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The Omagh Bomb - Main Events



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Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
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Main Events surrounding the bomb in Omagh
Saturday 15 August 1998

Omagh Bomb - Largest loss of life in a single incident in Northern Ireland

At 3.10pm a car bomb exploded in Omagh, County Tyrone, killing 29 people (plus two unborn children) and injuring 220 others. 21 died where they fell while 8 more died on the way to, or in, hospital. Of those injured at least 11 were described as critical, including two children, and 113 were detained in hospital overnight. Initially no group claimed responsibility for the bomb but suspicion fell on a splinter group of Republicans who call themselves the "real" Irish Republican Army (rIRA). Nine children (5 girls and 4 boys; including an 18 month-old baby), 14 women and 6 men died at the scene or in hospital. A list of the dead was later released.

[Photograph: AP Photo]
The bomb had been planted close to the junction of Market Street and the Dublin Road in the centre of Omagh. A warning had been telephoned to a news agency in Belfast approximately 40 minutes before the explosion but the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) said that the warning referred to the Omagh Courthouse which is roughly 400 meters from where the bomb exploded. Indeed many of those killed and injured had been moved from the vicinity of the courthouse and into the area where the car containing the bomb was situated.

Like many market towns in Northern Ireland, Omagh was full of Saturday afternoon shoppers. Many people had travelled into Omagh from the surrounding villages and countryside. It was a particularly busy time as women and children were in the town buying school uniforms and supplies in anticipation of a return to school. In addition a cross-community carnival was also being held in the town at the time of the explosion. Among the dead and injured were a group of Spanish children who had been studying English in Buncrana, County Donegal, and who were taken on a coach trip to Omagh along with some Irish children from Buncrana. One 12 year old Spanish boy died as well as a teacher from Spain. Three young boys from Buncrana, aged 8, 11 and 12 years, were killed in the explosion. Three generations of women from one family from Augher, County Tyrone, were killed: a 65 year old grandmother, her 30 year old pregnant daughter, and the 18 month old granddaughter.

The bomb was in a car which had been parked close to the centre of the town and when it exploded it ripped through crowds of people and demolished a number of buildings. Those who had been injured were initially taken to the two local hospitals, the Tyrone County Hospital and the Erne Hospital. Buses and cars were used to ferry the injured to the hospitals, but many of the most badly injured were then flown or driven to other hospitals in Northern Ireland including the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and Altnagalvin Hospital in Derry. There were many horrendous injuries with a number of people losing limbs. Medical staff described the scene as "battlefield conditions". The bodies of the dead were taken to a temporary morgue at a nearby British Army base.

There was condemnation of the killings by all sections of the community and all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland and around the world. Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, condemned the attack as an "appalling act of savagery and evil" by people determined to wreck the peace process. Bertie Aherne, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), described the event as "the most evil deed in years" and said those responsible would be ruthlessly pursued. Willian Thompson, then Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP for West Tyrone, called for a clampdown by the security forces. Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF), said that he was totally horrified by the Omagh bomb and condemned it without equivocation. [This was the first time any member of SF has used the word "condemnation" in connection with any act of Republican violence.] Paddy McGowan, then an independent Nationalist councillor, who had been a Fire Officer for many years during 'the Troubles' was an eyewitness to the scene and said that the "devastation was beyond anything he had every seen". The leaders of Northern Ireland's four main churches joined together to condemn the bomb attack. There were also messages from Bill Clinton, then President of the United States of America, the Pope, and the Queen who sent a message of sympathy.

Sunday 16 August 1998

In the aftermath of the Omagh bomb Ronnie Flanagan, then Chief Constable of the RUC, announced that a special task force had been set up to investigate the bombing. This task force would be used to supplement the local RUC resources in the Omagh area. At the scene of the bomb forensic officers searched for evidence of the type of device used, while heat-seeking equipment was brought in to double check wrecked buildings for any other bodies.

A number of political leaders who were on vacation at the time of the explosion broke off their holidays to return to the United Kingdom (UK). Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, returned from holiday in France and flew to Northern Ireland. Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also returned to Northern Ireland from her holiday in Greece. John Prescott, then British Deputy Prime Minister, paid a visit to the scene of the explosion in the early afternoon. Mary McAleese, then President of the Republic of Ireland, also paid a visit to Omagh.

An ambulance transferring patients to hospitals in Belfast was involved in a traffic accident with a car on the Knock Road which resulted in the death of the driver of the car. Concerns were expressed over how Loyalist paramilitary groups would response. Late on the second day two of the dead still had not been identified. Omagh Leisure Centre was used as a base for the relatives and friends of the dead and injured to learn news about what had happened. The Spanish Ambassator also visited the town and some of the injured. Bertie Aherne, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), said that internment had not been ruled out of his security review. Whatever has to be done would be done to crush the group responsible. The Thirty-Two County Sovereignty Committee issued a statement saying that it was not connected in any way to the explosion.

Aftermath

Following a visit to some of those injured Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, issued a statement.

The bomb also prompted the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) to issue a statement calling on the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) to announce a ceasefire. The group calling itself the "real" IRA issued a statement claiming responsibility for the bomb and then a second statement saying that "all military operations have been suspended". [The rIRA subsequently returned to violence.]


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