UK – ‘The Bomb hit right where it was placed: at Omagh’s heart’ (Guardian, 1998)

By Louise Kelly (2015)

Summary

This Guardian article was published on the 17th August 1998, entitled ‘The Bomb hit right where it was placed: at Omagh’s heart’. The article describes the events of the 17th August 1998 where a car bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, Northern Ireland, killing 29 civilians. This act of political violence was committed by the “real” Irish Republican Army (rIRA). The rIRA are a republican dissident group who splintered from the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in 1997 when it became clear that the PIRA were taking part in negotiations and peace talks to try to come to a compromise to end the violence. The article describes the aftermath of the bomb in great detail and places emphasis on reporting the injustice of the bomb targeting and killing innocent people. The author, Jonathon Freedland, used very descriptive and highly emotive language. For example, when reporting a survivor’s account he described the burst water main as ‘unleashing rivers of blood; not as metaphor, but as fact’. The Guardian is a British newspaper and so the bomb did not directly affect the readers. However, Freedland draws on similarities between this incident and dissident republican attacks that took place in England, such as the Guildford and Brighton bombings. As a result the readers feel more sympathy for the people of Omagh.

In this essay, I will briefly establish the reasons why this incident falls comfortably within the parameters of the definition of terrorism. I will then look at the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the misconception that the two opposition groups are motivated by religion. Leading on from this, I will use Crenshaw’s model to explore the causes of the Omagh bomb. I will then examine the responses from the British government and the leaders of Sinn Fein. Finally, I will look at how effective these responses were and how likely an attack of this magnitude is to happen again in Northern Ireland.

Analysis

Defining Terrorism

Defining terrorism brings many problems and contentions. It is such a widely used word and yet there is no one definition that is universally accepted and used (Schmidt 20014: 377). For example, even within a single country there are many definitions used, the US Department of Defence, the FBI and the State Department all have different definitions of terrorism. Schmidt (2004:379) stresses the importance in developing a concise definition because he argues that not doing so may lead to difficulties involving double standards through a difference of interpretation. He further argues that this lack of universal definition would have implications on developing a cohesive and unified counter terrorism strategy (Schmidt 2004:379).

Therefore, for the purposes of a unified discussion in this essay, I am going to use an adaption of the State Department’s definition which defines terrorism as ‘Premeditated, politically or socially motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets, usually intended to influence an audience’. When applying this definition to the Omagh bombing, it is clear that the political motive was that the rIRA were aggrieved with the on-going peace process in Northern Ireland and wanted to disrupt this process. In addition, the bomb was set off on a busy Saturday in the centre of Omagh town and killed 29 people, all civilians (non-combatant targets). Finally, Dingley (2001: 459) argued that the rIRA wanted to evoke fear between the two communities that had began to recede as the peace process had developed, this can be seen as ‘intending to influence an audience’. All of the above points show that the Omagh bombing should be classed as an act of terrorism.

The nature and type of terrorism

The nature of the Northern Ireland conflict can sometimes be wrongly assumed as a conflict that is based on religion due to the fact that both sides ‘characteristically identify with different religions’ (Barnes 2005:59). The two religions being, Catholicism and Protestantism and it is on this ‘basis that the communities are segregated which leads to ignorance and stereotyping of the other’ (Whyte 1991:51). However, when examining the key issues that the two sides are contesting, it can be seen that they are not religious issues. Catholic identity is seen as very much intertwined with Irish nationalism and the same can be said of Protestant identity with British unionism. Therefore, the real fundamental issue of the conflict is based on who has the right to rule in Northern Ireland, the Irish or the British. John Whyte (1991:67) supports this view and argues that the question of national identity and sovereignty is the most significant issue. Consequently, this affects other key areas of contention such as ‘party preference, reaction to proposals of peace agreements and reactions to issues in law, order and security’ (Whyte 1991: 67). Having established that the nature of the conflict is a matter of sovereignty and power, an examination can be performed on the type of terrorism that the Omagh bombing was.

As previously discussed, the Omagh bombing was committed by the rIRA, a republican dissident organisation. The rIRA formed as a splinter group from the PIRA because they saw the ongoing peace process as a compromise of the ultimate goal, to create a United Ireland (Dingley 2001: 453). Therefore, according to Gus Martin’s categories of terrorism (2013:136), the Omagh bombing can be categorised as Nationalist dissident terrorism. Martin (2013:136) defines Nationalist dissidents as ‘champions of the national aspirations of groups of people who are distinguished by their cultural, religious, ethnic or racial heritage’. The rIRA see themselves as the ‘real embodiment of the IRA’ (Dingley 2001:453) and can be seen to be ‘championing the aspirations’ (Martin 2013:136) of the nationalists who want to unite Northern Ireland with The Republic of Ireland.

