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A bad summer in Omagh and Ballymoney

...but a better one for those running the Irish peace process, explains Kevin Rooney

This summer in Ireland, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Irish premier Bertie Ahern have turned tragedy into triumph by ensuring that the killings in Omagh and Ballymoney further consolidate their hold over the peace process.

The Omagh bomb planted by the Real IRA in August killed 29 people and injured 280 more. As everybody from the Ulster Unionists to Sinn Fein moved to condemn the bombing, a new line of demarcation was drawn between the politics of peace and the politics of extremism. After Omagh, those from the nationalist community who expressed any reservations at all about the direction of the peace process could automatically be discredited by association with the bombers, effectively branded as pro-violence and anti-peace.

One month before, a similar reaction to violence had acted to isolate the critics of the peace process on the Unionist side. The deaths of three young Catholic children in Ballymoney, county Antrim, after a firebomb attack by loyalists, provoked a massive reaction against the Orange Order. A highly orchestrated campaign by the media and politicians successfully linked the murders to the anti-peace process protest at Drumcree. Within days the Drumcree protest whittled away, as thousands of bewildered Orangemen caved in to a mood labelling them the accomplices of childkillers.

In Ireland, Britain and the USA the official peace process has now become synonymous with peace itself. To question the process at all is assumed to mean casting your vote in favour of sectarian violence and terror. In fact, you do not need to have any sympathy with the Real IRA bombers or the loyalist arsonists in order to question the underlying aims and consequences of the process being orchestrated by the authorities in Washington, London and Dublin. But by recasting the peace process itself as the ultimate goal, and counterposing it to the terrible events in Omagh and Ballymoney, the brokers of the process have ensured that any thin voices of dissent which remain are immediately discredited.

The tragedy is that something like Omagh is actually linked to the peace process and the instability it creates. Under the artificial consensus imposed through the peace process, peace in Ireland is now associated with compromise and the need to forge an accommodation between the two traditions of Unionism and nationalism. Clearly any agreement between those who want a united Ireland and those who want continued British rule can only come about when they have abandoned their goals, and so both sides have had to drop their principles and play down differences.

As a result of this, Unionists or republicans who claim to uphold their traditional principles have been left isolated and powerless. Lacking a political alternative or popular support, they have lashed out against the peace process in nihilistic gestures such as Omagh. Just as bombs and shootings have become part and parcel of the seemingly endless peace processes in South Africa and the Middle East, so they are intimately bound up with the process in Ireland.

But these bombs and killings have not undermined the peace process, as many claimed Omagh would. In fact they have helped to shore up the artificial consensus. When Unionists and nationalists alike occupy the middle ground, and dissent seems to be expressed only through isolated acts of violence, all criticism of the peace process comes to be understood as at least condoning the bombings and burnings.

For example, within hours of the Omagh bomb politicians and the media had named Bernadette Sands-McKevitt and her partner Michael McKevitt as key suspects. The sister of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Sands-McKevitt is the public face of the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, a group of dissident republicans opposed to Sinn Fein's role in the peace process. After Omagh, that was enough to make her guilty in most people's eyes. She issued a statement denying any involvement in the bombing and opposing any bombing campaign, and her accusers produced no evidence to the contrary. But on the wave of post-Omagh bitterness directed against any dissenters, Sands-McKevitt and her children were driven from their home anyway.

The process of discrediting all opposition was also evident in the debate about introducing new anti-terrorism legislation after Omagh. The far-reaching new laws, which even Tony Blair conceded were 'draconian', were not needed to convict the few individuals responsible for the bomb. Nor were they needed to wage an ongoing war against the Real IRA, which collapsed in the face of the wave of public outrage that was whipped up post-Omagh. The legislation was less a practical measure than a symbolic gesture, drawing a line that marks out all potential opponents of the peace process as dangerous outlaws who may need to be dealt with through extraordinary measures.

The conflation of all opposition to the peace process with the Omagh bombers threatens to close down the space for any genuine political debate on Ireland's future. That is another tragedy.

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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