “Everybody was screaming and hysterical and covered in blood.” In another witness’s recollection, in the roadway there were “parts of human bodies including arms, legs, hands and parts of face and head”. At the mortuary there were bodies without legs, or headless. Such horror serves as a powerful antidote to any romanticism about political violence or the supposed heroism of terrorist campaigns.

The book also chronicles remarkable resilience on the part of the relatives who brought their enemies to court. In their varying ways, all of those who were bereaved or injured in Omagh have had to demonstrate extraordinary courage. This book focuses mainly on those families involved in the civil case, and it tells of the way in which this endeavour provided hope, and then ultimate vindication when, on June 8th, 2009, they won their famous victory in the High Court in Belfast.

The battle had taken years (six merely to get from the serving of the writs to the beginning of the case). It was an innovative struggle, the first time in the UK that a civil claim had been brought against a terrorist group. And this story is, ultimately, one of legitimate rage channelled into an impressively calm determination for justice.

Dudley Edwards details the roles of the many people involved in supporting the families in their cause: the lawyers who took on the case; the journalists, politicians, celebrities and academics who backed it; and the many members of the broader public who quietly contributed to the campaign costs.

It is a very personal story, located in the particulars of victims and relatives, their loss and their resilient courage. But it also has wider resonances for our understanding of terrorist violence and how to respond to it.

This is certainly true of the wider conflict in Northern Ireland. Omagh might have been the worst single atrocity of the Troubles, but it had family resemblances to much that had preceded it. The bombing now appears to have been produced by the Real IRA and Continuity IRA between them. But this dissident bomb fitted a pattern of earlier Provisional IRA violence, too. Repeatedly during the Troubles, fatalities and awful injuries resulted when, as here, bombs were accompanied by callously inadequate warnings. Nor should it be forgotten that the Provos had on numerous occasions themselves bombed Omagh.

And republican violence was not the only source of the kind of heartbreaking misery so movingly depicted here in this book. Moreover, there are in this story wider echoes still of how to deal with the terrorist problem. Again and again across different conflicts, the vital importance of detailed intelligence in the fight against terrorism has become clear. In the struggle against the Omagh bombers, crucial evidence came from a well-placed FBI and MI5 agent.

Less encouragingly, there are lessons also concerning what went wrong. Dudley Edwards rightly praises the police for their courage and humanity in response to Omagh. But she also points out that at times poor relations between police forces north and south of the Border hampered pursuit of the bombers. And she also highlights the possibility that information about the terrorists was not passed as speedily as it might have been from one wing of the state to another. Such issues of inter-state co-operation, and intra-state co-ordination, repeatedly emerge as crucial in other settings too in the combating of terrorism.

But this book most tellingly focuses on this particular Omagh story. It rightly concentrates on victims, and on properly remembering the lives destroyed by terrorist atrocity. But it also recounts a remarkable story of victims’ resilience and vindication, and deserves to be very widely read.

Richard English is professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast. His most recent book, Terrorism: How to Respond , is published by Oxford University Press


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