Causes of the Omagh bombing using Crenshaw’s model of terrorism and political violence as a rational action

Freedland’s article does not explore possible causes of the Omagh bomb, only discussing the peace process when stipulating what the responses of the public and government would be. As identified above, a significant motive of the rIRA was in opposition to the peace process. However, in this section of the essay, using Crenshaw’s model of terrorism and political violence (TPV) as a rational action, I will investigate the deeper causes of the terrorism committed by the rIRA.

Crenshaw (1981: 380) argues that ‘terrorism is a form of political behaviour from the deliberate choice of a basically rational actor’ and because of this a number of variables and conditions need to be explored to establish the causes of an act of terrorism. According to Crenshaw (1981: 380), the likelihood of terrorism occurring depends on three factors, firstly, ‘situational variables’ that effect the environment in which the terrorists have evolved out of. Secondly, that terrorism is a ‘politically useful means to oppose a government’ (Crenshaw 1981: 385), and lastly that the individuals involved have come to the logical conclusion that this tactic is a rational option.

The situational variables are divided into two factors, ‘preconditions…and precipitants’ (Crenshaw 1981:381). The preconditions of TPV are the long-term environments, which may influence the creation and actions of a terrorist group. When assessing the preconditions of the Omagh bombing, a number of permissive factors can be seen. Firstly, the conflict in Northern Ireland had been going on for many years and so the rIRA were able to develop in an environment where there was a ‘social habit and historical tradition’ (Crenshaw 1981:382) of opposing the British government through violence. Another of Crenshaw’s (1981: 382) factors that was present in the case of the Omagh bombing is ‘urbanisation’. The rIRA targeted Omagh on a busy Saturday because it would have a much larger impact than placing the bomb in a rural area.

Crenshaw (1981: 384) discusses the ‘concept of a precipitating event that immediately precedes outbreaks of terrorism’. She (1981: 384) describes a precipitator as being an excessive use of violence that causes retaliation in the form of terrorism. In the terms of Crenshaw’s description, it can be determined that there was not a precipitator for the Omagh bombing. However, in my view, a precipitator does not have to be an action of excessive violence that causes retaliation. It can be a nonviolent act or sequence of events that directly leads to the affected group employing terrorism as a tactic. In the case of the Omagh bombing then the precipitator can be seen as the PIRA and Sinn Fein’s involvement in the peace process and in particular, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement only three months before the bombing.

The second of Crenshaw’s (1981:285) factors is that ‘terrorism depends on rational political choice’. In the case of Omagh, the rIRA’s use of terrorist tactics can be seen as a ‘rational choice’ because, had they been successful in their aims, they would have disrupted the peace process. Dingley (2001: 458) argues that the rIRA were beginning to become increasingly popular and were gaining increasing numbers of recruits. Therefore, the bombing of Omagh could be seen as a rational choice because it would have undermined, and possibly disrupted, the peace process. It would also be acting as a ‘catalyst for recruitment’ (Dingley 2001:458) by reigniting the republican cause.

The last of Crenshaw’s factors is individual motivations. Crenshaw (1981:390) argues that there is evidence that terrorists often have ‘political experience in non-violent opposition to the state’. This can only be partially applied to the rIRA because although many members had experience in political groups, many members of the rIRA defected from the PIRA and therefore came from violent opposition groups.

Therefore, when using Crenshaw’s model to assess the causes of the Omagh bomb, it can be seen that the rIRA employed terrorist tactic through a measured and rational choice. There were preconditions to the event, owing to the historical conflict creating a tradition of violence against the state, and an increase in urbanisation creating a larger available audience. Although, the precipitator of the Omagh bomb was not entirely in line with Crenshaw’s model, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was an event that directly led the rIRA to react with the bombing. Furthermore, there was a rational thought process when considering the strategy of the rIRA as they were trying to disrupt the peace process. Lastly, although Crenshaw’s factor of individual motivation does not entirely fit the case of Omagh, it can be seen that many of the members came from PIRA background and there was a definite trend of experienced activists defecting into the rIRA ranks.

Responses in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb

In the immediate aftermath of the Omagh bombing, there was universal condemnation of the act. Most surprising of these was the reaction of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein. Within hours he had condemned ‘the act without any equivocation’ (BBC 1998). This was particularly significant because never before had Adams publicly refuted a republican attack. This statement came from Adams because of the sheer magnitude of violence and the indiscriminate nature of the bomb. Furthermore, Mullin (1998) argues that it can be seen as an important moment in the shift away from the arms struggle for republicans in Northern Ireland with the acceptance that the peace agreement was the way to move forward.

