Clinton to visit Omagh in the name of peace

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton will visit Omagh next week to express "his sympathy and condolences" after the bomb in which 28 people died, the White House said last night.

The announcement that he has changed his schedule for the visit on 3 September came after the British and Irish governments met to discuss the fight against terrorism. After meetings in Cong, Co Mayo, with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair said the governments were "marching in step together" and that violence by the Real IRA would not deflect them from pressing ahead for political progress.

"Our joint determination is that their terrorist activities should not thwart the decided will of the vast majority of people on both sides of the border," he said.

The White House said that Mr Clinton saw his visit to Omagh as "a way of continuing to support the peace process and make it clear that those who would use violence to stop the peace process will not succeed". Mr Clinton leaves the US on Sunday for a Moscow summit and is scheduled to visit Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic between 3 September and 5 September.

Mr Blair defended his proposed anti-terrorist package against criticism that it would erode the civil liberties of innocent people. Risk could be avoided "provided we do it in a measured, careful and targeted way. These measures, tough though they are, are justified." The package had to remain focused "on this recalcitrant rump of extremists".

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness called it "a massive knee-jerk reaction" and said the RUC could not be trusted with such added powers.

"We've found in the last 30 years that innocent people do suffer and do find themselves behind bars."

Last night Mr Blair was facing growing Labour unrest over plans for rushing the legislation through the Commons next week in two days.

Kevin McNamara, a former Labour spokesman on Northern Ireland, said Mr Blair could regret rushing the legislation, as Labour had done over the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. "I am concerned about pushing legislation through in this way. I am not saying it is not needed, but there are hundreds of questions to be asked and we have not yet had answers," he said. "I can understand the Government wanting to appear to take firm action after Omagh. But the question is whether what we are doing is wise and is it really necessary."

Downing Street sources hinted that, while the proposals will not be removed from the statute-book once the Real IRA has been dealt with, they may be sidelined and fall into disuse.

Mr Ahern said the political part of yesterday's discussion concentrated on removing obstacles and creating conditions where the parties in the new Stormont assembly could co-operate fully to implement the Good Friday agreement. "We need just a bit of progress, but we will get there," he said.

Sources in both governments said the two prime ministers' joint efforts during the Omagh crisis have helped seal an exceptional degree of co-operation and trust. Yesterday they also considered more Garda-RUC cross-border co-operation and progress following repeated appeals, to dissident republican groups, for permanent cease-fires, made publicly and privately through intermediaries by Dublin since the 23 May referendum results.

There was speculation yesterday of disarray in Real IRA ranks after a reported meeting in Co Clare of senior members held to discuss its future, at which the former IRA quartermaster-general and founder of the splinter group was not present.