Ulster haunted by lingering scars of Omagh horror

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 2003, 12:00am

In summer 1998, a 200kg bomb rocked the sleepy Irish market town of Omagh. The incident, the worst in the history of 'the Troubles', killed 29 people and injured 473. The carnage had such an effect that, during the inquest, even the coroner, the usually collected John Leckey, lost his composure.

But Mr Leckey found the strength to berate the group that claimed responsibility for the atrocity, the Real IRA, whose bomb warnings he described as 'inadequate and misleading'.

An Irish Republican Army (IRA) splinter faction, the Real IRA has refused to honour the Ulster peace process and, in the past two years, has attempted incendiary attacks on targets in London, Birmingham and various parts of Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

The attacks have largely been foiled or bungled but, because of its devotion to violence, the Real IRA is reviled by both mainstream 'provos' (or provisional IRA members) and Loyalists (whose allegiance lies with Britain).

That revulsion has led to legal retribution. On August 7, eight days short of the fifth anniversary of the massacre kingpin Michael McKevitt received his comeuppance, despite attempts by the Real IRA to stop an undercover agent testifying by threatening to kill members of his family. McKevitt was sentenced to 20 years, officially for the charge of directing terrorism. This made him the first person to be convicted in Ireland of the offence, which was created in the wake of the Omagh bombing.

With the reputed boss behind bars, could the Real IRA now be on the run, or even finished?

'No,' said counter-terrorism expert Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina. McKevitt was not just an automaton with a purely organisational role; he was also a charismatic figurehead, Professor Deflem said.

Indeed, McKevitt was supposedly something of a hero for those who believe in him or his cause.

'Such a hero may be very hard to find,' the professor said, adding, all the same, a group of operatives could take over and do the job just as well.

Meanwhile McKevitt may acquire martyr status. Judging from the trial, Professor Deflem intriguingly claimed, this is what he wanted.

'He dismissed his legal team, called the trial a 'political show' and so on,' the professor said. 'So he basically did all he could to get convicted.'

McKevitt's 'martyrdom' will supposedly keep the group alive, possibly aided by the fact that instead of an oligarchy, his wife, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, might fill his shoes.

Professor Deflem added that although the Real IRA has only about 200 members, it is recruiting young people.

This assertion is backed up by David McKittrick, the Ireland correspondent for Britain's Independent newspaper, who quoted an unnamed Belfast security source as saying: 'We're on top of the older hands - we have made serious inroads into them - but ... due to our successes they've had to bring in new blood and we're finding it harder to get on top of them.'

Anthony McIntyre, who served 18 years in prison for IRA activity and is now a Northern Ireland analyst, also voiced pessimism.

'I am not convinced that one necessarily follows from the other,' he said.

Mr McIntyre added that McKevitt had served a two-year prison stint before; in July 1983 he was caught trying to buy a consignment of M60 machine guns to ship to Ireland and jailed for five years in the United States, but was released early and travelled home in December 1985.

That did not stop the Real IRA then so why would it now?

'If anything should have finished the Real IRA it was Omagh, but they came through it,' he said, condemning the group and calling the operatives' attitude 'very insular and self-referential and impervious to the reasoning of those who disagree with them'.

But reassuringly, the Real IRA supposedly lacks the potency to sustain a campaign and knows it.

'While I would not credit the body of the membership with any great depth of intellect, some at a more senior level must know that they can never fight a serious war,' Mr McIntyre said.

However, as a result, the group will continue to carry out attacks sporadically, driven by two things. The first, apparently, is a desire to nettle Sinn Fein (the IRA's political wing).

The second is immersion 'in the tradition of physical-force republicanism', which, for some, will continue to resonate as long as Britain remains in Northern Ireland.

But Mr McIntyre warned that, the way the Real IRA thinks, it only needs to be lucky once.

'I am always mindful of the fact that while the Real IRA exists it has the potential to carry out another Omagh,' he added ominously.