Advertisement

'Nowhere deserved to be the scene of the bombing less than Omagh'

Obviously it would be unfair to say that anywhere deserved to be the scene of the worst atrocity in the Northern Ireland conflict – but for me, it would be fair to say that nowhere deserved it less than Omagh.

And yet that is what the world remembers Omagh for: twenty-nine dead including a mother carrying unborn twins.

My memories are very different. Omagh is the town I love so well.

The aftermath of the blast. Credit: ITV News

I arrived in Omagh thirty-five-years-ago last month.

I had just been appointed cub reporter at the Tyrone Constitution, the unionist one of the two weekly newspapers published every Wednesday morning.

The nationalist paper, the Ulster Herald, was also full of friends.

For four years I lived in the county town of Tyrone.

Conflict reporting was part and parcel of the job and appalling, tragic things happened all around.

And yet somehow, Omagh was above, if not all of it, then most of it.

The aftermath of the blast. Credit: ITV News

The sectarian, political prejudice that seemed to blight much of Tyrone and Fermanagh during the mid-eighties, seemed to me to miss Omagh.

Perhaps mine was the rose-tinted view of a visitor, but I never felt that anyone there was defined by their religion or politics.

People were valued for who they were, not what.

I left Omagh in 1987 and my experiences there served me well.

The memories were nearly all good.

Twenty-years-ago news of the extent of the bombing there came as a dreadful shock.

Of all places, please not Omagh, I thought.

The Memorial Gardens in Omagh. Credit: PA

Soon after the news first broke a friend at UTV confided that it looked really bad; the death toll was horrendous.

Driving there from Belfast, the years fell away.

Upon arrival it took just a few seconds to realize the enormity of what had befallen my Omagh.

It was a Saturday.

I had been scheduled to fly to the United States to cover holiday leave in our Washington bureau.

My boss phoned to say he wanted me to stay and report Omagh instead.

Fair enough.

I dreaded doing it, but didn’t want anyone else to either.

Flowers are left at the scene the day after the bombing. Credit: PA

The pain in Omagh was palpable.

I remember a tearful DUP councillor, Oliver Gibson, appearing before the cameras to say he knew every local person killed by their first name.

Many of the dead were far from being DUP supporters, but not for a second did I doubt what Gibson claimed. It was typically Omagh.

It was very important to me to convey to a largely English ITV audience that this attack was an abomination, as opposed to just a really bad version of what had gone before.

Scenes of destruction following the blast. Credit: PA

This was the summer of 1998, several months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

The violence, the killing and suffering, were supposed to be over.

And I wanted to convey how special Omagh was - a generous unburdened place that had always risen above the depths plumbed elsewhere.

This was an attack that could have claimed anyone – a fact borne out by the cross-community and international death toll.

Most atrocities in Northern Ireland were inflicted by one side or the other, on one side or the other.

This was everyone’s loss on a never-before-seen scale.

A memorial in Omagh. Credit: ITV News

ITN camera operators are good and the pictures recorded by my colleagues were exceptional.

Local people were kneeling, laying flowers, praying and crying as close as they could get to the bomb site.

The random nature of the atrocity - the “there but for the grace of God or good fortune go I” aspect to the awful slaughter were uppermost in my mind.

It’s twenty years but the script I easily remember: “All those who could so easily have been here, but were not, knew someone who was.”

At the time of Omagh, the Good Friday Agreement was struggling to deliver.

Politics had become bogged down.

Northern Ireland got a dreadful reminder of what it thought it had left behind.

The trauma was everyone's, a uniquely deadly and cross-community slaughter.

It would be wrong to say that anything good could ever come from such a dreadful occurrence, but lessons can be cruel.

The aftermath of the blast. Credit: ITV News

Northern Ireland learned from the Omagh bomb - the most bloody, the most random and the most remembered of them all.

To be back in Omagh this week has been wonderful.

What happened here twenty-years-ago can never be forgotten.

But Omagh remains the charming dignified town I remember.

In the circumstances that is some achievement.