This condemnation from Gerry Adams and other leading republicans such as Martin McGuiness, who described the event as an ‘appalling act…designed to wreck the peace process’ (CNN 1998), show that the rIRA fundamentally failed in their aims. As previously discussed, the rIRA had hoped to gain support within the republican community and intensify a drive for recruitment (Dingley 2001:458). However, the ‘sheer scale of the horror… isolated the dissidents even more than before within their community’ (Irish Times 1998). The Omagh bombing did not just alienate the rIRA from the general public but also, those that believed the war could not be won by peaceful means.

Tony Blair (Sunday Times 1998), the Prime Minister of The United Kingdom at the time of the attack, delivered a similarly condemning statement in the days following the attack describing it as a ‘terrible, terrible event’. His statement, however, put a strong emphasis on the fact that the perpetrators ‘will not win, that they won’t succeed and that they are not going to destroy the chance of a decent future for people in Northern Ireland’ (Sunday Times 1998). As can be seen here, almost immediately after the attack, there was an importance stressed on preserving the progress that had already been made on the peace process and it’s continuation. A further response by the British Government was the swift implementation of legislation change. This came in the form of amendments to the Offences against the State Acts, 1935-85. Key changes included the ability to hold someone in police custody accused of acts against the state for 72 hours, instead of 48 hours (The Irish Times 1998). Also, the legislation change created a number of offences such as ‘possessing items for purposes connected with specified firearms or explosives offenses’ and ‘directing an unlawful organisation’ (The Irish Times 1998). These changes were made with the aim of ‘dealing decisively with those who organised and carried out the merciless attack in Omagh’ (Government statement, Irish Times 1998).

How successful have these responses been and is another attack of this magnitude likely?

When accessing the success of the responses from the British Government, two issues need to be explored. Firstly, the extent to which the aims of the legislation changes put in to place, were achieved and secondly, whether an attack of this magnitude is likely to happen again.

As already mentioned, the aim of the legislation was to support the Northern Irish police when investigating and convicting those responsible for the Omagh bombing. In this regard, the legislation was not successful. Patrick Sawer and David Barrett (2014) detail the long process that the families of victims have been enduring to get justice. A month after the bombing, 12 men were arrested; however, all were released without trail. In 2002 one man was sentenced to 14 years in prison, which was overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2005. More recently, the victims have pursued civil action against those involved and although they were able to successfully sue those involved, it was not due to the legislation put into place to ‘deal decisively’ with the perpetrators. Smith (2011: 284) argues that not only did the legislative response of the British government fail, but that there was ‘an absence of political will on the part of both the British and Irish governments’ and this ultimately led to the failure of convictions and justice.

Although, there has not been justice through convictions, Michael Foley and John O’Farrell (1998) argue that the Omagh bombing has ‘forced the pace of change’. The increased speed in which negotiations over establishing institutions that equally protected the people of Northern Ireland happened created a more stable country in the aftermath of the bomb.

An act of terrorism of such magnitude has not occurred in Northern Ireland since the Omagh bombing in 1998, however, that does not mean the conflict has been fully resolved in Northern Ireland. Tensions continue to bubble under the surface. John Horgan and John Morrison (2011: 647) argue that violence levels substantially decreased in the immediate aftermath of the Omagh bomb with increased counter terrorism strategies. However, Horgan and Morrison (2011:647) also maintain that since then there has been an increase in dissident violence, with peaks of violence in 2007 and 2010. This continued violence can be attributed to segregation still being a key issue within Northern Ireland. There are almost 100 physical barriers between the Nationalist and Unionist communities. In addition to the physical barriers, there are social segregations such as in housing and education, for example, 90% of Northern Irish children attend a mainly Catholic or mainly Protestant school (Economist 2015). Murtagh and Shirlow (2006:17) claim that this segregation leads to ‘continual reproduction of violence between segregated places’. Without the integration of the communities, the fear of prolonged violence and the reoccurrence of an act such as Omagh, is still present.

Conclusion

Sensationalism is a popular tone for newspaper articles as it draws in readers through intrigue and dramatisations of the event that is reported. Usually, this is not useful for readers because key facts and issues are often omitted. However, in Freedland’s article there is some use for his sensationalised tone due to the fact it shows people the risks of regressing back into the violence seen previously to the Good Friday Agreement.

Although the sensationalised nature of the article is useful to illustrate what the breakdown of the peace process could lead to, it does omit key issues that would be useful for the reader to fully understand the Omagh bombing as an act of terrorism. In my analysis of this act, I have explored these key issues that the article does not include. Using Crenshaw’s model, I have found that there were preconditions to the event, such as, the historical context of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the social habit of conflict. There was also a precipitant in the form of the singing of the Good Friday Agreement a few months before the attack. Although this is not a physical act, as Crenshaw describes a precipitant to be, it can be seen to directly cause the bombing. These two aspects of Crenshaw’s model and the fact that many members of the rIRA had previous political experience with the PIRA, can be seen as causes of the Omagh bombing.

