In Northern Ireland Town, Painful Memories Lie Beneath a Fragile Peace

A few days after a gunman fired multiple shots into a police detective in this busy market town six weeks ago, Pauline Harte’s young son came home and asked her, “Whose side are we on?”

“We don’t pick sides,” Ms. Harte said she told him, repeating a message she has carried with her since she was 19 years old, and lost her leg to a deadly car bomb planted in Omagh in 1998 by a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army.

Twenty-five years after the Good Friday Agreement ended the era of bloodshed known as the Troubles, this is a moment to celebrate reconciliation across Northern Ireland. President Biden, King Charles III and a parade of other world leaders, past and present, will travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital, this month to commemorate the signing of the accord on April 10, 1998.

Yet the shooting of the detective outside a youth sports center — for which another I.R.A. splinter group swiftly took responsibility — is a reminder that in this land of ready smiles and ancient hatreds, the past is not always easy to leave behind.

In Omagh, about 60 miles west of Belfast, many remember the Good Friday anniversary less for the peace agreement than the horrific attack that came four months after it was signed. The car bomb killed 29 people, among them two Spanish tourists, six teenagers, six children and a woman pregnant with twins. It was the deadliest single attack of the Troubles, the last angry wave in a blood-dimmed tide.

Ms. Harte, who is Catholic, said she was distraught about the shooting of the detective, John Caldwell, which left him seriously injured. She also worries because the British government announced in February that it would open a new inquiry into the 1998 bombing, prodded by questions about whether the police could have averted it if they had received better intelligence about the bombers that August afternoon.

Digging up uncomfortable truths about the attack, Ms. Harte said, could reawaken tensions between unionists, who favor keeping Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom and are mostly Protestant, and Irish nationalists, who favor unification with the Republic of Ireland and are predominantly Catholic. Catholics outnumber Protestants by 70 percent to 30 percent among Omagh’s roughly 20,000 residents.

“I’m scared of the escalation that could come from that,” said Ms. Harte, who endured years of skin grafts because of severe burns on her lower body. Now 43, she has four children, a job as an art teacher, a prosthetic left limb — which she wryly calls her “good leg” — and an outlook that is both hopeful and haunted.

“I lost my leg because of that violence,” Ms. Harte said. “I don’t want my children to grow up in that kind of world.”

The product of years of painstaking negotiation between the British and Irish governments, the Good Friday Agreement set out to create a new world in Northern Ireland by retrofitting the old one. It sought to quell sectarian tensions by instituting a government in which power was carefully balanced between unionists and nationalists. It stipulated that Northern Ireland should be united with Ireland if majorities on both sides of the border favored it.

And it put an end to a lethal guerrilla war: The I.R.A. and pro-British paramilitary groups agreed to give up their weapons, while Britain and Ireland freed about 400 people who had been jailed for their involvement in violence.

The agreement was a diplomatic prize for President Bill Clinton, whose special envoy, George J. Mitchell, brokered the three-way talks between Britain, Ireland and the parties in Northern Ireland. And it has achieved its basic goal: In a land where assassinations and bombings were part of daily life, crimes like the shooting of Mr. Caldwell are now the rare exception rather than the rule.

The Omagh bombing, far from igniting a new cycle of bloodshed, was so universally condemned that it drove the remaining paramilitary groups underground and galvanized the peace process.

To the extent that Northern Ireland is still suffering turbulence, it is over the territory’s cumbersome trade arrangements with the United Kingdom since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain recently signed a deal with Brussels that is designed to ease those barriers.

Still, the peace fostered by the Good Friday Agreement is a fragile one. Northern Ireland’s government has been paralyzed since January 2022, when the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, pulled out because of the dispute with the European Union over the trade rules. They show no signs of going back into the government.

Last week, Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, raised the threat level for Northern Ireland-related terrorism from substantial to severe, citing the attack on Mr. Caldwell. That level indicates that another such attack is “highly likely.”

Families of victims say they have been stymied in their quest for justice in cases like the Omagh bombing because it threatens to upset the delicate political balance. Nobody was convicted of the attack in a criminal court, but four members of the splinter group, called the Real I.R.A., were found liable for it in a civil case in 2009.

