It was down memory lane again for me last month about the 1998 Omagh bomb, first with a conversation at a London party with David Trimble and Peter Mandelson, and then with two surprising court judgements in Belfast and Dublin.
Published: 3 August 2021
After the three of us had talked about Northern Ireland and Mandelson’s abiding affection for it, I remembered how I had radically changed my mind a long time ago about both those men, which made me reflect yet again on how one should not rush to judgement about people.
And then the legal news reminded me why one should never give up.
The party was the first big social gathering I’ve been to since early last year. Given by Policy Exchange, a think tank run by my old friend Dean Godson, it was an opportunity to catch up with friends and acquaintances from many different worlds who share an interest in politics from many viewpoints.
Policy Exchange has become outstandingly successful in recent years and produces an enormous range of challenging reports on everything from housing policy to space exploration, but it also publishes papers and arranges events that reflect Godson’s deep interest in Northern Ireland.
It was an interest that caused this Daily Telegraph journalist – as he was then – to interview hundreds of people of all shades of opinion in Northern Ireland, the Republic, the rest of the UK, the US and anywhere else he could find them for a biography of Trimble.
After five years of grinding work, in 2004 he published a biography of more than 1,000 pages (if you include footnotes and the index) to the great relief of all those of us who had been endlessly harried for information, contacts, advice and reassurance — including Trimble himself, who gave him free access to papers, did not ask to see the manuscript before publication and put up with being interrogated for hundreds of hours, often with a tape recorder.
And all that, although he and Godson were in fundamental disagreement about what should happen in Northern Ireland.
When I first met Trimble in the mid-1980s at an academic conference where he was a taciturn, virtually unknown Queen’s law lecturer, I could not have imagined that he had any future other than academia, that we had anything in common or that we would in time become fast friends.
My first actual contact with Peter Mandelson, when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was a snippy fax from him about something I’d written and a sharp response from me.
I certainly could not have foreseen that I would later see him as the most able of all Northern Ireland Secretaries of State as well as being the one with the greatest sympathy for the people I most cared about – the victims.
When I became consumed by the campaign to take a civil case against the bombers of Omagh, Trimble was as supportive as he could be and not just in parliament, in speeches and in public expressions of support.
From one of our fund-raising drives we got £7,500 from parliamentarians, £5,000 of it from Trimble. He and Mandelson in the House of Commons in November 2000 both called on the US State Department to list the Real IRA as a terrorist organisation — something Downing Street had no interest in.
By that time, against the advice of the Northern Ireland Office, Mandelson had visited Omagh to meet victims’ families, had broken down after seeing artwork which some of the victims’ children had done in bereavement therapy, had been comforted by lead campaigners Michael Gallagher and Stanley McCombe, and although it involved stepping on Downing Street toes, had promised to do whatever he could to help the case.
I found him a joy to work with: clever, practical, imaginative and utterly reliable. Just as we were running out of money, though no longer in government, he succeeded in bullying Tony Blair into agreeing against all precedent to provide us with legal aid.
I recommend this speech he made at my book launch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jo44Oi6aRM
On the legal front, two weeks ago there was a ruling in the Republic of Ireland’s Court of Appeal that Liam Campbell would be extradited to Lithuania to face trial for organising for the Real IRA to smuggle firearms and explosives from there into Ireland.
What makes Campbell a particularly terrible human being is that — as was confirmed by the judgement on the civil case — he was the driving force that brought about the bombing, yet he continued his evil work.
He has fought extradition for 12 years but now has to face a Lithuanian court where the maximum sentence for terrorism offences is 20 years.
Last week, in the Belfast High Court, a judge called for new investigations on both sides of the border into the possibility that the Omagh bombing could have been prevented.
For those of us who are extremely fed up with endless criticism from Irish government sources about inadequacies in the justice system in Northern Ireland with almost no recognition that the Irish equivalent did so little to stop cross border murders, this is very hopeful news.