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Sunday 2 August 2009

Review: Omagh: when the dust settled

Reviewed by John Burke
Aftermath The Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice, by Ruth Dudley Edwards,
Harvill Secker, €14

On August 15, 1998, an explosion ripped through Omagh, the county town of Tyrone. It was a bomb like no other in modern Irish history. It left in its wake 29 dead as well as two unborn children.

The bombing made no sense to the majority of people in the North and south of Ireland, who had voted three months earlier to support the Belfast Agreement which had been signed by the British and Irish governments.

The Provisional IRA had been placed on ceasefire and the momentum through the summer of 1998 suggested that Ireland was destined for a long-awaited period of peace.

A splinter group of the IRA, the so-called Real IRA, had emerged following a split within the republican movement, which opposed the cessation of political armed violence and saw the republican support for an agreement as an abrogation of Irish sovereignty. A series of contradictory phone warnings to media and the Samaritans was all that preceded their massacre in the North.

Virtually the entire nation was at one after the atrocity. The detail of the warnings themselves caused outrage. The Real IRA members who phoned in a 30-minute warning for the 500 pound car bomb had misdirected police. The effect was that they pushed shoppers in the direction of the laden vehicle.

The political reaction was swift, and had all the appearance of a decisive effort to bring those responsible to justice. British prime minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern came together to say that no stone would be left unturned to catch the killers.

But as the weeks turned to months, the killers remained free and at large. In Aftermath, historian and journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards provides a meticulous account of the following 11 years of day-to-day struggles by the families of those who lost loved ones. In an historic and extraordinary move, the families convinced legal firms to take what amounted to a US style class action suit against a terrorist organisation.

Although the exceptional actions taken by the families provide the book’s main focus, the initial chapters which deal with the bombing and its immediate aftermath are compelling.

The accounts of the damage wrought to a human body by a massive bomb make for gruelling but sadly necessary reading - such as the account of the impact of the explosion on shopper Philomena Skelton, whose remains were found among the debris by her husband Kevin.

The 49-year-old woman’s body was ‘‘naked, blackened, burned and mutilated’’ from the force of the blast. Her abdomen was punctured, leaving coils of protruding bowel. She had extensive neck and brain damage.

Dudley Edwards records the desperation of the families to bring someone to court to account for the loss of their loved ones, in the face of no tangible success by police. As Paul Devine, who lost his daughter Breda, said, they had no other option. They could not let the bombers ‘‘just sit back in their comfortable safe home, thinking that they [had] got away with it’’.

The steps taken by the families of some of the dead to achieve funding, obtain legal representation and navigate the perilous path of publicly confronting a terror group - which could still claim some support - are recounted here in gripping detail.

None of the families had a legal background, but they had the weight of an enormous sense of rectitude behind them. The author’s impressive ability, both as a writer and a recorder of detail, serves this book well.

Last June, a judge in Belfast High Court ruled that four men were responsible for the Omagh bombing: Mickey McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly. The court awarded stg£1.6 million in damages against the four.

Dudley Edwards’ finely-researched book benefits from her own proximity to the events and her personal knowledge of the protagonists - the hitherto ordinary people - who took on the Real IRA in the courts, even though there was no precedent anywhere in the world for what they sought to achieve. For anyone interested in this chilling area of recent Irish history, Aftermath is recommended reading.

John Burke is Public Affairs Correspondent of The Sunday Business Post

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