An SDLP councillor has blamed his party’s support for a council motion backing a man responsible for the 1998 Omagh bomb on the fact that it was brought forward late and they didn’t know details about the individual.
Families bereaved in the Real IRA atrocity are outraged at the decision of Fermanagh and Omagh councillors to oppose the extradition to Lithuania of a man found liable for the bomb that tore the heart out of their district.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was wrong of his party colleagues to back the motion.
The motion to oppose the extradition of Liam Campbell from the Republic to Lithuania, where he is wanted on international weapons trafficking charges, was brought before the policy and resources committee by independent councillor Bernice Swift on Wednesday night.
It passed with the support of SDLP, Sinn Fein and independents.
In the face of an angry backlash the SDLP apologised and said it would withdraw its support for the motion when it comes to the full council meeting later this month.
SDLP councillor John Coyle posted on his Facebook page to “apologise unreservedly for what happened at P&R committee”.
“The proposal brought forward was done so at a very late stage in the meeting under ‘any other business’ where councillors did not receive time to consider the issue in any detail, nor did we know the details of the individuals involved.
“If SDLP councillors had time to consider this issue, they would not have supported it.
“This was a mistake and we apologise for that and apologise to the Omagh families, who have endured such pain for a long time.
“The SDLP has opposed violence and the perpetrators of violence for 50 years.
“It was never our intention to cause additional hurt to victims and as a council group, we regret it.
“We have offered to meet with the Omagh families to make a full apology, and as a councillor I’m committing to reversing our position at the next full council meeting this month.”
Claire Monteith, whose brother Alan Radford (16) was among the 29 people and two unborn babies murdered in the bombing on August 15, 1998, said the apology was “worthless”.
She said: “I am sick to my core that councillors in my own town have voted in support of this man.
“That this decision was made in our own council is sickening and outrageous, it is like a knife in our hearts.
“The SDLP can keep its apology, it is worthless. Voting against this motion should have been automatic to every councillor. It is pathetic that the SDLP did not realise at the time how hurt and sickened we would be.
“This is a not a matter for Omagh Council anyway. It is a matter for the courts in the Republic who agreed his extradition.”
No one has been convicted of the Omagh bombing, but in a landmark civil action in 2009 Campbell and dissident republican leader Michael McKevitt were found liable for it.
Kevin Skelton, who lost his wife Philomena in the atrocity, was equally incensed. He said: “It would make you sick.
“It was a rotten move by our own council.
“I am sick to my stomach by what they have done, but at least the chairman of the council, Chris Smyth, has a backbone and is standing up for the people of Omagh.”
Ulster Unionist Mr Smyth described the proposal as “nauseating”.
He added: “The proposal has asked that the council writes to the Taoiseach to voice its opposition to the extradition, but it will be a cold day in Hell before I put my name to such a letter.
“Piling on hurt and distress for the victims of the bomb and their extended families is something I simply can’t fathom.
SDLP council group leader Mary Garrity apologised unreservedly for supporting the motion, acknowledging it was “wrong”.
She added: “I acknowledge the pain and hurt the decision has caused this morning, particularly to the Omagh bomb families, and I want to apologise unreservedly.
“When the matter comes before the full council for ratification SDLP councillors will oppose the motion. It was never our intention to cause additional hurt to victims.”
Foyle MP Mr Eastwood also said the decision by his councillors to back the motion was wrong, had caused immense hurt and said they will reverse their position when the motion comes before the full council. “The party will also offer to meet with the Omagh families to express our profound regret,” he tweeted.
The South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) victims group said it had been inundated with angry phone calls about the motion. SEFF’s Kenny Donaldson described the motion being passed by a council area that includes Omagh as “absolutely scandalous”.
“Anger, shock, and feelings of bewilderment and betrayal have been expressed to us by victims and survivors of the bomb from across the community,” he said.
In response to the SDLP’s U-turn on the issue, Mr Smyth later posted a conciliatory message on Facebook.
“Leadership isn’t about being right all the time,” he wrote.
“It takes a lot of character in politics to admit when you made a mistake and apologise. Something other leaders could learn from.
“Today has been a difficult day for the people of Omagh but the SDLP deserves respect for the way that they have offered an unreserved apology to the victims of the bomb and offered to reverse their decision, and meet with the families.
“Myself and the vice chair John Coyle will not agree on everything but I know that in his heart he wishes to do the right thing for all the citizens of FODC and that’s why he’s both a council colleague and a friend.”
He then urged parties to defeat the proposal together in full council on July 20.
The following councillors voted in support of Ms Swift’s motion: Paul Blake (Sinn Fein); Glenn Campbell (SF); Sean Clarke (SF); John Coyle (SDLP); Siobhan Curry (SF); Dr Josephine Deehan (Ind); Ann Marie Donnelly (SF); Anthony Feely (SF); Anne Marie Fitzgerald (SF); Adam Gannon (SDLP); Mary Garrity (SDLP); Seamus Green (SF); Catherine Kelly (SF); Padaigin Kelly (SF); Tommy Maguire (SF); Emmet McAleer (Ind); Chris McCaffrey (SF); Stephen McCann (SF); Barry McElduff (SF); Thomas O’Reilly (SF) and Bernice Swift (Ind).
All UUP and DUP councillors voted against. Donal O’Cofaigh (Cross Community Labour Alternative) abstained.