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House of Commons

Wednesday 2 September 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock, notice having been given by Madam Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Earlier meeting of House in certain circumstances).


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


2.34 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the bomb in Omagh.

At 3.10 pm on 15 August, a car bomb consisting of 200 to 300 lb of home-made explosive blew up in Market street in the centre of Omagh as a community festival was in progress. The explosion brought devastation and tragedy to the heart of the town. Twenty-eight people were killed--the highest death toll in any single incident in Northern Ireland. Seventeen were Roman Catholic, 11 were Protestant, 11 were under the age of 18. The dead included three from the Republic, and two from Spain. Over 200 people were injured, many very seriously. More than 50 continue to receive medical treatment in hospitals around the country.

The whole House will want to join me in expressing our disgust, outrage and total condemnation of those who were responsible. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

There was a telephone warning at 2.30 pm to Ulster Television. It spoke of a bomb close to the courthouse in Main street. The Royal Ulster Constabulary responded accordingly and moved people away from the courthouse down Market street. The bomb went off 400 yd from the courthouse in Market street, in the very area to which people had been directed. The bomb was in a car in the street outside busy shops at a busy time of a busy day. The resulting carnage was inevitable. We reject with contempt the excuses of those who have tried to explain it away.

The atrocity was later admitted by the so-called Real IRA, a renegade republican group. All the political parties in Northern Ireland condemned the attack unequivocally. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland and those of us who have been to Omagh, including myself, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, have seen the terrible pain and grief that were inflicted, and the trauma that has resulted for many. No one can fail to have been moved by the sight of the procession of coffins that we saw on our television screens as those who were killed in the explosion were buried. Again, the whole House extends its deepest sympathies to the victims of this wicked attack, and to all their families and their friends.

We should also take this opportunity to appreciate once again the magnificent work that was carried out by the emergency and health services. In dreadfully difficult and distressing circumstances, they did their utmost to rescue the victims of this outrage, to tend to the injured and to

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comfort the shocked. They went through experiences that no one should have to face. Their courage and dedication were remarkable. They are remarkable people, and we in the House salute them.

When I visited the Royal Victoria hospital the following day, I saw for myself not only the professional skill of the medical staff but the hugely important comforting and counselling role that they played. They have my and our whole-hearted admiration and respect.

I also believe that the RUC deserve the highest praise. On many occasions in the past, their skill and courage have prevented similar scenes of carnage, but, perhaps as a result, the warning times have been shortening. On this occasion, they were helpless in the face of the misleading warning that was given by those cowards who carried out this attack, but the RUC's subsequent actions attracted deserved gratitude from all sides of the community.

We have known tragedy in Northern Ireland many times before; but this was an indiscriminate attack on a whole community, bringing nothing but further grief to the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland. It was a deliberate attempt, by a small group of extremists with no moral or political support anywhere, to wreck the Good Friday agreement and the foundation for a lasting and peaceful Northern Ireland which the agreement offers. It was a cynical attempt to provoke a violent reaction from others.

Those aims, however, have not succeeded, and they will not be allowed to succeed. That has been the response not only of the two Governments and the political parties but also, overwhelmingly, of the people of Omagh and elsewhere in Northern Ireland and the Republic. It was on the lips of virtually all those to whom I spoke, even those who had suffered most, when I visited Omagh just over a week ago.

The aim of those bombers was, as I say, not just to kill innocent people but to strike at the very heart of the peace process. The best response that we can give, therefore, is not to abandon the Good Friday agreement but, on the contrary, to carry it forward vigorously, to deny these people the very objective they seek, and to continue to work for a better future for Northern Ireland that puts the past behind us.

The agreement reached on Good Friday was emphatically endorsed in referendums north and south. The election in June underlined the wish of the majority of people in Northern Ireland to reach for a new and peaceful future. Those who continue with terror have no support, no votes, no mandate from any part of any community in the whole of the island of Ireland.

Both we and the Irish Government are fully committed to implementing the will of the people of Ireland, north and south. Further political progress is by far the best answer to violence, and, as I have said, it is what the people of Northern Ireland demand and deserve.

I therefore welcome the efforts to achieve this of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)--the First Minister and First Deputy Minister designate of the new Northern Ireland Assembly--and of other politicians in Northern Ireland. I welcome yesterday's statement by Sinn Fein, making clearer than ever its rejection of violence and commitment to peaceful means, and the initiative of the First Minister and the First Deputy Minister designate in calling a meeting of the leaders of all the political parties next week.

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I welcome, too, the latest announcement today of the appointment of Martin McGuinness to work with the Independent Commission on Decommissioning to facilitate the process of decommissioning. This is a practical, important step forward in the implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Under that agreement, the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons within two years is a vital part of a lasting settlement.

This is a difficult process, and there will be many more difficulties along the way; but I have no doubt that things are on the move, and moving in the right direction. In the wake of Omagh, people of both communities are determined as never before to overcome past divisions and to build new confidence and trust, and we shall do all we can to help this process.

But we must also take strong and decisive steps to deal with this unrepresentative minority who want to use violence to undermine this peaceful future. Amid what I believe to be unprecedented co-operation between Governments and police forces, we continue to provide maximum support to the RUC and the Garda as they hunt for those responsible for the Omagh bomb and other outrages. I can assure the House that the investigation to bring to justice those responsible is being pursued with the utmost intensity and with complete unity of purpose between the British and the Irish authorities.

To complement and reinforce those security operations, both we and the Government of the Republic propose to strengthen our anti-terrorist laws to help bring to justice those who are still dedicated to violence. I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for agreeing to this recall of Parliament to enable early action to be taken. The Irish Parliament is also meeting today to discuss a wide range of new proposals designed to strengthen its own terrorist legislation and, in many respects, bring it into line with our own.

The House will shortly be debating our own proposals. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will explain the full details, but I believe that they are a proportionate, targeted response to deal with small, evil groups of violent men who seek to wreck the hopes for peace for which the great majority yearn and have voted. Our basic aim is to make it easier to achieve convictions for membership of the organisations concerned, in particular by changing the rules of evidence in a way that is tough but is fully thought through, and fully in line with the rule of law and our commitments under the European convention on human rights.

The House is also well aware that terrorism is an increasing threat world-wide. The horrific bomb attacks on the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in early August brought that home yet again, as did the more recent bomb in a restaurant in South Africa. As I know from my own discussions with other leaders, not least in Europe, the international community is and should be determined to respond uncompromisingly. Britain must play an active part in the international battle against terrorism, and avoid becoming any kind of haven for international terrorists and their supporters. We are therefore taking the opportunity of Parliament's recall to put into law long-held plans to make it a criminal offence of conspiracy to commit offences outside the UK.

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We will not forget the horror of Omagh, but I say this to those who perpetrated that outrage: "You sought to wreck the agreement, and you failed. You sought to divide the community, and you failed. You sought to win new support, and you failed. You failed because violence and terror represent the past in Northern Ireland, and democracy and peace represent the future in Northern Ireland." [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

There are few more important challenges to democracy, and therefore to this House, than terrorism in all its forms. We must fight it vigorously wherever it appears, while holding fast to our democratic principles and the rule of law. We must also redouble our efforts to carry through the political settlement in Northern Ireland, which alone can bring lasting peace. That is the approach that I commend to the House.

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