I witnessed the Omagh bombing – this is why Biden’s presence in Northern Ireland is so significant

For many, the involvement of the US is a strong and positive factor in keeping the peace, writes Kim Sengupta

Monday 10 April 2023 16:18 BST
Northern Ireland is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement
Northern Ireland is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (AP)

The president of the USA walked down a street in a town in Northern Ireland to resounding cheers from a huge crowd high on excitement and emotion, as the world’s media jostled for pictures of the historic visit.

That was a quarter of a century ago, in September 1998. The president was Bill Clinton, and the town was Omagh, a place that was still in a state of grief and shock after a devastating bombing that had killed 29 people the month before.

It was a time of great foreboding in Northern Ireland. Those of us who were there in the aftermath of the horrific attack on 15 August recall the deep concern among its people that the Good Friday Agreement, which had been signed that year – ending 30 years of the Troubles, after the loss of 3,500 lives – might not survive what had taken place.

The Clinton administration had played a key part in brokering the deal. And the president’s visit to Omagh, alongside first lady Hillary Clinton, came with a strong message to all parties that the agreement must not be allowed to wither.

The strong backing from Washington – together with the unified stance of the British and Irish governments – ensured that the atrocity, carried out by dissident republicans, did not precipitate a spiral into widespread strife.

Joe Biden is now set to visit Northern Ireland to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. He recently went to Kyiv in an effort to underline the continued support of the US, and the West as a whole, for Ukraine in the war against Russia. His visit was highly significant, as well as symbolic.

The president’s presence in Belfast will be important in respect of the peace process, but also in relation to Britain’s relationship with the European Union, after the problems caused by the Northern Ireland protocol.

Biden, say US officials, will urge talks between the different political factions, in an effort to ensure stability at a time when MI5 has raised the terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland to severe. The police have warned that dissident republicans – with members of the New IRA being the main suspects – are plotting attacks.

The Omagh bombing is a grim reminder of what can happen if there is a return to the days of violence. Children who were shopping for school uniforms with their parents, with the new school year about to start, were among those killed and injured; a woman pregnant with twins was among the dead.

Many of the journalists who arrived at the scene of carnage that day helped the emergency services as best we could before turning to our work. Some wondered if the peace deal would have been shattered by the blast, and whether we would have to report on a new round of bombings and shootings.

In the event, the mayhem unified the communities. The victims included both Protestants and Catholics; the main political parties upheld the agreement, and republican and loyalist armed groups maintained their ceasefire.

The US administration expressed concern when loyalist anger over the Northern Ireland protocol led to several nights of rioting two years ago. There were further expressions of concern when the protocol threatened to ignite a trade war between the UK and European Union.

During the G7 summit that was taking place in Cornwall at the time, diplomats said Biden had “forcefully addressed” the Northern Ireland crisis when he talked to Boris Johnson. They said he had emphasised America’s firm commitment to the Northern Ireland protocol, along with his view that it was fundamental to maintaining peace.

Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, held that the protocol was “critical to ensuring that the spirit, promise and future of the Good Friday Agreement is protected”, adding: “The president’s message is [that] whatever way they find to proceed must at its core fundamentally protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and not imperil that.”

Biden has often proclaimed his Irish heritage, including in a video released just after he won the presidential election. When a BBC journalist shouted, “Mr Biden, a fast phrase for the BBC?” the president replied, “The BBC?” before saying with a broad smile, “I’m Irish.”

The clip, which went viral, was regarded as an affirmation of the affection Biden has for his family’s roots in County Mayo, and also as a signal that he did not intend to neglect the northern part of the island of Ireland. He subsequently spelt out that a post-Brexit trade deal between the US and the UK “must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the hard border”.

Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, the Windsor Framework, has now been formally signed off, and the trade problems arising from the protocol have now been put to rest. There is no effective government in place for Northern Ireland, however, following the decision of the Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Windsor Framework, to withdraw from the power-sharing administration.

Nevertheless, the landmark anniversary of the peace deal comes with a sense of problems being resolved, rather than unending crisis. Sunak is expected to announce the hosting of a Northern Ireland investment summit in September, and to urge the participation of US companies. Biden is expected to stress his unstinting commitment to the effort to maintain stability.

Things would have been different if Johnson had continued in Downing Street. The former prime minister was among the 29 MPs who voted against the Windsor Framework in the Commons.

The UK’s Conservative governments have paid a price in their relationship with the Biden administration, after cosying up to Donald Trump when he was in the White House. British diplomatic sources say it was difficult to get ministers visiting Washington to even meet with Democrats. At the same time, a steady stream of Brexiteers headed across the Atlantic to pay their homage to the US president.

Things also became personal between the Democratic Party and Johnson. Biden’s distaste for the former prime minister’s actions is reported to have been expressed in private, but even in public, Biden has called him the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump”.

The Conservative right accused Democratic politicians of interfering in British politics in relation to both Brexit and Northern Ireland: Barack Obama’s warning that the UK risked going to the “back of the queue” for a trade deal with the US if it chose to leave the European Union was held up as a prime example.

Johnson claimed that Obama’s attitude to Britain was based on his “part-Kenyan” heritage and “ancestral dislike of the British empire”. Tommy Vietor, a former national security spokesperson for Obama, in his response to a congratulatory message sent by Johnson to Biden after the latter became president, called Johnson a “shapeshifting creep”, adding: “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.”

US and UK officials insist that the “special relationship” is back on track, especially given the closeness with which the two countries have worked in support of Ukraine. Sunak’s efforts to repair Britain’s relations with the European Union are also appreciated in Washington. And there is agreement that the US will continue to take a close interest in Northern Ireland.

For many in Northern Ireland, the involvement of the US is a strong and positive factor in keeping the peace. For Brendan O’Maloney, who I met in Omagh on the day of the bombing, the memory of Clinton’s visit to the town is still vivid. “I remember him laying the wreath in Market Street; he had tears in his eyes. They were real tears... he really understood the suffering which had taken place,” he said.

O’Maloney was hurt by flying glass in the blast; his 14-year-old niece was seriously injured. “We were glad Bill Clinton came then, and we are glad that he and Joe Biden are here now,” he added. “It shows that there is a real effort not to go back to those terrible days.”

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