When assessing the responses of both the British government and Sinn Fein, there was universal condemnation of the act, which led to the isolation and ceasefire of the rIRA. Finally, the emergency legislation and longer term social reform has had varied success rates. Both physical and social segregation remain a key issue in Northern Irish politics and the tensions between communities continue to cause some violence.

 

Bibliography

Adams’s condemnation further isolates dissidents, The Irish Times, 17 August 1998 URL: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/adams-s-condemnation-further-isolates-dissidents-1.183686 [30 November 2015]

Adams Condemnation, BBC, 16 August 1998 URL:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/northern_ireland/latest_news/151949.stm [1 December 2015]

Barnes, Philip. L. (2005) ‘ Was the Northern Ireland Conflict Religious?’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, vol. 20, no.1, pp. 55- 69

Crenshaw, M. (1981) ‘The Causes of Terrorism’, Comparative Politics, vol. 13, no.4, pp. 379-399

Dingley, J. (2001) ‘The Bombing of Omagh, 15 August 1998: The Bombers, Their Tactics, Strategy, and Purpose Behind the Incident’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 451-465

Farrell, J, Foley, M. (1998) ‘Bordering on Peace’, Index on Censorship, vol. 27, no. 5, pp. 127-129

Freedland, J. ‘The Bomb hit right where it was placed: Omagh’s heart’, The Guardian, 17 August 1998 URL:http://search.proquest.com/hnpguardianobserver/docview/188187378/801CA361FF0144B8PQ/1?accountid=12152 [20 November 2015]

Government statement announces its response to Omagh, The Irish Times, 20 August 1998 URL: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/government-statement-announces-its-response-to-omagh-1.184709 [1 December 2015]

Horgan. J, Morrison, J.F. (2011) ‘Here to Stay? The Rising Threat of Violent Dissident Republicanism in Northern Ireland’, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 642-669

Martin, G. (2013) Understanding Terrorism, California: SAGE Publications

Mullin, J. ‘Sinn Fein anger marks shift on arms: John Mullin on what is signified by the party’s use of a word it had avoided for 30 years’, The Guardian, 19 August 1998 URL:http://search.proquest.com/hnpguardianobserver/docview/188176910/B5ACD2A8EDB34155PQ/5?accountid=12152 [1 December 2015]

Murtagh, B, Shirlow, P. (2006) Belfast: Segregation, Violence and the City, Dublin: Pluto Press

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Rearguard action, Economist, 31 January 2015 URL: http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21641247-religious-schools-will-endure-ulster-academic-selection-may-not-rearguard-action [ 30 November 2015]

Sawer, P, Barrett, D. ‘ Omagh bombing: families’ long fight for justice goes on’, The Telegraph, 20 April 2014 URL:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/northernireland/10776177/Omagh-bombing-families-long-fight-for-justice-goes-on.html [ 30 November 2015]

Schmid, A. (2004) ‘Terrorism – The Definitional Problem’, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 375-419

Smith, M.L.R. (2011) ‘The Real Dissidents: The People Who Didn’t Shut-Up and Go Away’, Democracy and Security, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 271-288

Words of condemnation, The Sunday Times, 16 August 1998 URL: http://find.galegroup.com/stha/newspaperRetrieve.do?sgHitCountType=None&sort=DateAscend&tabID=T003&prodId=STHA&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchId=R1&searchType=BasicSearchForm&currentPosition=3&qrySerId=Locale%28en%2C%2C%29%3AFQE%3D%28tx%2CNone%2C15%29blair+and+omagh%3AAnd%3ALQE%3D%28da%2CNone%2C12%29%3E+08%2F15%2F1998%24&retrieveFormat=MULTIPAGE_DOCUMENT&userGroupName=loughuni&inPS=true&contentSet=LTO&&docId=&docLevel=FASCIMILE&workId=&relevancePageBatch=FP1802601606&contentSet=STHA&callistoContentSet=STHA&docPage=article&hilite=y

Whyte, J. (1990) Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press

 

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One thought on “UK – ‘The Bomb hit right where it was placed: at Omagh’s heart’ (Guardian, 1998)

  1. This is an excellent analysis: well researched, well written, and demonstrating very good understanding of the case study, very good application of scholarly work to the case study, and very good critical thinking.

    At the same time, perhaps the essay could have devoted a bit of space to discussing the way in which it seems the attack was not executed as originally planned, resulting in more casualties than perhaps intended, which in turn perhaps swayed the public mood more decisively against the attackers. Perhaps a bit more could have also been said about the alleged perpetrators.

    Moreover, some bibliography information seems to be missing from the main text in a few instances. There are also a few minor spelling and grammatical infelicities – though very minor.

    That said, overall, this is an excellent analysis.

    Like

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