Speech by Minister Brian Cowen, Private Members' motion on Omagh bombing
It is over two years since the Real IRA's bomb devastated the centre of Omagh. Two years during which the families of the victims and those who were injured have had to live with the consequences of mass murder. Two years during which, as people rightly point out, the perpetrators, regrettably, have been at large.
But, in debating this motion here today, this House is sending a strong message to the killers. It is our firm will that they be tracked down - however long it takes. It is our firm intention that they will be brought to justice in a court of law and that they will be held to account and, upon establishing their guilt, locked away for a very long time. We owe this not only to the people of Omagh, but to all of the people of Ireland.
And, as we pursue the bombers, let us never for a moment lose sight of exactly what they did.
Earlier this month, Belfast Coroner, John Leckey, completed his inquest into the deaths resulting from the bomb. Over four distressing weeks we heard evidence of the most harrowing and difficult kind. We heard how a car was packed with explosives and driven to a busy shopping street by those too callous to care about the entirely foreseeable consequences of what they did. We heard of how the timer, which could have allowed two hours to clear the streets, was set for a mere half an hour. Of how the bombers thought enough about their own safety to incorporate a device to protect themselves against a premature detonation.
We heard of the carnage and confusion in the aftermath of the explosion. Of the extraordinary courage and heroism of the RUC officers and medical teams who sought desperately to save injured casualties or to counsel those who searched for their loved ones. The circumstances of each death were chillingly laid before us and we were reminded that for every victim killed, countless lives were devastated. That while the town of Omagh is slowly recovering and rebuilding, for many the scars of that day will simply never heal.
And I know that some questioned the need for the inquest to relive the horror in such grim detail, particularly as it could not hold those responsible to account.
But, I fully share Coroner Leckey's refusal to sanitise or dilute what the Real IRA did in Omagh. As he said, “if you park a car containing up to 200kg of explosive in a busy shopping street, set a timer and walk away, you do not walk away from responsibility for any resultant carnage”.
And, as he also said, the conclusion of the inquest represents the closing of a chapter, not the closing of the book.
All of those who died were innocent victims, their deaths an affront to decency and democracy, bringing nothing but shame and disgrace on those responsible and on any cause they claim to represent. We are fully committed to bringing them to justice.
With the support of all sides of the House, we introduced new legislation to give the Gardaí the extra powers they needed. And, working in the closest possible cooperation with their RUC counterparts, the Gardaí have been professional, painstaking and thorough in their work - we would have expected no less. But they have gone well beyond that. They have carried out their work with a conviction and with a determination to bring it to a successful conclusion.
I strongly commend them for those efforts and for the progress they have made so far. And let me also be completely clear, this Government will never, ever allow political considerations of any type to interfere with the course of justice.
I fully endorse the terms of the resolution before us which calls on any members of the public who are in a position to assist the police in their on-going enquiries to bring forward information that may lead to the apprehension of those responsible. It is in the interest of all of us.
Because in bombing Omagh, and in their other violent acts, the so-called Real IRA has pitted itself against the will of the Irish people. The Omagh bombers and their supporters regard themselves as a higher authority than the Irish people themselves. They believe their stream of politics to be pure and untainted by compromise, but it is poisoned by hatred. Nothing can flow from it but death and destruction.
The people of Ireland, North and South, have chosen another course. They are prepared to embrace change. To move forward. To leave behind the ancient shibboleths and old certainties.
The people of Ireland support the Good Friday Agreement. They want it to succeed. They know that it involves compromise - but they also know that compromise is not a bad word, that it is not a defeat, but a victory for us all. Without compromise, we could not have achieved the Agreement. Without it we will not see the Agreement fully implemented.
The Real IRA and their supporters know that they have no alternative to offer but mindless violence. They know that there can be no justification for the murder and wounding of their fellow Irish people. They defy the settled will of the people, North and South, who in the referendums in 1998 voted together for the first time since 1918. Defeated in the ballot box, they seek to bend the people to their will through use of force.
But let me state plainly and clearly, the Government will use every tool at our disposal to thwart their efforts. The bombers will not be the judges or arbiters of our future. And they should be aware that all sides of the House are united in this view. The more they seek to bring the Agreement down, the more committed and determined we will be to see it implemented in full.
Because the Agreement is the only way forward. It is an honourable and balanced accommodation between the differing political identities and aspirations on this island.
As the Taoiseach said at the weekend, the principle of consent which lies at its heart is both a safeguard and an incentive. It ensures that there can be no constitutional change in constitutional status unless it is the wish of a majority of the people. But it also leaves it open to all of us to seek to bring about change by agreement and by peaceful means.
As democrats, we simply cannot tolerate anything else.
But the Agreement encompasses much more. It provides for institutions in which the people of this island, nationalist and unionist, can come together to build a better and more prosperous future. And they are working.
The Executive in Northern Ireland is uniting with a common purpose people who, just a few short years ago, would not have been prepared to sit around the same table as each other. And, given the immense controversy that surrounded Strand Two of the Talks, that meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council take place in a low-key manner is surely evidence of their success and of our immense progress.
Yes, we have had - and indeed continue to have - difficulties in implementing parts of the Agreement. It was always going to be so. But we will continue to talk them through and we will work them out.
As we recommit ourselves to the project, we should remember that the real purpose of the Agreement is the creation of a better future for all of the people of this island, working together in partnership and peace.
The Agreement says that we must never forget those who have died or been injured and their families - and we never will. But it rightly acknowledges that we can best honour them with a fresh start. With a new beginning in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust. It is in dedicating ourselves to this task that we will ensure that there can never be another Omagh.