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Statement by Bertie Ahern, then Taioseach, to the Dail on the Omagh Bomb, 2 September 1998

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Statement by Bertie Ahern, then Taioseach, to the Dail on the Omagh Bomb, 2 September 1998

It is a little over two weeks since the Omagh atrocity, since a street carnival was turned into a massacre, a ghastly relapse that joins and even surpasses the worst tragedies of the past 30 years. Even in ten years or more the passage of time will have done little to heal what was made to happen at 3.10 p.m. on Saturday, 15 August. As with previous outrages, survivors of the Omagh bombing years from now will still suffer from their injuries. In many cases the bereaved will still be trying to come to terms with their loss; survivors and the bereaved will still be troubled by thoughts of what might have been, and all those who responded so bravely and with such humanity at the scene will be haunted at times by terrible images.

In the aftermath of Omagh I visited the town and later visited the hospital there where many of those who were so terribly injured were being cared for. As we all know and witnessed on television, the heart of Omagh was devastated on that Saturday. Many people will have to work long and hard to rebuild the shattered town. However, at the end of the day, Omagh will be rebuilt and once again become a vibrant and vital part of life in County Tyrone.

It will be much harder to rebuild the shattered lives of those who were so cruelly made victims and who somehow survived. There will be many hours of surgery and physiotherapy. Many victims, with the help of dedicated caring professionals and their families, will be able to live full and valuable lives. However, for some, full recovery may be well nigh impossible.

The attack on Omagh was not just an indiscriminate attack on democracy and the British-Irish Agreement. It was a reckless attack on a community, on a people. Those who died were Catholic and Protestant, young and old, men and women. They were from the North and South and included visitors from abroad.

That is the evil done by the self styled "Real IRA" at Omagh - death, pain, suffering, grief and horror - that will unfortunately echo down through the years. Our first objective must be to do all within our power to prevent the recurrence of such an atrocity. I am under no illusions, though, as to the continuing danger fanatics who remain at liberty can pose to the rest of society.

The Government and people have already conveyed, by our words, prayers and silence, our heartfelt sympathy for the survivors of this outrage and for the relatives of the victims and their friends. I say to the people of Omagh: a terrible wrong was done to you. We will continue to grieve for you and support you in any way we can. Our hearts go out to you now and in the future.

Paradoxically, this evil act has brought forth an outpouring of goodness and solidarity, a community of emotions and convictions shared almost universally among people throughout this island. Amidst the grief and pain, we have seen sincere and significant statements and actions that give hope for the future and which must be further built upon.

However, it is important that we, the elected representatives of the people, should also make known our feelings in this House, the seat of our democracy and the Republic. We in this House, not any small self-appointed elite who would blow their fellow humans to oblivion, are the democratic successors of the first Dáil, the custodians of the Declaration of Independence of 1919 and other founding Acts. It is for us to determine how best we can act today in accordance with their spirit, and we will not allow the legitimacy of the Republic, which has no other form, to be usurped or challenged by anyone.

What was done at Omagh was a very far cry from what the people of Ireland, North and South, voted for on 22 May 1998. However, we know that the bomb was intended as a direct attack on the British-Irish Agreement and the operation of democracy. The bombers and their political associates have sought to deny the hallowed right of the people to freely choose their own destiny. The British-Irish Agreement is about dialogue, trust, compromise, peace and democracy. The attack on Omagh was designed to undo all that by generating fear and hatred and more violence and by trying to force everything back into the melting pot. It has abjectly failed.

Many people worked long and hard over many years to bring us to the British-Irish Agreement. It has the support of the Irish and British Governments and the principal Nationalist, Unionist, Loyalist and Republican parties with one or two exceptions, some of whom may yet come to work it. It has the support of the United States and the international community. Above all, 85 per cent of the people of Ireland, North and South, voted for it by referendum on 22 May this year. This included up to 95 per cent of the nationalist population throughout the island.

The so-called "Real IRA" cannot hope to take on the people of Ireland and win. They have already disgraced themselves and the name they have misappropriated. There is no community in Ireland that wishes to have them operating in their midst. The INLA acknowledged in its ceasefire statement, which I welcome, that the new conditions created by the Agreement demand a ceasefire and that the onus on all is to ensure that the democratic wishes of the people are upheld.

The House expects and demands that all remaining groups follow suit forthwith or face the consequences. These people are about to learn a lesson that will teach them to respect the strength of Irish democracy. The time for sophistry that provides a cover for murderous attacks on fellow Irish men and women is over.

Those who organised and carried out this horrific act of violence have a stark choice. They can heed the will of the people now and tell us, and convince us, that their violence is at an end for good, or they can defy us to put them out of business. If they do so, they should not be in any doubt about the Government's determination to crush and dismantle any organisations that still engage in violence, as I made clear prior to the Omagh bombing. They should be in no doubt about our determination to do everything we can to assist in bringing the perpetrators of this terrible crime to justice. We are determined that the people of this island, North and South, will enjoy the peace they democratically endorsed and that the victims of Omagh will have justice.

