Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Heartache and Healing

This week marks a sombre anniversary for Northern Ireland, my home.

Many readers will know and understand that Northern Ireland has a deeply troubled past. Troubles borne of sectarian hatred, distrust, unease, and intolerance. The province has endured over three decades of bombing and shooting campaigns. Physical destruction, economic decline and human loss.

Some of you will not understand, because more than thirty years of mindless violence, countless deaths of, for the most part, innocent people, is absolutely incomprehensible.

I have lived there for most of my life, and have yet to understand any of it completely.

At the risk of producing a history lesson, let me briefly explain that Northern Ireland is geographically part of the island of Ireland, but is politically part of the United Kingdom. In its simplest form, the root of the conflict played out in Northern Ireland stems from the fact that certain, extreme, factions staunchly protect their British identity (Loyalists), and other equally extreme groups work by whatever means they consider necessary to bring about a United Ireland (Republicans), free from British involvement. Each side claims their version of history as the reason their position should prevail.

I use the present tense because, although peace has been achieved to a large extent in Northern Ireland right now, it is uneasy and delicate at times.

A mistake often made by outsiders is to equate Republicanism with Catholics, and Loyalism with Protestants. To do so is naive and ignores the position of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, more moderate in their views and whose priority above all others is peace and an end to violence and suffering.

The political environment in Northern Ireland is extremely polarized, and the vocal minorities on both sides historically impeded progressive compromise attempted at many junctures by more moderate politicians.

In 1994 a ceasefire was called by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) – followed not long thereafter by a ceasefire proclaimed by Loyalist paramilitary groups. Hope abounded and a collective sigh of relief was released by those of us in the North as we watched political talks actually produce results, accompanied by the promise of a departure from the bomb and the bullet, a brighter future ahead. This political process attempted to put into action the will of the moderate majority in Northern Ireland, those of us who wanted to co-exist with our neighbours – whatever their creed, or political affiliation, in peace. To live normal lives, without fear.

The peace process gained impetus through hard work and negotiations between local politicians, assisted in no small part by the Irish and British governments, and by George Mitchell, sent to mediate the negotiations by President Bill Clinton. There was a palpable excitement among the ordinary people of Northern Ireland that we would emerge from the dark days of violence, and we would do it soon. President and Mrs. Clinton’s visit to Northern Ireland in November 1995 was further proof that we were leaving the sorry past behind, and that Northern Ireland was somewhere worthy of international focus.

In the background however, dissidents, unhappy with what they saw as the ‘sellout’ by Republican politicians plotted and attempted further attacks. Calling themselves ‘The Real IRA’ and ‘The Continuity IRA’, they pushed to carry on the paramilitary bombing campaigns in their pursuit of a United Ireland. They bombed town centres, injuring many and damaging property and local economies. Security forces were successful in thwarting some attacks.

I, like many others, did not consider the Real IRA to be a credible threat. I believed that the Provisional IRA, who by this time were supporting the political process, would keep them in check and that the security forces would have the intelligence and resources to prevent them gaining enough traction to become a credible threat.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

On Saturday August 15th 1998, the Real IRA succeeded in perpetrating the single most horrific atrocity in the history of the troubles. In the process, 29 vibrant, happy, oblivious and some of them tiny, lives – as hopeful as the rest of us for a better future, were obliterated.

Evil, cowardly people without the vision nor the respect for humanity to engage with the people they claimed to represent and work for the greater good, rose once more and attempted to force ‘British withdrawal’ from Northern Ireland. They wreaked havoc in a busy town centre, Omagh, Co.Tyrone. They achieved nothing, except mass destruction and widespread human devastation.

During the troubles, the ‘normal’ protocol for a terrorist attack was a warning to the police, a radio or TV station. You should also know that over the course of the troubles, many hoax bomb threats were also made. People have been evacuated from public buildings and streets - only to learn later that it was a hoax. I've been through it several times myself.

Warnings were called in for the Omagh bomb but the message was either deliberately misleading, or it was misunderstood – I’m not sure it’s ever been determined which. The target mentioned was the courthouse at the top of a hill in the main shopping street in Omagh – [so chosen because it was a building representative of the British Establishment]. In a frantic attempt to usher the public away from the courthouse and evacuate the area – police directed people down the hill, away from the courthouse as fast as they could.

A car packed with 500lbs of home-made explosives awaited them at the bottom of the hill. Unknowingly, in attempting to shield the public, police instead shepherded people toward certain death.

