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Good Friday Agreement - unitidy as it was - is our best chance

With doubt hanging over the future of devolution, former Irish News political correspondent William Graham appeals to politicians not to cast aside the gains of the Good Friday Agreement

Families of the Omagh bomb victims gather at the town's memorial garden on the anniversary of the 1998 atrocity
William Graham

ON the banks of the river Strule stands the Omagh memorial garden, a special place that recalls the words of the poet John Hewitt - “bear in mind these dead".

These are words which echo within the space called Northern Ireland, or the north, and have a particular resonance as politicians communicate with each other about the way forward.

It has been a long time since I have been in Omagh where the rivers Drumragh and Camowen meet to form the Strule.

This bustling Co Tyrone town has been carefully rebuilt, or put together again, post-bomb in the years following the Good Friday Agreement and peace process.

I decided to take a trip this Easter from my home in Rostrevor to see and feel the town that suffered so much.

I stood alone in the garden, a little wet with rain on a Spring day, and thought about one of the last times I was in Omagh.

It was in 1998, as The Irish News political correspondent, that I walked the walk with Bill and Hilary Clinton and Tony and Cherie Blair along the footpath beside the bombed buildings up from Market Street. In taking a deep breath one inhaled the bitter fragrance of tragedy.

What do I remember about that day?

Well I remember all too vividly the days previously at home on hearing of the bomb, when I broke down in tears because we all had such hope after the Good Friday Agreement that the violence was perhaps over.

Just a few days later I recall walking with the politicians.

There was a kind of silence. No birds singing. No laughter on the street. A quietness. A dignified space where the people mourned their loss.

The townspeople, the survivors, did not bend their heads but held their heads high in a dignified way.

Today the memorial garden is an extraordinary place. Mirrors on top of 31 poles (for 31 victims) beam sunlight.

This is a garden of light.

It was on the sunny afternoon of Saturday August 15 1998 at 3.10pm that a car bomb exploded in Market Street, Omagh, killing 29 people and two unborn children as well as injuring 370 people.

Laying flowers during the Omagh Bomb rememberance ceremony in the Garden of Light. Picture by Colm O'Reilly 17-08-08

Those who perished included Catholics, Protestants, a Mormon and two Spanish visitors. The largest loss of life of any such incident in the history of the so-called Northern Ireland Troubles.

During this Easter visit I looked across from the garden of light towards an arts area and saw two children dancing together in the sunlight - perhaps representing the future hopefully of Omagh and this north.

The memorial stone at the Garden of Light ahead which has caused controversy with the relatives of the vctims in the Omagh bomb due to its wording. pic Colm O'Reilly 17-08-08

Before going to Omagh I visited the Beaghmore standing stones dating back to the late Neolithic and Early Bronge Age, around 2,000-1,200 BC, in the Sperrins.

A place of coldness and bleakness but within a beautiful area, one can experience an energy. Here there are stone circles and dolmens where people were buried a long ago time.

No doubt these peoples had 'troubles' of their own.

Yet we in the north have fresher graves that were dug for the victims of our own 'troubles'.

Clearly the north of Ireland is in a kind of emotional turmoil which is not really fully understood by the governments in London and Dublin.

It is a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome which has been experienced by people in Iraq or Syria or Afganhistan, a world away from Northern Ireland.

The now and the future, as well has the past, has to be dealt with politically and with deep contemplation.

These are the days in Northern Ireland, the north, when we have to reach across to touch each other's hands.

The Garden of Light during on Sunday. Picture by Colm O'Reilly 17-08-08

As a journalist I have never sent a message to any politicians urging a change in any policies.

This is different now at a time of political uncertainty over the future of the assembly at Stormont.

Please do not cast the Good Friday Agreement into the Irish Sea to be lost for ever. It took blood, sweat and tears to achieve this agreement, untidy as it was.

I ask that the politicians remember the words (paraphrased) by the Co Antrim poet John Hewitt: “Bear in mind all these dead."

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