Donna-Maria Barker: Some kind of life

As a Belfast court gave justice of sorts to the victims of the Omagh bombing last week, the mother of one boy who died there finds the verdict a Pyrrhic victory. John Mullin meets Donna-Maria Barker

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The Independent Online

Donna-Maria Barker is packing up again. The boxes litter the eight-bedroomed home in prime Surrey stockbroker-belt territory that she and ex-husband Victor are selling now their divorce is final. Among them, memory boxes of her four children, including the broken old toys of one, James, who died 11 years ago. In that one, she stoops to pick up some family snaps. They are of the 12-year-old boy, stretched out in shirt and tie in his coffin, his striking green eyes ever so slightly open, his hair horribly singed, and his face, blackened despite the best efforts of the undertakers, bearing testimony to the manner of his death.

We last met back in April 2000, and she was also preparing for the removal men then. Not only were the family's possessions returning across the Irish Sea from their beautiful bungalow in the seaside resort of Buncrana in County Donegal, so too was James, exhumed from his resting place of almost two years in St Mary's churchyard, his coffin then draped in the cross of St George, and returned to the grounds of St George's College in Ottershaw, his prep school before the family briefly – tragically – tried to follow a dream. He lies there now.

Donna-Maria's third-born was 13 days past his 12th birthday when a 500lb bomb exploded in Omagh at four minutes past three on Saturday, 15 August 1998. A smiling, gregarious and impossibly handsome boy, he was one of 29 to perish in the worst atrocity of what we sometimes euphemistically call "the Troubles" – 31 if you include, as most do, Avril Monaghan's unborn twins. The victims included Catholics, Protestants, even a Mormon.

In the High Court in Belfast last week, some sort of justice was delivered. After the bungled police investigations and the failed prosecutions, the bereaved (with Victor, a successful solicitor, to the fore) mounted a civil case, and, following a four-month hearing, a Belfast judge named four men as responsible – Liam Campbell, Seamus Daly, Colm Murphy and Michael McKevitt – and ordered them to pay the families £1.6m compensation. Good news, surely?

"My elder daughter, Erin-Esther, saw the pictures on the television and called. I felt nothing, numbness, then a lot of tears. It will never go away from me. It is with me morning, noon and night.

"Grief is impossible to describe. I wake up in the mornings, and at least now there is a split-second before I realise. It is like a cloak, a big, black cloak, smothering me. It will never go away from me. It is still so raw, and the guilt is the worst."

James died by chance. Why else would he be in the line of fire? There was his mother's desire, 11 months earlier, to move the family back to her native Ireland to escape the home counties rat race; his father's indulgence that morning, excusing him golf caddying duties so that he could go off with his friends to visit the Ulster-American folk museum; the terrorists' decision to single out that County Armagh market town that day; the apparent mistakes over the coded warnings which meant by-standers were being ushered towards the bomb rather than away from it.

He might have been treated earlier by doctors, had the toll of what they had to cope with that day been any less obscene. As it was, it took them three hours to operate on James, who had survived despite being blown on to a shop roof. They pumped 18 pints of blood into him, but, when they came to remove his spleen, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

A catalogue of never-ending "what ifs" to torture a mother. And only one definite conclusion.

When I met Donna-Maria at the family's bungalow in Ned Points Road all those years ago, there was, truly, only one way to describe her. She was mad with grief.

She forced herself to recall all those details – "like a video-tape, running over and over in my head" – of that final day. The banalities that only later would take on such significance: the making of the packed lunch; James jumping out of the car without giving her a goodbye kiss; the casual switching off of the radio when she heard there had been an explosion in Omagh – she had thought the museum visit was to Belfast, and couldn't bear to listen to more misery.

Then her mother, Esther, arrived at St John's restaurant in nearby Fahan at 10.30pm where the couple were dining; followed by the terrible drive to Omagh; and, around eight in the morning, being the last of the bereaved to learn the truth.

Donna-Maria said: "James was covered in a green-blanket with a white handkerchief-sized cloth over his head. A man all in green with three-quarter wellies on him pulled it back.

"James had his head towards me, to the right. He had a huge bandage on his head. His face was blood-stained and very badly bruised.

"His eyes were wide open and looking towards me. He has the most beautiful emerald eyes, dancing, smiling eyes, and I had never realised the exact shade of them until then.

