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November 2010

AFTERMATH REVIEW:The Royal Institute of International Affairs

Aftermath: the Omagh bombing and the families’ pursuit of justice. By Ruth Dudley Edwards. London: Harvill Secker. 2009. 376pp. Index. Pb: £12.99. isbn 978 0 436 20599 6.

In the whole sorry story that represents the Northern Ireland Troubles, one group of people has gone unacknowledged: not the direct victims of the conflict, but the indirect ones, the relatives of victims. For years the script written for them was to keep quiet and go away. At most they were accorded minor walk-on parts to proclaim they bore no hatred towards those responsible for killing their loved ones, while in the 1990s they functioned largely as a mis-en-scène for politicians who wished them to assert that their suffering had not been in vain but in the service of establishing the peace process. Any humane regard for the plight of the relatives in the political, media and academic worlds of the ‘Troublesocracy’ would have placed them centre-stage but in the cruel theatre of Irish politics, they were marginalized and forgotten.

The only group of relatives to challenge systematically the victim paradigm were those caught up in the Omagh bombing in August 1998, committed by members of the Real IRA (RIRA). It was the largest single atrocity in Northern Ireland during the conflict, leaving 29 people dead (31 if unborn twins are included). Having been promised that no efforts would be spared in hunting down the bombers, relatives were left despairing at the failure of the investigation to bring anyone to justice. And this is the essential point brought out in Ruth Dudley Edwards’s remarkable book about the events following the atrocity—the aftermath—which is that while the families, like most other people, yearned for peace, as victims of the conflict themselves what they most sought was justice: that the bombers be brought to book under the law.

What the families actually received was not justice, but the patronizing obduracy and indifference that characterized the treatment of nearly all the relatives of victims throughout the conflict. Well-briefed Irish and British dignitaries lined up to condemn the Omagh bombing, but urged that it not be allowed to derail the peace process. Prime Minister Tony Blair turned up, declaring tritely, and somewhat solipsistically, that he would have gone ‘mad with grief ’ had his own children been killed in the bombing. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlam, the author argues, was more interested in not hurting the feelings of Irish Republicans than in showing any regard for the surviving victims and their families. For Sinn Féin, the greatest crime was the RIRA’s hijacking of the name ‘IRA’, which as Dudley Edwards pointedly observes was as if ‘Hitler had been accused of brand infringement’.

The haunting realization that the political classes and criminal justice systems in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic lacked the competence and will to pursue the suspects caused a number of families united, albeit disparately and disharmoniously, by grief and anger to take matters into their own hands and to pursue the bombers through the civil courts. Never before had members of a violent, criminally outlawed organization faced a claim for damages. Few people thought they would succeed. The families faced years of exhausting effort and every kind of obstruction, discouragement and tribulation: from the nightmare of fundraising; legal foot dragging; media slurs; the apathy, lack of interest and often hypocrisy of local politicians and human rights groups; to the mistrust of some Omagh residents, who felt the families were attracting bad publicity for the town.

Nevertheless, aided by support from an extraordinary cast of mavericks, misfits, boat rockers, rule-breakers and rock’n’rollers, which included among many others Bob Geldof, Sean O’Callaghan, Henry Robinson, Jason McCue and the estimable Dudley Edwards herself, the case eventually came to court, years after the serving of writs on the defendants and with only six families remaining on the writ. Finally, after further years of legal wrangling, the families won their case: the ruling specifically named RIRA godfathers as responsible and liable for the atrocity, and damages against the defendants were awarded. It was not the money that was important, it was the precedent: the first legal ruling of its kind in the world that stated that the ringleaders of violent non-state actors could be held accountable for their actions and that their victims could come after them.

The long road travelled is a story told in riveting and powerful detail. Dudley Edwards is unsparing in describing the way the bombing victims died and the subsequent struggle against the odds. Her account is all the more commanding because she never portrays the Omagh families (or indeed their supporters) as saints. They were often difficult and suspicious, fell out with each other, were flawed and insecure, and their grievous personal loss often exacerbated these traits. But in conveying the elements of this ultimately tragic episode, this work adds up to a fine study in compassion, bravery and astonishing resilience. It is also a story with a telling intellectual and moral message. Stanley McCombe, who lost his wife, Ann, in the atrocity and had the courage to persist all the way to end, summed up his motivation: ‘All I want to do is get even, get even in the proper way. Fighting for justice and what Ann meant to me is what will keep me going until the day I die’. Here, justice brough individual resolution to a very personal torment.

M. L. R. Smith, King’s College London, UK

© RIIA

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