Fourteen women, six men and nine children, two of them babies of 20 and 18 months old, were killed. Not included in the numbers reported, but two little lives I always remember when I think of the Omagh bombing were the twins that Avril Monaghan, one of the women killed, and mother of the 18 month old, was carrying. She was seven months pregnant. All told, 31 lives lost. Catholics, Protestants, a Mormon schoolboy, and visitors from Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, and Spanish exchange students perished.

Hundreds of people were left with horrific injuries, their lives changed forever, along with the lives of those who lost their loved ones. Broken families – their existence left in the same tatters as the buildings of that busy Omagh street.

I was on the first of many return visits to Florida just after this bomb happened, and I brought with me the newspapers to share the story with those whom I was visiting. I shed many tears looking at the 29 faces in those news reports, and I shed them now as I look at them once more. Each one someone’s mother, son, father, brother, sister, daughter, baby… How many more tears have been shed in homes in Omagh, Donegal, and Spain over the last ten years? And for what?

Although the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the attack, no group or individual has been successfully prosecuted for this crime. Families of the victims have fought tirelessly to have the perpetrators brought to justice, but thus far the campaign has been fruitless.

Civil actions have also been brought but no satisfying result has given these families the sense of closure that one would imagine necessary to help process what has happened to them. I think this adds to the enormity of the tragedy.

The wider implication of the Omagh bombing coming four years after the paramilitary ceasefires was fear once more. The province as a whole was worried that this tragedy would bring more pain and destruction in the form of retaliatory attacks, which was the normal modus operandi of paramilitaries on both sides following such attacks in the past. Mercifully, this did not happen. The Omagh Bomb did not derail the peace process – something which had it happened would have made all the more pointless the lives lost that day.

While there is no doubt that the outrage felt by so many at the scale of the Omagh tragedy accelerated the journey towards lasting peace, ironically, the families of those who died, and those injured are somewhat victimized once more by the peace process. By virtue of the fact that politicians are focused on the future, and leaving the legacy of violence behind, the support from the police, elected officials and government agencies that these families need to secure justice, isn't there. They are pretty much left to push for justice on their own.

This week, ten years on, my thoughts are with the families of the 31 people lost in Omagh on August 15th 1998. I pray for them, and for those so severely injured, physically, and emotionally. I draw inspiration from those who have triumphed over their injuries and loss, and trust that those who still struggle will find the help and healing they need.

I continue to pray for healing in Northern Ireland, where just today three firebombs have been made safe by Army Bomb experts , like I said, peace is uneasy, and delicate.

I pray for the rest of us – that in this age where bombings in foreign lands are reported with alarming frequency, and sadly often as a side story to the ‘main event’ of a sordid Politician’s affair, I pray that we never become blasé about such stories and that we never fail to be outraged by them. To maintain our sense of justice and protest to those whom will listen and take action…


Deborah said...

What a poignant and beautifully written post Annie. Nominated it for Irish post of the month.

Kimberly said...

Oh honey, heartache indeed. You've brought me to tears here.

queenoftheclick said...

Having Irish roots (last name McG), I know the history well. I visited last in 1993. I landed in Southern Ireland and traveled up North was not easy. My family didn't want me to travel in the Northern area because of the IRA. The bus we traveled on was met by police and search dogs. We were all asked to get off the bus and our bags were looked (sniffed) by the dogs. I remember being very afraid not so much of the situation, but more by what might happen.

I remember the bombing 10 years ago and in particular the young people who had died. I will pray for their families as I am sure each August is hard for them.

In 1998, I thought to myself, the problems will end in a few years - at least by 2001. I find it hard to believe that 10 years have passed and the country still experiences such turmoil.

In 2003, I heard about discussions between Northern and Southern Ireland, but nothing came of them. I thought I would take another trip there when things calmed down.

Iota said...

Great post, Annie.

Lilacspecs said...

I studied in Carlow, Ireland for 2 weeks a couple years ago and I learned a lot about the history while I was there. There are definitely still tenuous emotions and feelings of insecurity amongst the people. Such a shame. It's such a rich, beautiful land and culture. Poignant post...glad I click over from Brillig's.

Grannymar said...

Great post Annie

I remember the day so well. My husband died in April that year, I recall thinking, my husband had been ill, had lived his life and there was a reason for his death. The victims of the Omagh bomb were healthy young and full of life, their lives were stolen from them. It was cruel, oh so cruel!

Anonymous said...

Just found you from Lilacspecs. With your permission, I would like to use this blog entry in my methods class (I teach at a University-teacher prep program)...it is the MOST HONEST explanation that I have ever read about the conflict and it needs to be shared and discussed...beautifully written and clearly from the heart. Thank you...

jen said...

this is astounding, Annie. the heart and the pain and the home.

Brillig said...

Oh, Annie. It's so horrifying. So much heartache.