Bomb blast victim appeals for Brexiteers to take Irish border concerns seriously

By Jennifer McKiernan, Press Association Political Staff

A man caught up in a bomb blast has appealed for Brexiteers to take Irish border concerns seriously.

Outrage at the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry last week has put Northern Irish politics under the spotlight, following steadily increasing tensions this year.

The priest at the funeral of Miss McKee was given a standing ovation on Wednesday when he challenged politicians present, including Prime Minister Theresa May – asking why it took her death to unite them.

Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral, but DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he did not believe it represented a turning point to restore powersharing at Stormont – which has not been a functioning executive for two years.

But politicians from all sides stood together in condemnation of Republican terrorist group the New IRA, which claimed responsibility for Miss McKee’s death, as well as a car bomb attack in January and sending parcel bombs to targets in mainland Britain last month.

The New IRA has admitted responsibility for the murder of Lyra McKee in Londonderry (Family handout/PA)

In the January blast, the man – who did not wish to be named – caught up in the explosion told the Press Association he was left cowering behind a police officer as the bomb went off in the middle of a mass evacuation.

Emergency action was taken after a Samaritans phone line in the West Midlands received a bomb threat for Londonderry city centre on January 19.

Police were given just 10 minutes to clear the area – but it was not enough time, he said, and the bomb detonated as residents were still on the street.

“I heard a hard bang,” he said. “It was like a loud crack.

“The police were yelling ‘Get down! Get down!’ and I ended up crouched down with a police officer on top of me.

“There was a big black plume of smoke rising into the sky, the smell was really thick and unpleasant and the air tasted so bad. I was quite stunned.”

CCTV footage showing a car bomb exploding outside the court house on Bishop Street in Londonderry (PSNI/PA)

The man spoke out because he worried “ignorant” politicians were contributing to the increase in tension in the area as the Northern Irish border has become a central sticking point in Brexit negotiations.

He told the Press Association: “People were raging that somebody would do this to us.

“Everybody is worried because we don’t want to go backwards on the peace process when we have come so far.

“People just want to go on living their lives.”

Sectarian tensions have been steadily rising since the start of the year, but Theresa May has insisted this is not linked to Brexit and she is committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

Back in January, she told MPs: “This House stands together with the people of Northern Ireland in ensuring that we never go back to the violence and terror of the past.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (Victoria Jones/PA)

However, the man involved in the bomb blast said he did not think Brexiteer politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson were respectful enough of the “deep trauma” Northern Ireland has been through over the border.

“There is an issue with ignorance on Westminster and the people in power there who have never been here,” he said. “They seem to have forgotten the Troubles.”

Mr Johnson has compared the Irish border to the boundaries between London boroughs inside the capital’s congestion zone, claiming there could be an as-yet-unspecified technical solution to prevent a hard border after Brexit.

Boris Johnson (Michael Cooper/PA)

European Research Group (ERG) chairman Mr Rees-Mogg, who has been the ringleader for the hardest deal with the biggest risk to the Irish border, should visit again to feel the tensions himself, he suggested.

“The vapidity of this is insulting,” said the man.

“It’s insulting to have politicians who don’t try to respect the people here, who are gaslighting over the Troubles and misrepresenting the situation.

“This is a politically fragile place. Politicians are actively harming us with Brexit that most people here voted against.”

Former British negotiator to Northern Ireland Jonathan Powell has said this week he believes the political vacuum around Brexit is contributing to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, although he was careful to stress it was not the sole cause.

But Tory Brexiteer MP Mark Francois, ERG vice chairman, dismissed any link between the upswing in violence around the Irish border and Brexit.

“It’s important not to confuse two different things,” said Mr Francois.

“We’ve not had a Northern Irish executive for around two years – that’s nothing to do with Brexit.

“There is a political vacuum in Northern Ireland but that’s not because of Brexit – but because Sinn Fein chose to withdraw from the Northern Irish assembly and it’s important not to mix the two up.”