At a meeting in August the Government decided on a security and legislative response to the challenge of the Omagh atrocity, a response that is extremely tough, even draconian, but that will stay in force only as long as we require it. I am satisfied that in this response we are reflecting and expressing the will of the vast majority of the people on this island. Following these statements the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will introduce the Second Stage of the Bill that contains our legislative proposals. Following the Agreement we would much prefer to be going in the opposite direction, removing emergency legislation we do not strictly need. In normal circumstances we would not ask the House to enact the legislation we are enacting with the utmost reluctance because of the need to protect the people from any other atrocities. No society wishes to introduce further restrictions on freedom without evident and demonstrable necessity and if such restrictions are to operate successfully it is essential they have strong public support.

Neither I nor the Garda underestimated the potential threat posed by this new organisation formed last December. Every effort was made through a tough security counter strategy to dissuade it from continuing and to frustrate its operations in so far as we could from this side of the Border. The Garda had considerable success and intercepted it on six occasions. On five of them explosives were recovered that could have caused large scale loss of life and/or major destruction. The Garda was also instrumental in preventing a bomb attack in London. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the office of the Attorney General had started to examine further steps that could be taken. My predecessor in the last Government faced a somewhat similar threat during the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire. With renewed bomb attacks there was always the grave danger of a major tragedy that would have put any recovery of the peace process in extreme jeopardy. In those admittedly different circumstances the response was mainly political, and I did not criticise that. Because we live in a democracy tough new legislation has always to be a last resort. Even today there are voices saying that such groups should be left to the effects of broader republican opinion, an opinion which so far unfortunately has not been able to prevent the emergence or operations of this lethal splinter group. While not discounting moral suasion, it is the State that has the ultimate responsibility to act.

The measures being brought forward are to be targeted solely at those who would engage in violence. They are time limited and will lapse once we can be sure that they are no longer necessary. We will monitor closely their implementation, with safeguards and checks and balances in the British-Irish Agreement also coming into effect.

In the past no pure security response could have resolved a complex political problem that has divided people so deeply. It is always necessary to assess the full implications of any security measures and it would never make sense to take measures that could exacerbate the security situation and ultimately cause more lives to be lost than would otherwise be the case. What has changed is that we now have the British-Irish Agreement. There is for the first time a broad democratic consensus on the way forward. The great strength of the Agreement is that it means that extremists are considered to be only extremists. They have no legitimacy and can claim no authority, no basis of support in international law. They act for nobody but themselves. By their actions they have condemned themselves to complete and total isolation.

This year has brought us many truly historic moments but it has also brought us some of the most appalling and heartless atrocities of the past 30 years. I recall the Quinn children. The tragic loss of those three children and the way in which they died touched the hearts of everyone. We in this House have not had the opportunity to offer our sympathy to the children's family and friends. I do so now. We will do everything we can to end the bitter sectarianism and division that led to their tragic loss. All of us have come to a realisation of the human cost of conflict and the terrible price that has been paid for an unwillingness to find accommodation. It is tragic that children died, in Omagh and Ballymoney, because of blind hatred.

In remembering the victims of Omagh and Ballymoney I know that all the other victims over the past 30 years and their relatives and friends will have been recalling their own tragedies and heartbreak. We have to confront a terrible legacy of violence and its effects. I know the former Tánaiste, John Wilson, has begun his work in the Victims Commission but the Government is conscious of all the victims of violence. All our energies and efforts are focused on trying to ensure there are no more victims, no more tragedies.

This year we have come a long way in understanding ourselves and our history. In this year of commemoration we have been engaged in a voyage of rediscovery of the true non-sectarian, humane founding vision of the United Irishmen. It was a forward looking, popular movement which aspired to a unity of people, drawing its strength from both North and South and from Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and which stood four square behind the principles of democracy and pluralism, of equality and inclusion, despite the ensuing horrors of repression and rebellion.

The Good Friday Agreement is based on many of those founding principles. Irish history has provided us with many ideals, with many leaders and many visionaries. They, in their time, applied themselves in many different ways to their ideals, often at great personal cost. Idealism and vision today is also about building a new future. It is about accommodation, equality and partnership, and about new trust and reconciliation. It is about building a prosperous, inclusive Ireland that all of us would want to live in. The leaders that we respect are those willing to work together to build a better future, not those who would drag us back into violence to destroy the real chance of history-making that we are engaged in in today's Ireland.

I would like today to make a special appeal to any young people who might be involved or thinking of becoming involved in violence: listen to the voice of the Irish people and ignore the siren voices of the depraved few who will ruin your lives while using you to do their dirty work. These people are about as far from idealism as it is possible to be. They have no realistic objective. They have no support. They have nothing to offer but violence and death. They have no hope of success. It may be that they are so used to violence that they cannot give it up, but you have that chance. Take it before it is too late.

I said earlier that a security response in isolation is not enough in dealing with the threat from extremists. Following the attack on Omagh, I have had an intensive, sustained level of meetings with many of the political parties involved. These meetings and contacts were geared towards responding to the Omagh atrocity and, as well as focusing on security matters, they focused in detail on the importance of implementing the Agreement in all its aspects. We are all fully agreed on the critical need to maintain political momentum.

The Irish and British Governments are working closely together. We are at one as to what is required. We will continue all our efforts, working closely with all of the parties involved to see this process through and to build a better future for everyone in these islands. We will keep going on until we succeed. That is the best tribute that we could pay to the victims of the Omagh bombing, and I know from talking to some of the survivors and people of Omagh that that is what they want. God bless them in their humanity and give them and all the people of this land a fair wind.


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