"I went towards him to put my arms around him, and I remember the man in the green outfit started forwards. I looked up and said: 'I am not going to hurt my boy. I just want to hold him'. I remember kissing his lips, he was so cold. He was so cold."

They had never been to Omagh before, and got lost driving home. When they finally arrived, the Chelsea top James had worn every day since his birthday, and which his mother had had to wrestle from him to wash that morning, was flapping in the wind on the clothes line.

Scrunched behind his bed, she found a poem to his father, with whom he had spent Friday fishing on the lough, about how he would work hard to become a lawyer just like him, and that then he would give his dad – commuting from Surrey every couple of weeks – a rest. He would take over "the joint". It ended with a flourishing signature, a rite of passage for every growing boy finding his identity. That was placed alongside him in his coffin.

The divorce has clearly been painful – grief had a way of exacerbating their different personalities: Victor, throwing himself into the legal fight; she, a more emotional Celt, fighting to express her loss – but it is far from the only cost of the past 11 years. Donna-Maria admits she has spent much of that time in a fug of despair, on automatic pilot, failing to devote what she should have done to her three other children.

"For the first 10 years, it was James, James, James. Those years just flew by. James was the biggest part of my life, and I lost touch with my [other children]. It was as if they were always there, but somehow in the background. I couldn't concentrate on them. I feel guilty for what happened to James because I brought the family to Ireland, but I feel guilty about the other children since. They have been fantastic, though. I feel as if I have them back now. I just hope in 20 years' time, they will look back on me as a good mother.

Her children used to tip-toe around talking of James – visitors would be asked not to talk about him because it would upset their mother. Now, though, the family talk about him in an open, unselfconscious way, and that helps, she says.

Donna-Maria, 52, and now working in a crèche, is leaving James House shortly, and will move to a smaller home nearby with her youngest child. She is calling it "Muddy Puddles". Why? Because, in Buncrana, James would shout that as he jumped up and down in the yard in his Wellingtons, laughing again.

So moving house, but moving on? The tears fall constantly, but, if she was mad with grief back then, she appears to have pulled back a little from the brink. Perhaps, like all those 3,600 families who lost people in "the Troubles", you just have to cope, to find some kind of life.

When I said goodbye last time round to Donna-Maria, she was certain of one thing. Once the family had relocated to England, she would never go back to Ireland. Now, she says, she wants to return.

"I miss family and companionship. Once [my youngest] is grown up, I will go back, and I will walk again on the beach where James used to play. It's one of those video-clips that always replays in my head, one of those brilliant days we had together during those 11 months, smiling up at me with those beautiful, dancing eyes as I look back at him. Every day is one step closer to being with him. I miss him so, so much."

Labelled liable: the Omagh Four

Michael McKevitt 59, of Dundalk, Co Louth, was alleged in court to be the leader of the Real IRA and the mastermind behind the Omagh bombing. Reputedly the former "quartermaster general" of the Provisional IRA, McKevitt quit in protest at the Belfast Agreement. He is married to the sister of the hunger striker and MP Bobby Sands. McKevitt was expelled from the Real IRA after a row within its leadership and went on to form a group called the New Republican Forum

Liam Campbell 46, was described in court as the second-in-command of the Real IRA. Campbell was jailed in 2001 for membership of an illegal organisation, but the conviction was subsequently quashed. Lithuanian police arrested his brother, Michael Campbell, in Vilnius in 2008 for attempting to buy weapons and bomb-making materials for the Real IRA from undercover agents. He was arrested in Northern Ireland in May 2009 and is facing extradition to Lithuania.

Colm Murphy 56, a builder and publican in Dundalk, is the only person convicted of a crime directly linked to Omagh. Murphy was sentenced to 14 years for supplying cell phones to co-ordinate the bombing but his conviction was overturned on appeal. Lawyers for Murphy have applied to prevent him facing a retrial. It has been claimed that he is suffering from short-term memory loss resulting from a car accident before his arrest, which means he cannot get a fair hearing.

Seamus Daly 33, a builder from Culloville, Co Monaghan. In court, Daly was accused of being the man who planted the bomb in Omagh town centre. Daly was jailed for three and a half years in March 2004 after admitting membership of an illegal organisation. On the night of the bombing, Daly was seen laughing and inebriated in a pub, according to court papers.

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