At the funeral of Omagh suspect Seamus McKenna his sister pushed through the colour party, knelt at his grave and prayed... showing a deep, unspoken pain at what had been done
Those who made and planted the bomb that killed 31 people have been shunned and pushed aside by the vast majority of people on this island and will carry the shame of their actions forever, writes Sean O'Driscoll
They paraded into the graveyard in white shirts and black ties. There were dozens of them, including several of the Omagh bomb suspects. Flanked all around the graveyard were Garda riot police and mounted officers. A helicopter hovered over our heads.
We were here to bury Seamus McKenna, the man who drove the car into Omagh on the day of the bombing along with a 19-year-old Real IRA novice, before they walked around the corner to where Seamus Daly was waiting for them in a car park.
I had spent years getting to know McKenna, a chronic alcoholic, because I wanted to know what possesses someone to plant a car bomb after the whole country has voted for peace, why he would give up a cloudless, gorgeous Saturday to put the lives of so many people at risk for a futile cause.
My interest in meeting McKenna intensified when, a few years after Omagh, he and several of the suspects were caught building another bomb in an isolated farmhouse, not far from where the Omagh device was constructed.
I was shocked. How could anyone do this, knowing what he had done, the hurt he had left behind in Omagh and the international revulsion it had caused?
What was motivating him, and why did it override his sense of compassion and guilt?
Since I first left a note in his letterbox, and met him the next day in a Chinese restaurant in Dundalk, I got only glimpses of answers. He loved his father Sean very dearly, idolised him. Internment had taken his father away, he was one of the hooded men who were taken to an RAF camp in Derry for a week and then to internment camps in Belfast.
When he came out, his father had a nervous breakdown and moved to rural Monaghan, while his wife and family stayed in Newry.
Seamus had little interest in school and joined the IRA as soon as he was old enough, as did his brother Sean Jnr, who went deaf in one ear and almost died on hunger strike in 1980.
All of this was told through a miasma of booze. It was always the first criterion for Seamus whenever I met him.
At 10am, when I wanted to get breakfast at the Chestnut diner in the centre of Dundalk, he said I should go on ahead by myself, he would be in the pub. When I got to the pub at 10.40am he was drunk already.
It led to an argument between us. I wanted the truth, but whether it was morning or midnight, it always came through a slur of Dutch lager, especially when Omagh was mentioned.
He never overtly denied involvement, he always spoke around it - how the burden of proof was lower for a civil case than for a criminal, that he was the only suspect who was cleared in the civil case, how justice for the Omagh families was "a conversation for another day", how there was no forensics linking him to the bombing.
He only occasionally worked, usually with millionaire builder and Omagh bomb co-ordinator Colm Murphy, or other Dundalk builders who would give him a few days' work to supplement his dole. He was always hungover, which led to workplace accidents. A Garda source said it was easy to monitor McKenna "because he was always injuring himself".
And then one day, while working on a school in Co Louth, he fell through the scaffolding and died.
At the funeral north of Dundalk, he was treated as a hero by Republican Network for Unity, the political wing of Oglaigh na hEireann.
Its members jostled and pushed each other to get under the coffin, to carry a republican martyr. One group would walk just five steps and another would try to push in and take the coffin from them - a republican microgroup splintering even as they carried a coffin of one of their own.
I was standing behind the coffin at the time. One of them asked me: "Do you want a lift?" He was asking me if I wanted to carry the coffin, to join in this obscene fighting for the claim to republican purity. "No, I'm all right, thanks," I said. I wondered later if I should have carried it, not as a dissident but on behalf of that 99.99% of the Irish public that Seamus McKenna and his comrades pushed aside in favour of the fallen dead of 1916.
At the cemetery, dozens of 'volunteers' marched to the gravesite under commands in Irish and stood to attention. Among them was Seamus Daly, who drove the scout car into Omagh and collected McKenna when the bomb was planted.
There were so many of them lined up in front of the grave that they blocked out the McKenna family and all the other mourners who were forced to stand back. Their commander shouted: "Oglaigh, aire" (Volunteers, attention), and they stood motionless in front of the grave, staring at an Irish tricolour.
And then it happened. One of Seamus McKenna's sisters moved towards them, slowly at first, and then gathered pace.
She reached out her arms and pushed two of them aside, knelt down at the grave, put her head in her hands and prayed.
It was such a simple act of defiance and it ruined the visual of their paramilitary parade. Kneeling and praying, she said it silently - enough of this posturing, enough of this pain, enough of this falseness. You don't own this grave, we do. She had seen two generations of her family ruined by the Troubles and seen thousands more suffer the same loss. And worse still, there was sadness, a deep, unspoken pain at what Seamus had done on a beautiful day in Omagh.
I left the graveyard with tears in my eyes, not for Seamus McKenna, but for all the unspoken pain that hung over this event. I gathered myself together by petting a Garda horse. I walked down the road - because of police roadblocks to prevent shots being fired over McKenna's coffin we had to walk two miles to our cars. Just two feet ahead of me, still in his white shirt and black tie, was Seamus Daly and another one of the colour party.
Daly, who still owes the Omagh families £1.6m for his part in the bombing, was telling his comrade about the actions of McKenna's sister. He was laughing about it, acting out how she had pushed volunteers aside to kneel at the grave. His friend looked embarrassed. "I know, I saw it," he said.
In that moment I found some clarity, some explanation that I had been seeking for 15 years. A mind that could not put itself into the position of McKenna's sister at the moment, that could not see what she was really saying, was a mind that could so easily plant a bomb in a busy shopping street in Omagh. The answer, finally, was that there was no answer. This was not a political problem so much as it was a failure of empathy, of understanding, of insight into the lives of other people, a love for the iconography and history of a political movement, without any care for the people it is supposed to help.
I asked Daly if he was going up to the community centre, where the McKenna family and friends were gathering for tea and biscuits.
"Nah, I think we'll head on," said his friend. They knew they were not welcome, and so they walked off to their car.
Maybe, in that moment, there was the final triumph of the people of Omagh. They might not have recovered the assets from the bombers, or see them go to jail, but they have beaten them.
They are the first terrorists ever to be sued and their names are now public, their photographs have been on every TV station and every newspaper in the country. They are literally being pushed out of the way by families who want an end to this nightmare. They exist in an ever-shrinking world of middle aged men, unable or unwilling to understand that much larger Ireland outside their little world, forever carrying a 20-year-old shame that can never be erased.