Page 10, 20th August 1999

20th August 1999
Page 10
Page 10, 20th August 1999 — Omagh: a false dawn for peace?

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People: Todd Flanagan
Locations: Omagh, Belfast, Derry


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Omagh: a false dawn for peace?

Keywords: Omagh, Derry, Omagh Bombing

Todd Flanagan argues that even a year of grief has not helped

EXACTLY one year ago this week, one of the largest terrorist bombs ever exploded in hostility in Northern Ireland rocked the tight-knit community of Omagh.

It was, according to the speculators, the bomb that would finally bring peace to the region. People had had enough. This time, hostilities had gone too far and the long-awaited peace so desperately sought after by many would come after the outrage and grief.

Having been in Omagh at the time and witnessed the tragedy I was not so sure. Emotions were running high and rash promises were being made without due regard to the full and lasting effects of grief, nor consideration given to the agendas of proactive terrorist forces.

The following story, taken directly from my journal at the time, recounts the scene. What has Northern Ireland learned? Given the all-too-familiar scenes of Belfast and Deny over recent days, will peace ever reign in a region where peace is the prayer of the majority?

A DRIVE through the countryside of County Tyrone towards the capital Omagh in Northern Ireland is arguably amongst the most scenic in all the land.

Rolling hills of green line the horizon, serenely beckoning the traveller onwards towards the county's capital.

But alas, such entrancing qualities of beauty soon end at the outskirts of the town, and tranquillity very soon turns to something else the closer one gets to the town centre.

Omagh is still reeling after last week's horrific bomb blast. It is a town very much trying to pick up the pieces after the worst tragedy ever to hit the region.

Little can prepare one for the range of emotions that the town is currently experiencing. The town of Omagh has 20,000 people. Normally High Street, the main road of the city, is densely populated. When I arrived after the bombing took place, it was virtually desertNi. What I saw resembles a war zone. Heav ily armed soldiers stood on all street corners within the main city centre. Armoured personnel carriers cruised the streets and the RUC, conspicuous in their green uniforms, are heavily present, guarding the bombed site as forensic experts continue to pick their way through debris, searching for clues that will lead them to the bombers.

These men wore the look of professional soldiers. For them, scenes like the one they experienced here are all too common.

Amongst the civilian population another scene emerges. For the townspeople on the streets, the grief is clearly evident. An elderly lady stands at the taped off area dabbing the tears from her eyes while being supported by her husband, whose face bears a blank look. Not speaking, they can only look in disbelief, trying desperately to fathom how something like this could happen to their peaceful town.

A boy of eight stands alone in a doorway nearby. "It shouldn't have happened," he tells me.

Arriving at the scene, three more people clutch one another. It is their first visit to the site. The teenage girl in the middle weeps as her friends on either side support her.

Omagh is not a comfortable place to be.

An armoured vehicle is parked in the middle of High Street, obstinately obstructing passage to the heart of the bomb site, a visible sign that Omagh is very much under control of security forces.

A walk down the main street does little to alleviate the sombre atmosphere.

Inside the shops, time has frozen. Shopping bags lie on the floors, groceries are piled near cash registers, trolleys remain full and in line for the tills. People obviously dropped everything and ran for the doors when the bomb went off.

Further down the street, a grandmother and granddaughter walk hand-in-hand, carrying yet another floral tribute to lie among the thousands that already stand against many of the buildings. Like so many of the others in the street they don't speak, merely lay the flowers and move on to read the messages of sympathy of other town folk.

There is little other action — the odd shopkeeper can be seen scurrying about doing what he can to secure his business premises.

On Saturday morning, the nominated day of mourning, there is very little difference. Soldiers are once again based on every street corner.

Again there are few townspeople on the streets. The only real action comes from the large fleet media that have travelled to cover the service.

By early afternoon, a different scenario begins to unfold. Two hours before the ceremony, small numbers of people begin to appear on to High Street. Noiselessly they amble up to the front of the Courthouse.

At 2:30pm the service begins. By now, an estimated 30,000 people have jampacked the main street, surrounding streets and the car parks in the city.

As expected, the service was emotional and painful. With the town still in great shock, one can't help but question what will happen afterwards.

According to one man I met in the highly fortified RUC headquarters Omagh has always lived in relative peace and harmony. Mixed marriages between Protestants and Catholics are typical enough and socialisation between religious groups is common, unlike the neighbouring towns of Belfast and Derry.

But what happens when the numbness of grief wears off? According to one local, the unity enjoyed in grief may all too easily turn to anger and divide the community like so many other regions of the north.

If the scenes we are witnessing on the anniversary of the explosion that would bring peace are anything to go by, she may be right.

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