“There was a feeling that we shouldn’t rattle the cage because the Good Friday Agreement was the golden nugget,” said Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son, Adrian, in the bombing and led a long campaign for an inquiry. But he said, “You can’t have 29 people die and not learn some lessons from it.”

The investigation, Mr. Gallagher said, would focus on the intelligence that security services had about the Real I.R.A., not on the actions of the local police that day. The police, mistakenly believing that the bomb would be outside a courthouse, pushed crowds to the other end of Market Street, where the bombers had parked a stolen Vauxhall Cavalier. When it detonated, throngs of shoppers were milling around it.

British, Irish and American agencies were accused of withholding intelligence, including intercepted cellphone calls between the bombers, from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as the police in Northern Ireland were then known.

Whatever the scope of the inquiry, some fear the police will inevitably be blamed. That is a bitter pill for Richard Scott, a retired Omagh policeman who showed a visitor how he helped move the dead from the street that day, wrapping them in sheets and laying them, three abreast, in an alleyway.

“I can’t see what good is going to come out of it,” said Mr. Scott, who now counsels police officers and soldiers dealing with the aftereffects of trauma. “The whole thing feels like a witch hunt for police officers.”

Gordon Buchanan, who runs another local counseling service, WAVE Trauma Center, said there was an uptick in people seeking help, which he attributed to the shooting of Mr. Caldwell, the news of the inquiry, and the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which has stirred memories of the bombing.

“Legacy is a massive issue here,” he said. “People are still trying to get justice for things that happened 20 or 30 years ago.”

For some people, the pain of that loss is too much to allow for forgiveness. Claire Radford, who lost her 16-year-old brother, Alan, in the bombing, tearfully recalled the grisly scenes on the street in the aftermath of the explosion — bloodied limbs scattered on the pavement, a toddler’s foot in its shoe — and the desperate 24 hours in which she tried to find out what had happened to her brother.

“I detest the words Good Friday Agreement,” said Ms. Radford, 39, who is Protestant and whose father served as a civilian in the Ulster Defense Regiment, a British infantry regiment that was deployed in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. “I have no faith in it. I see it as appeasement to terrorists.”

And yet Ms. Radford insisted she bore no personal animus toward Catholics. She said she had been in a relationship with a Catholic man, who was the father of her daughter, and had sent the girl to a school that integrated Catholics and Protestants, though she later pulled her out of it.

That gap between personal and political is not unusual in Omagh. For all its bloodstained history, people who live here say that Catholics and Protestants generally get along well. While Union Jacks flutter from lampposts in Protestant neighborhoods, Omagh has none of the unionist or nationalist murals that cover walls in hard-core enclaves of Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city.

“Omagh was not a town that deserved what happened to it,” said Wesley Atchison, a former editor of the local paper, The Tyrone Constitution. “It didn’t seek division. For the most part, people just wanted to get on with their jobs and lives.”

That remains true today. Among younger people in particular, the bombing is an artifact of history. Emily-Jane Hopton Brown, 18, a Protestant student at Omagh High School, was walking to lunch recently with two friends, a Catholic woman and a man from a mixed Catholic and Protestant home.

“It doesn’t matter that much,” Ms. Hopton Brown said of the memory of the bombing. “We’re trying to move forward, to be more inclusive.”

Some noted that Mr. Caldwell’s shooting was likely related to his investigations of the drug trade, which now occupies the paramilitary gangs more than the cause of Irish nationalism. Paddy Slevin, a pharmacist whose shop overlooks the site of the bombing, said that as heinous as the recent attack was, it was evidence of a kind of normalcy — that Omagh was afflicted by the same crime as other places.

And yet for others, this anniversary is a time of unfulfilled promise. One of Omagh’s most revered figures is Kevin Mullen, a 77-year-old Catholic priest who began building bridges to his Protestant counterparts in the 1970s. The Good Friday Agreement had clearly saved many lives, he said, “and for that we are grateful.”

“But it’s also given people a license to go back to their old attitudes: ‘We’ll coexist with you, but we don’t have to like you,’” Father Mullen said. “You can stand side by side with someone, but not heart-to-heart.”

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