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18 August 1998

Shattered Peace?

David Nolan explains what the Omagh tragedy means for the peace process

Following the explosion in the Northern Irish town of Omagh which killed 28 people and injured 280 more, many expressed concern that the bomb might signal the end of the peace process. They need not have worried.

The Omagh bomb is best understood both as a product of the peace process, and as something which has also acted to strengthen it.

The bomb itself was a side effect of the artificial consensus imposed through the peace process. Under the direction of the British and US governments, anybody in Northern Ireland who wishes to take part in the peace process, whether nationalist or Unionist, has had to drop their political principles, keep quiet about their differences, and move onto the ever-widening middle ground. Those - both republican and loyalist - opposed to this process have been left isolated and politically impotent. With little popular support or influence, and no political alternative to offer, they are reduced to lashing out against the peace process.

The Omagh bombing was the nihilistic response to the peace process of just such an isolated minority. In this sense it is a product of the same process which led to the murder of three young brothers in a sectarian firebomb attack by loyalists on their home in Ballymoney, county Antrim in July.

Other international examples show that these sorts of tragedies are part and parcel of peace processes the world over. In South Africa and especially the Middle East there have been a number of bombs and shootings which, it was claimed, threatened the peace process. Yet the peace processes have continued regardless. Indeed these events strengthen the hand of those parties running the peace process - in this case the British and US governments.

In military terms, splinter groups of the kind blamed for the Omagh bombing pose no threat. There is nothing to compare them with the organised republican opposition of ten years and more ago. The British and Irish governments have already indicated how easy they think it will be to pick up those responsible.

In political terms, meanwhile, the supporters of the Anglo-American peace process actually benefit from the Omagh bomb. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Irish premier Bertie Ahern have used it to draw a new line of demarcation, between the politics of peace and the politics of extremism. Anybody who expresses reservations about the peace process can now be automatically discredited by association and allied with the perpetrators of the bombs in Omagh and Ballymoney. Far from being damaged, the artificial consensus underpinning the peace process will be reinforced by that kind of pressure.

David Trimble, the Northern Ireland assembly's first minister, used the bombing to strengthen his hand with dissident Unionists. Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness used the bomb to condemn their opponents in republican splinter groups. It seems that everybody won, apart from the dead and their families, the latest casualties of the peace process.

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