British feared McAleese attendance at Omagh memorial service would make queen look bad

Department of Foreign Affairs official told his British counterpart that as far as he was aware the prime minister and the royal family had ‘received nothing but praise for their gestures of sympathy’

British officials feared that a visit by president Mary McAleese to Omagh in the aftermath of the bomb there in August 1998 would reflect badly on Queen Elizabeth II.

The bombing by dissident republicans on August 15th of that year, four months after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, was the single biggest atrocity of the Troubles, killing 29 people including a pregnant woman with twins.

A memorial service was planned for August 22nd in Omagh, a week after the atrocity, with senior politicians from Britain and Ireland in attendance. The issue of who would attend was discussed by George Fergusson, head of the Republic of Ireland department at the British foreign office, and Dermot Gallagher, second secretary of the Anglo-Irish division at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Fergusson felt that the presence of heads of state or prime ministers at the ceremony might be out of place and that the occasion might be left to locals. The presence of the queen at the August 22nd ceremony would not be practical, he stressed, and might involve arrangements on such a large scale as to “detract from the ceremony itself. To send a less prominent member of the royal family might appear inadequate if President McAleese is present”.

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He suggested that the queen and prime minister Tony Blair should attend a formal memorial service in the first half of September and therefore the president and taoiseach Bertie Ahern could pull out of the service on August 22nd. Such an announcement would leave the ceremony in Omagh just to locals.

He warned that if Ahern and McAleese attended the Saturday ceremony in Omagh it might led to “possible embarrassment were it suggested in the media that they (British royals) have been less concerned at the sufferings in Omagh than their Irish counterparts”.

Gallagher disagreed, and said that the taoiseach and president had already announced their plans. “The Irish government had taken soundings with opinion in Omagh and had found no evidence of the negative sentiment. The contrary was the case”.

He also told his British counterpart that as far as he was aware the prime minister and the royal family had “received nothing but praise for their gestures of sympathy”.

“The goal of the Good Friday Agreement was to create a context within which reconciliation can take place within Northern Ireland and between North and South. Steps towards reconciliation are happening before our eyes.”

Gallagher dug his heels in and said that McAleese would be attending anyway, and the public would find that easy to understand given her personal background. He concluded by stating that the British government may have been under the impression that the attendance of the taoiseach or president at the Omagh service was ultimately in its gift.

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