Belfast Telegraph

Prince Charles goes back to Omagh 20 years after IRA bomb attack

Royals meet with bomb victims and lay wreath

By Ivan Little

The sister of an Omagh bomb victim and an elderly woman who was seriously injured in the blast were yesterday asked to leave the remembrance garden to the dead shortly before Prince Charles arrived to keep a 20-year-old promise to re-visit the town.

Officials, believed to be from London, told Caroline Martin and Mary Ellis that they couldn't stay in the garden while the Prince of Wales and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, laid a wreath of white roses and herbs for the 29 people and unborn twins who were killed in the Real IRA explosion in August 1998.

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The two women were moved behind crush barriers on the street outside as the royal couple walked around the memorial, but after negotiations they were allowed to come forward to meet Charles and Camilla.

Caroline, who lives in Enniskillen, had arrived early at the garden with a bouquet of flowers in memory of her 36-year-old sister Esther Gibson, who died on a shopping trip to Omagh.

Esther's photograph was on the floral tribute and Caroline, who wore a coat which had belonged to her 'happy-go-lucky' sister, was visibly upset by the request to move from the garden.

But after she was permitted to meet the royal visitors, she said she was pleased with the decision and that they had come to Omagh.

"It shows they haven't forgotten our suffering," she added.

Caroline had met the Prince before, when he came to Omagh three days after Northern Ireland's worst single atrocity. It was on that occasion that he pledged to return to the town to meet the Omagh families again, which he did a year later.

Mary Ellis, who was badly hurt in the blast, reminded the Prince that he comforted her as she lay in her hospital bed 20 years ago.

"He was lovely, he held my hand," said Mary, who added that she was disappointed at having to leave the garden.

But she was clearly delighted to eventually shake the royals' hands and to chat with them. Caroline said she had given up any hope of justice for the Omagh families.

She added: "I'm frustrated and angry that the killers are still out there. If they were behind bars you could maybe get a wee bit of ease.

"But I accept that will never happen. Yet we all know who did it."

The mother of another Omagh bomb victim said she didn't know anything about the royal visit.

Patricia McLaughlin from Buncrana, whose 12-year-old son Shaun was killed in the bombing along with two young friends, had gone to the memorial garden to show it to relatives who had travelled to Ireland from America and England for a family wedding.

Patricia said the pain of her loss was still as raw as it was 20 years ago.

"It never leaves me," she said. "And there was an empty seat at the table at the wedding for Shaun, who would be 32 now." Patricia and her relatives left before the royals arrived.

The chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Howard Thornton, welcomed the fact that Prince Charles had been true to his word and come back to Omagh to remember the town's tragedy just before the 20th anniversary of its darkest day.

In 1998, with the late Secretary of State Mo Mowlam by his side, Charles laid a wreath in a shrine of flowers on the Strule Bridge, on the other side of the road from where the memorial garden now stands.

At the memorial yesterday, Charles and Camilla took time to read the inscriptions listing the names of all the people killed in the bombing.

They then chatted with dozens of cheering local people and flag-waving children from Omagh County Primary School as they made their way to the scene of the blast. In Lower Market Street, they met business people and members of the emergency services who had been in Omagh 20 years ago.

Shop owner Tom Watterson told Charles and Camilla that three of his employees were killed in the explosion.

Ann McCombe, Geraldine Breslin and Veda Short had been evacuated from the shop after a false telephone warning from the terrorists claimed that the bomb had been left at the town's courthouse. Another employee, Doreen Preston, was injured.

Mr Watterson said: "I told the Prince that the members of staff were all brought down the town to keep them safe but the three girls were all killed as they stood on the opposite side of the street from where the bomb went off."

Optometrist Barry Curran said that people in Omagh had been determined not to let the bombers win.

"We decided there was nothing else to do but rebuild and Omagh is a thriving town now," he said.

Fireman Paddy Quinn was one of the first responders on the scene five minutes after the explosion. "It was like something from Hiroshima," he said.

Five ambulance officers also met the royal couple.

Ethel McCormick recalled how ambulance crews, bus drivers and car owners "did an amazing job" ferrying survivors to hospital.

"The sights we saw that day will live with us forever," she added. John Taylor said he and his ambulance colleagues from around the province had never really talked about what they saw.

Tommy Blee from Omagh said he told the Prince he'd been off-duty on the day of the blast.

"I was on the scene within minutes. And the realisation of what happened was awful," he said.

After their walkabout - and their visit to the obelisk at the spot where the bomb exploded - Charles and Camilla went to the Strule Arts Centre where they met more people who lost loved ones or who were hurt in the attack.

Around 50 people were present at the gathering and it was one of the first times that so many victims' relatives had been together in the one room since the tragedy. They were positioned in small groups so that Charles and Camilla could talk to as many of them as possible.

Afterwards, Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son Aiden died in the bombing, said: "It's important that we are not forgotten about. I think the fact that they both came here today was very uplifting. It's encouraging that people in high places are still thinking about us."

Charles had met several of the family members before and during those encounters he always insisted he was determined to go back to Omagh. He returned in May 1999 and said the IRA murder of his uncle Lord Mountbatten had given him an understanding of how people in Omagh must feel.

The Prince's concerns for the people of Omagh, however, have gone further than pleasantries and platitudes, with the heir to the throne keeping in touch with a number of relatives.

In a letter to Mr Gallagher, an aide said Charles "well understands the grief and sense of loss which continue to be felt by all those whose lives were so tragically affected by the bomb in Omagh".

There were reports in 2002 that Charles, during a visit to Northern Ireland, invited the then Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan to a private lunch at which the police's Omagh investigation was high on the agenda.

The Prince also helped to raise funds for the Omagh victims. One of his lithographs of Windsor Castle, which he signed and donated to a charity auction in Dublin, was sold for £53,000.

Belfast Telegraph

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