Omagh Bombing: Shopkeepers behind hardline republicans

FOR BERNADETTE Sands-McKevitt it was almost business as usual at her shop, The Print Junction, in the Irish town of Dundalk.

Everyone knows where it is: "Ah, yes, just slip through the alley and then into the new shopping centre," sighs one man in the main street.

For Ms Sands-McKevitt - sister of the IRA martyr Bobby Sands, who died after a hunger strike in 1981 - is vice-chair of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, the group widely considered to be the political face of the Real IRA.

After widespread allegations that the Real IRA - which calls itself Oglaigh na hEireann - was responsible for the bomb, it was perhaps not surprising that Ms Sands-McKevitt, 39, had nothing to say to journalists

"There is a statement from the committee and nothing else," she said. "That is the protocol we have agreed, and I have to abide by that."

The 32 County Sovereignty Committee issued a statement on Sunday saying that it was not involved in violence. The group said it was "a political movement, not a military group ... We reject any suggestion that our movement was responsible in any way."

Her partner, Michael McKevitt, who is also prominent in the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, was not in the shop yesterday. A leading republican, he was shot in both legs in 1975 in a feud with the Official IRA, and, according to some reports, he was once an IRA quartermaster. He remains under close surveillance.

Ms Sands-McKevitt, her husband and her three young children, live in a three-bedroomed semi-detached house in Blackrock - a seaside village, five miles south of Dundalk. Mr McKevitt was not at home yesterday and callers were told in no uncertain terms to go away.

That the couple have been living in Dundalk for many years is perhaps no coincidence, as the town has a reputation as a stronghold of republicanism. During the 70s, the Garda called it "El Paso", referring to its Wild West reputation, and it was known as a hiding place for men wanted in the North.

There are signs, however, that attitudes are changing. "Everybody is sickened," said Marie Thornton, 52. "I would think even those people who support the IRA would now have doubts. Most people here are just decent."

Decent perhaps, but many of Mr McKevitt's neighbours are now living in fear.

"When I read what happened I just cried," said one neighbour. "I have two young children of my own. I just can't get involved. Sorry."

Another said: "Around here we just keep ourselves to ourselves. That's the way it is."

The same was true in the shopping centre. One woman who has a store next to the printing shop said: "Staff here are terrified. Well wouldn't you be? What with the fear of reprisals."

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