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Monday, August 17, 1998 Published at 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK

Links with terror group rejected

Francie Mackey (left) and Bernadette Sands McKevitt

A hardline Republican pressure group has taken steps to distance itself from the Omagh bomb attack, and also from reports linking it with the so-called 'Real IRA' - the organisation widely blamed for the bombing.

The 32-County Sovereignty Movement said the killing of innocent people could not be justified, and that it was "deeply saddened and devastated" by Saturday's events.

It also dismissed suggestions that it was connected with the dissident terror group.

This denial comes despite apparent links between some of the movement's senior personalities, including a councillor for Omagh itself, and alleged Real IRA figures.

Recent groups

The 32-County Sovereignty Movement was founded as the 32-County Sovereignty Committee as recently as December 1997.

It describes itself as a single issue, broad-based movement, which stands as a guardian and protector of Ireland's sovereignty.

In other words it is opposed to the proposals contained in the current peace process, which it sees as a continuation of partitition and British rule.

Its founder and Vice-President, Bernadette Sands McKevitt, said last December that it was trying to attract "nationalist-minded people from right across the board".

Her presence in the movement gives it extra emotional impact and status because her brother is one of the republican causes's most celebrated martyrs.

[ image: Bobby Sands: Brother of the 32-County movement's vice-president]
Bobby Sands: Brother of the 32-County movement's vice-president
Bobby Sands was elected as an MP before starving himself to death in a hunger strike in the Maze Prison in 1981.

Words written by him feature on a Website apparently set up by activists in support of the 32-County Movement.

However, reports in Monday's British press are drawing more attention to the other name taken by the movement's vice president.

[ image: The Maze where Bobby Sands died]
The Maze where Bobby Sands died
They say her partner is Michael McKevitt, whom she lives with in the County Louth town of Dundalk, just south of the border.

This is regarded by the security forces as the hotbed of the Real IRA, and many papers say Mr McKevitt is linked closely with the dissident terror group that has been widely blamed for the Omagh attack.

The security forces believe the Real IRA is led by a Dundalk man who resigned as the IRA's quartermaster-general last October in protest at the peace process.

Omagh councillor's support

Another leading figure in the 32-County Movement is from Omagh itself, and has a link with a man who appears to have died in the service of the Real IRA.

Francie Mackey is described on the Website as a member of its committee.

Before its formation he was elected as a Sinn Fein councillor in Omagh, although since he announced his support for the 32-County Movement he has been suspended by the party.

He still holds his seat on Omagh District Council.

[ image: The funeral of Ronan McLaughlin in May]
The funeral of Ronan McLaughlin in May
In May he gave the graveside oration at the funeral of a man shot dead during an attempted armed robbery in County Wicklow by Garda officers.

Ronan McLaughlin was described by Councillor Mackey as a member of Oglaigh na hEireann (the IRA) carrying out his military leaders' instructions.

The raid was widely seen as a fundraising exercise for the Real IRA.

Among the hundreds of mourners at the Dublin funeral were Bernadette Sands McKevitt and her partner Michael.

'Not a military group'

Despite all these reports the 32-County Sovereignty Movement is standing firm in its rejection of any link with this attack, for which no group has admitted resonsibility.

Its statement on Sunday night said: "We are deeply saddened and devastated by the terrible tragedy in Omagh.

"We share the grief and sorrow of everyone on the island of Ireland and we offer our sincere sympathy to the injured, bereaved, their families and friends at this moment in time."

The statement added: "The killing of innocent people cannot be justified in any circumstances. We are a political movement and are not a military group.

"We reject categorically suggestions which have been publicly made that our movement was responsible in any way."

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