HOPE BURIED IN THE WRECKAGE; They knew little of republican wars and cared less but they were still the targets of the psychopaths.
Young, old, Catholic, Protestant, a visitor and native, they had promised themselves a Saturday carnival.
Just after 3pm, after all the tales of peace, they learned how little Northern Ireland has changed.
"The future belongs to the decent people of Northern Ireland," says Tony Blair. "It does not belong to the criminals or the psychopaths."
The Prime Minister could say it - the people of Omagh somehow have still to believe it.
In their devastated town yesterday morning, there lingered the acrid taste of smoke across the police cordon and a silence after the nightmarish screams, broken only by the grinding of soldiers boots on streets paved with broken glass.
Condemnation of the atrocity had been all but universal.
Sinn Fein's leaders were at pains yesterday to disown their former comrades - though without explaining why a party such as theirs, supposedly committed to peace, is not yet joining the hunt for the killers they know so well.
Meanwhile, the Government have promised both that the peace process will go on and that no effort will be spared in the security forces investigation.
In Omagh, as the town awoke from a tortured, sleepless night, that was small comfort.
The folk of Omagh, called to worship, were asking the same question, over and over. Which was more powerful? The people's will or the brute force that blew apart shops, tore bodies to pieces, caused human beings to become what one witness called "blackened stumps", and made a killing field of an ordinary street in a country town?
Seasoned ambulance workers wept openly remembering the burned and maimed bodies lying in the road, soaked by a broken water main.
Doctors and medical staff called in at a moment's notice, told of the worst injuries they had ever seen.
Dr Clive Russell, medical director of the Sperrin Lakeland Trust, carried out so many amputations he could not remember if one child had been a girl or a boy.
Real IRA, whoever they are, had destroyed all for the sake of an argument they had already lost in the Northern Ireland referendum.
Last night, the Government were still struggling to convince the people that something -they could not say what -might yet be rescued for peace from the rubble of Omagh high street.
Elizabeth McIlroy no longer believes Mr Blair or any of the rest of the politicians who had gnawed away for decades at Ireland's troubles.
She was working in the family shoe shop on Saturday. Now she wonders if she can face rebuilding her business.
Her grandfather had first opened the shop. Until Saturday, it had been Elizabeth's working life for 28 years. Now it is gutted, many of her customers are dead, and she doubts her will to open up again.
"At this moment in time I hope to, "she said, "but I've lost heart. I think of all the years I've put into it.
"I was in the shop on Saturday and we got a warning but it was up at the top of the town. We just carried on as normal - and then all the people were put down to our end. "
Watching the politicians touring the wreckage, the sick-at-heart woman doesn't want to hear of hope or the peace process.
There will never be peace in Ireland she says, not with these "maniacs" abroad in the land.
"I've just lost complete confidence: that's the bottom line. This has been a very good town all down the years. Nobody cares what anybody is.
"We've just worked so hard and now this ... I can't take it in."
No one can. As Sunday dawned in fearful silence the rain began to fall, a soft Irish rain that emptied the sky of colour and the street of life. Omagh was retreating into itself, not yet able to grasp what had befallen it.
The shock among these people is deeper than all understanding. It is a tidal wave about to break over them in the days and weeks to come.
Real IRA, if that is what they wish to be called, have torn the heart, physical and emotional, from the town.
The hospitals of Northern Ireland have been deluged with blood and bodies - and with people offering to donate their own blood to the injured.
They have watched the soldiers patrolling the backstreets in the first light as the church services began.
In Omagh, a fine sports and leisure complex has been hastily renamed as an incident centre with a scrawled sign pinned to a street.
Here cars are still slewed at the side of the road. Here they post the list of names and wait for word of those still missing. Here, on Saturday night, the frantic families of Omagh gathered.
Doctors say that the next wave of casualties will be among those suffering from delayed shock.
It was to the leisure centre that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness came yesterday afternoon to meet the world's media and try to prove to a largely nationalist town that their brand of republicanism is different from that of Real IRA.
The welcome was guarded, the platitudes predictable just as they had been, indeed, when John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, had gone to the scene earlier yesterday, flanked by the Northern Ireland Minister John McFall, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP and Ken McGuinness of the Ulster Unionists.
By then, the church bells had ceased to toll. The black clad forensic teams were at their work, sifting wreckage and the personal effects, trying to piece together clues from the carnage, a job that is expected to take them at least three days.
His party looked solemn and miserable; Mr Prescott looked grim and talked of an "appalling and evil act" designed to maximise injuries. It was, he said, the worst atrocity even Ireland had seen and it's perpetrators would hunted down no matter what.
The attempt at dignity twisted Prescott's broad face. He did not have the right words because no one did and there were questions he could not begin to answer. He called the bombing "a crime against the whole community" and called on that community to stand together for the sake of peace.
The alternative, he argued, was a returned to the endless miseries of the past.
Every policy was open to review, the deputy Prime Minister insisted, though he would not say whether that included the early release of terrorist prisoners or a return to internment.
Last night, Mr Prescott was reporting to the Prime Minister as Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, was flying back from a Mediterranean holiday.
Even the gloomiest reports from the security services had not predicted such an act by fanatical republicans.
Yesterday, the RUC could not confirm that there were no other bodies in the rubble. Nor could they confirm the size of the bomb or make a comment on the numbers still missing.
Ronnie Flannagan, chief constable of the force, would not even identify Real IRA as the culprits, despite the widespread belief that his officers are certain who inflicted the atrocity on Omagh.
"This was an attack on society at large," said Mr Flannagan, calling on all the people of the province to stand together, as so many other public figures did throughout the day.
Last night, on cue, there were renewed fears that Loyalist paramilitaries would abandoned their own ceasefire thus giving the killers of Real IRA exactly what they wanted.
Northern Ireland still has a long, grim and bloody way to go before it's people can hope to be reconciled.
The horror of Omagh might shock some into their senses or it might, as one RUC man muttered to another inside the crowded incident centre, "just up the stakes".
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|Publication:||Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)|
|Date:||Aug 17, 1998|
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