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Statement concerning recent suggestions regarding events surrounding the Omagh Bombing


A number of suggestions and allegations have been made in one of the weekend papers and also in a recent television programme concerning events surrounding the Omagh bombing. 

In the course of these presentations two very different allegations have become intermingled.  One allegation is that the Government, either directly or through intermediaries, had contact with the Real IRA, either before or after the Omagh bombing, about the possibility of securing a Real IRA ceasefire. 

The second allegation is that, not only did some contact take place, but some sort of  secret deal was done with the Real IRA in order to bring that organisation on ceasefire. 

These are two very different allegations, in that the second suggests that the Government engaged in wrongful and indefensible behaviour by reaching a secret or underhand deal.  As this is the really serious allegation, I want to address it straight away by repeating, once again, that  

The allegation is as outrageous as it is deeply offensive.  The evidence is entirely to the contrary. 

It is, for example, a fact that the only person convicted in connection with Omagh was in this jurisdiction.  It is also a fact that no fewer than 41 Real IRA prisoners are incarcerated in Portlaoise prison of whom 34 are convicted of various crimes.  This can hardly be said to amount to evidence of a go-soft deal with the Real IRA.  The fact is that we have not just talked tough since Omagh. We have been tough. 

It is, also, a matter of fact that, in the immediate aftermath of the Omagh bombing, the Government drew up what was recognised both inside and outside this House as draconian legislation, which was passed by the Oireachtas on 3 September 1998. 

I issued a public ultimatum at that time to the Real IRA to declare a permanent ceasefire and to disband.  In my statement to the Dáil on 2 September I said the Real IRA could not hope to take on the people of Ireland and win.  I believe that this message was getting through loud and clear to the Real IRA and that the weight of public opinion and outrage was beginning to shake them off their terror strategy. 

The ceasefire announcement on 7 September had nothing to do with anything on offer from the Government to the Real IRA.  Because there was nothing on offer, either then or before that time or at any time since.  The most probable reason for the Real IRA announcement - subsequently dishonoured, as we all know - was that they found themselves facing the weight of public odium and Government determination and they simply had no place else to go. 

Apart from the media coverage in relation to Omagh in recent times, various other allegations in relation to the Omagh bombing have also been conveyed to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman by a serving member of the Garda Síochána, currently on suspension from duty.  These allegations have been the subject of a detailed enquiry by a three man team set up by the former Minister for Justice, John ODonoghue.  I understand that this team will report within weeks and that Minister Michael McDowell will make a statement very soon on their findings. 

There is nothing wrong with the situation where a Government - any Government - receives communications or information either directly or indirectly from representatives of organisations, who may be contemplating a peace strategy.  If it were wrong for Governments even to countenance such communications, there would be very little prospect of securing peace and it is highly unlikely that there would have been any peace process, here, had Governments taken that position down the years.  Moreover, the Government has a duty, in the interest of public safety, to keep themselves informed of the plans and intentions of such organisations, mainly through their security forces, but on occasion through information coming via other intermediaries, who may include churchmen and community leaders in contact with me or my office. 

In the case of the Real IRA, there was no contact with any member of the Government.  However, I can confirm that some weeks before Omagh, efforts were made by my then special advisor, Dr. Martin Mansergh, now Senator Mansergh, in his contacts with the 32 County Sovereignty Committee to persuade them to use their good offices to bring the Real IRA campaign to an end.  Unfortunately, these efforts failed. 

In the lead up to the Real IRA ceasefire in September 1998, which is the primary focus of much of the recent coverage, it is important, however, to stress that there was no initiative for contact coming from my special advisor.  It was not the case, as alleged by the Sunday Business Post that Dr. Mansergh organised secret talks about a ceasefire. 

It is my understanding that Fr. Alex Reid who had already been instrumental in helping to bring about the two IRA ceasefires, received an approach after the Omagh bombing from some of those associated with the Real IRA campaign.  At subsequent meetings he took the opportunity to impress on them the need to stop, not least from their own point of view, and he reported on some of these observations to my special advisor and took advice from him.  In the aftermath of Omagh, the key message from here could not have been clearer. It was that the activity of the Real IRA must stop and that the atrocity which Omagh and its people suffered must never happen again. 

I am entirely satisfied that Fr. Reid in all his contact, emphasised that, regardless of a ceasefire, the Omagh bombers would be pursued and that the law would also take its course in relation to all other crimes committed before a ceasefire.  No one could be in any doubt about this.  I said at the time that the Real IRA ceasefire would not affect the unrelenting determination of the two Governments to pursue the perpetrators of Omagh and bring them to justice.  I believe that the efforts we have pursued since then has amply confirmed that we meant exactly what we said. 

There are just two other points I wish to make.  The first has to do with suggestions to the effect that the Gardaí would be instructed or asked to go easy on Real IRA surveillance in the event of a ceasefire by that organisation. I want to make it clear that there is no substance to this. 

Any security consequences arising from the Real IRA ceasefire would have been a matter exclusively for the Garda Síochána.  The level of surveillance and the form that it may take is entirely an operational Garda matter to be decided upon by them, having regard to the level of threat at any given point of time.  It could, of course, be expected - and would not be unreasonable to speculate - that, if a permanent ceasefire were declared, and maintained, the necessity for intensive surveillance would probably reduce also as a natural outcome of the reduced threat.  But it remains the position that the level of surveillance to be applied at any time is an operational matter for the Garda authorities and for them alone.  There was no question at any time of instructing or promising to instruct the Gardaí to do other than conduct police operations as they judged right and appropriate in the circumstances facing them. 

In this connection I think its right to recognise that the Gardaí have done an outstanding job, both in ensuring that there is no repetition of the Omagh bombing, and in pursuing those involved in Real IRA activities and this is something that has been recognised on both sides of the border and the Irish sea. 

Finally I should make the point - in case somebody later seeks to portray it as a new revelation - that there is and has been ongoing contact with the Real IRA prisoners in Portlaoise and with members of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee representing prisoner interests.   The Department of Justice has, down the years, always maintained contact with paramilitary prisoner representatives inside and outside the prison about matters bearing on their prison conditions. 

I believe that the Governments handling of the aftermath of the Omagh atrocity is entirely beyond reproach.  It is a matter of regret that the relatives of the Omagh victims should be exposed to unfounded speculation and allegations in that regard.  They have suffered enough and they are entitled to the assurance that nothing done in this jurisdiction in the aftermath of the atrocity was intended to do other than to bring to justice those responsible for the bombing and to stop a similar outrage occurring in the future. 

It is also a matter of regret that two people who have played a central role in brokering peace on this island, Dr. Martin Mansergh and Fr. Alex Reid should now find themselves the subject of hurtful innuendo concerning their role in the period following the Omagh outrage.   They have both acted at all times with commitment, honour and propriety in their efforts to contribute towards peace. 

I hope that we can reach a point where we have a universal ceasefire and abandonment of military means and when the peoples of these islands can have full confidence that the atrocities of the past will never again occur.