Magazine article The Spectator

The Sin of Omagh

Magazine article The Spectator

The Sin of Omagh

Article excerpt

In 1972, British troops opened fire on demonstrators in Londonderry, killing 13. It was a shocking and disgraceful episode, for which the British government obviously bore responsibility in the ultimate sense, even if it had not ordered or wanted the killings. An inquiry took place soon afterwards under Lord Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice, which was regarded by Irish nationalists as a whitewash. So it was. With their usual capacity to look for conspiracy theories, nationalists have never grasped the simple and painful truth, that Widgery was losing his reason by the time of the inquiry, a once fine mind enfeebled by illness. Now a new inquiry into `Bloody Sunday' is under way at huge expense.

In 1998, a bomb exploded in Omagh, killing 29. It was the largest single act of murder in the history of the Troubles. The inquest into the killings opened belatedly this week, but there is a general, if mostly unspoken, acknowledgment that even if the perpetrators are ever identified, they will never be brought to justice. Reopening the Londonderry case while silently closing the Omagh case are both different aspects of what John Bruton, the last Irish prime minister, in a moment of eloquent exasperation called `the f-ing peace process'.

We support the peace process and endorse the Belfast Agreement reached a few months before the Omagh bombing. But looking at the two must give pause to anyone who wants a just peace in Northern Ireland. `Compare and contrast': the comparison between the two says a great deal about what has happened in the province, and to constitutional government in the British Isles in consequence of the attempt to resolve the conflict.

Apologists for the IRA and Sinn Fein in the Dublin press, of whom there are not a few, have been explaining the ethical basis of the settlement, as they see it. There is an absolute moral equivalence between republicans and the British government; the IRA has been waging a legitimate war of liberation. It is on that understanding that Sinn Fein now participates in government in Northern Ireland. There were excesses on both sides, these republican propagandists say - and the British security forces' excesses were the more reprehensible. In this analysis, Bloody Sunday in Londonderry was morally worse than August 1998 in Omagh.

There is another way of looking at it. In constitutional countries, the state itself is supposed to enjoy a monopoly of lawful violence. It is regrettable when a policeman shoots a criminal (and even in England, one might add, the police have become trigger-happy) but it is not inherently criminal in the way it is when a miscreant shoots a policeman. …

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