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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 01:06 GMT
Rebuilding but not forgetting
Building on the site of the 1998 Omagh bomb blast
Omagh aims to build for the future, not dwell on the past
Three years after Omagh was bombed, the town is trying to rebuild morale and its shattered High Street against the backdrop of a controversy about how police investigated the atrocity. BBC News Online correspondent Ryan Dilley reports.

Omagh Council is still putting the finishing touches to the new memorial garden dedicated to the 29 people killed just metres away by the detonation of a massive car bomb on a busy Saturday afternoon in August 1998.

"Wet paint" signs flap from the fence posts surrounding the garden's gravel paths, benches and central rose bed.

Omagh's new memorial garden
The memorial has moved, the pain remains
Amid the thorny bushes, plastic flowers and a red lantern offer the only hint of colour around the simple stone marker bearing the words: "To honour and remember".

Around a nearby sapling a handwritten card has been secured: "Treasured memories of a loving daughter, Lorraine."

Lorraine Wilson was 15 years old when she was mistakenly shepherded down Omagh's main street away from a fake bomb alert and into a deadly blast detonated by the Real IRA - a dissident republican group opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

Welcome redevelopment

The garden is suddenly thrown into shadow as the arm of a crane cuts into the weak winter sunshine.

It is just one of the pieces of plant machinery furiously working to turn the nearby site of the original memorial garden on the devastated High Street back into commercial properties.

Next door to the builders, optometrist Barry Curran says many local people warmly welcome the redevelopment work on land stripped bare by the explosion.

"People don't want a vacant site as a constant reminder of the bombing. I'm happy they're rebuilding, it's time to get local commerce going again."

Outside Curran's Optometrists
The car bomb destroyed Mr Curran's shop
Mr Curran's own shop was itself all but destroyed by the blast. "That's where the car bomb was," he says, pointing through his window to a traffic cone barely 10 metres away.

Only Mr Curran's father was working in the shop during the attack. He escaped injury, but the aged building sustained serious damage and had to be demolished.

"But to heck with the building," says Mr Curran, "that pales into insignificance against the lives lost. Returning here 10 days after the bombing, it wasn't the state of the shop that really upset me but the street outside. It felt like walking through a graveyard."

'So much sorrow'

The Currans salvaged what they could from the rubble and set up a new shop while they decided whether to rebuild their original premises - finally concluding the spot should not be left empty.

Though a cobbler in Omagh for nearly 40 years, Billy McGonigle nearly closed his business after the bomb ripped to shreds his shop and stock. He holds up a thick dagger of glass that was embedded in the wall close to where he was standing on 15 August.

Billy McGonigle
Billy McGonigle: "We'll never forget."
"I'd lost heart and wasn't going to bother starting again. There were so many funerals to go to and so much sorrow. But after a while I asked myself what else I was going to do other than repair shoes."

Staying in business has not been easy for many traders in Omagh. Many report a downturn in business since the attack - which they suspect has in turn dissuaded many popular chain stores from bringing a much needed boost to the town.

Even the wave of sympathy that brought eager shoppers in from north and south of the border in the first Christmas after the blast has not been repeated in subsequent years - partly due to a rash of bomb hoaxes.

"The pace of rebuilding Omagh has been so slow. We must move on," says Mr McGonigle, "but that doesn't mean we are going to forget. We'll never forget."

Mr McGonigle says that even if they could, local people are being given very little opportunity to put aside the events of August 1998. The latest controversy has been stirred up by a critical report into the police investigation by ombudsman Nuala O'Loan.

Omagh's Catholic church and the local army watchtower
Omagh: Spires compete with army watchtowers
"These things prolong the suffering - especially as we're right in the mouth of Christmas, which is a time for the family."

Mr McGonigle's concerns are echoed across this mixed, though predominantly nationalist community - from those walking on Church Street (where the shadow of the Protestant church's spire falls across the entrance of its Catholic neighbour) to the shoppers encountering piped music from Cliff Richard, Slade and The Pogues on the High Street.

If anything was quickly rebuilt in the aftermath of the attack, it was the townspeople's unity.

"Omagh people have always been together," says Tom Watterson, owner of a clothes shop which lost three employees to the Real IRA's bomb, "but I'd say the tragedy did bring us closer together."

Omagh's court
Wishing for peace, but synonymous with tragedy
His shop is overlooked by the courthouse mistakenly thought to be the terrorists' target. The court's grand windows are barred, its side entrance protected by wire mesh. Over the front steps are decorative Christmas lights hopefully spelling out "Peace in 2002".

"The people of this town have all suffered together," says Mr Watterson, "so we have to try to recover together too."

The Troubles
Understanding Northern Ireland
See also:

12 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Sir Ronnie Flanagan: A profile
12 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Omagh bomb report to be released
06 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
RUC 'knew about' Omagh attack plan
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