In November 1997 the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, later to become known as The 32 County Sovereignty Movement, was launched. Bernadette Sands-McKevitt was one of the founding members of the organisation, a political pressure group campaigning for the restoration of Ireland’s sovereignty.
By March 1998, the British Irish Agreement commonly referred to as the Good Friday Agreement was nearing fruition. In a leaked Northern Ireland Office document titled Information Strategy on the proposed Referendum that would legitimise British Rule in Ireland, author T Kelly Director of Communications laid out a strategy to ensure the result was a positive one for the government whilst appearing to be the peoples’ ‘free’ choice. It was a strategy that primarily sought to use elements within the media to control and manipulate the general public.
Kelly stated that it would be important “to ensure that not all of the results of opinion polling, etc., will be in the public domain. It would be open to us to encourage some degree of public opinion polling by for example newspapers and current affairs programmes, where we believe the results are likely to be supportive. Some of this can be encouraged during meetings and briefings of senior media people.”
In addition he proposed enlisting church leaders, heads of community organisations and trade unions, and other members of the G7 to champion the British cause “ensuring that it is not only government which is seen to be selling the process”. In particular he intended to open dialogue with Dan Mulhall of Irish Foreign Affairs and Joe Lennon of the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s office to co-ordinate the messages to better effect and avoid unhelpful clashes between both governments.
In April 1998, post the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Bernadette along with a fellow member of the movement travelled to New York, to lodge a submission at the head quarters of the United Nations. The submission outlined Ireland’s right to national sovereignty and argued that the forth coming referendum was illegal as it denied the Irish people the right to self determination.
Bernadette spoke at a number of public meetings in New York, and Philadelphia. She travelled to Washington and spoke with Congressman Peter King who arranged for her to address members of the Ad hoc committee on Ireland. On returning to Ireland she gave numerous interviews and appeared on television current affair programmes pointing out the flaws in the Good Friday Agreement and arguing for the right of Irish people to self-determination without British interference.
In April 1998, – according to an article by the political editor of the Sunday Business Post, Emily O’Reilly, (published on 23.8.1998, about a week after the Omagh bomb) the Irish Taoiseach (first minister), Bertie Ahern, held a private briefing for editors attached to the Independent Group of newspapers. The purpose of the briefing was to give the editors the government’s assessment of the Good Friday peace agreement. However, the Taoiseach himself introduced the topic of Michael McKevitt – husband of Bernadette, whom he described as “the head of a splinter IRA organisation”, identified in the article as being the Real IRA. It is obvious from the article that Mr Ahern’s briefing was very detailed and circumstantial. Equally, worth noting that it came shortly after the British had relayed details of their Information Strategy to their Irish counterparts.
Some time in 1999 Ms Jane Winter Director of the British Irish Rights Watch BIRW corresponded with Mr Ahern’s office requesting details of the meeting at which he identified Michael McKevitt as leader of the IRA. Mr Ahern’s office replied and informed Ms Winter that there were no minutes of that particular meeting in April 1998.
The referendum took place in June 1998; meanwhile Bernadette continued to speak out against the agreement.
On Saturday 15th August 1998 a bomb exploded in the Northern Irish town of Omagh, killing 29 people and causing hundreds of injuries. It shocked and outraged the majority of Irish people. The bombing was claimed by a dissident republican group calling itself the Real IRA, which subsequently declared a ceasefire. Media reports constantly linked the 32 County Sovereignty Committee to the Real IRA, but the Committee denied any such link. On 16th August, the Committee put out the following statement:
“We are deeply saddened and devastated by the terrible tragedy in Omagh Co[unty] Tyrone yesterday (15th August ’98).
We share the grief and sorrow of everyone on the island of Ireland and we offer our sincere sympathy to the injured, the bereaved, their families and friends at this moment in time. 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 any suggestions that has been publicly made, that our movement was responsible in any way.”
Despite the 32 County Sovereignty Committee’s unambiguous condemnation of the bombing and denial of any involvement in it, numerous newspapers named Michael McKevitt as a perpetrator, an accusation that he strenuously denies.
On 9th October 2000, BBC television transmitted a documentary in their respected Panorama series, called Who bombed Omagh? Journalist John Ware named four men suspected by the police of having been responsible for the bombing. Considerable controversy surrounded its transmission. Lawrence Rush, whose wife died in the bombing, attempted unsuccessfully to obtain an injunction to prevent the transmission, on the ground that it might prejudice the right of those named to a fair trial. He was supported in his application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The programme did not name Michael or Bernadette McKevitt.
In August 2001, almost a year after the Panorama programme was aired and shortly before the original trial date, solicitors acting on behalf of seven families who had lost relatives in the Omagh bomb served civil writs on five men, four of whom had been named in the Panorama programme, the fifth person was Michael McKevitt. The only evidence offered in the civil writ against Michael was that he hadn’t rebutted the allegations made against him in the newspapers. (Since Michael’s trial, solicitors acting on behalf of the Omagh families have now employed David Rupert as a witness to “give evidence” against Michael).
The police cast their net very widely in their attempts to identify the bombers; they interviewed 6,500 people and took 2,700 statements. Michael or Bernadette McKevitt has never been questioned or arrested by the police in connection with this bombing (he was arrested on 26th May 2000, long after the bombing, and questioned about membership of an illegal organisation, but was released without charge. However, the police photograph taken whilst he was in custody appeared in national and international newspapers in 2003). Nevertheless, the media have run a relentless campaign of vilification against both Bernadette and Michael McKevitt, accusing them of involvement in the bombing and putting their lives at risk in so doing. They published their photographs, and photographs of their children and their home, which further endangered their lives. As a result of this campaign, Bernadette McKevitt was excluded from her shop in the town centre of Dundalk, and lost her livelihood. (Ibid)
They later learned from a source close to the Fianna Fail leadership that the owner of the Long Walk shopping centre, Mr Martin Naughton allegedly ordered the closure as a political favour. Mr Naughton, a successful entrepreneur from Slane in Co. Meath, was a member of the Council of State (1997-2004) and also a financial contributor to the present Government partner Fianna Fail. In 1998 he made a significant financial contribution in support of the ‘Yes’ campaign for The Good Friday Agreement. Post agreement Mr Naughton was appointed as Chairman to InterTradeIreland, one of the six cross-border bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement.
The McKevitts’ had no effective legal remedy against the media campaign. Legal aid is not available for libel actions in the Republic of Ireland, and the costs involved in a libel case are prohibitive. The media campaign was so vehement that it is highly unlikely that the McKevitts’ could obtain a fair hearing were they to bring such a case, whether before a judge or a jury. Furthermore, the campaign was so widespread that the McKevitts’ would be involved in litigation for years to come were they to prosecute every libel they have suffered. There was no Press Complaints Council in Ireland to which they could complain, and complaints to individual newspapers were more likely to result in further adverse coverage than in any retractions. Similar considerations arose in relation to bringing defamation proceedings in the Britain. Although they do have a Press Complaints Council, Irish citizens are not familiar with its workings and most of the coverage that would have formed the basis for any complaint was already outside their time limit. Despite the enormous limitations they continued to search for means to defend themselves. They contacted several human rights bodies including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International, and British Irish Rights Watch. In November 1999, British Irish Rights Watch submitted a report on behalf of the McKevitt family to the UN Rapateur on Freedom of Expression.