Lord Trimble’s communications adviser, Ray Hayden, was relaxing at home on the Saturday afternoon of August 15, 1998, unwinding after several exhausting months of campaigning. He was thinking of his summer vacation in Vancouver when a news flash interrupted normal television programming shortly before half past three. The announcer said there were reports of a bomb attack in Omagh, and it was understood there had been fatalities.
A second news report said there were now at least four fatalities and the death toll was likely to rise.
Hayden knew he had to act fast. He telephoned several UUP Assembly members and party officials, but no one had a contact number for Lord Trimble who was on holiday somewhere in Germany.
Eventually, Hayden tracked down Trimble’s new chief of staff, David Campbell, who had the phone number for a guesthouse in the Moselle Valley.
It would be eight o’clock in the evening before Hayden could deliver the terrible news of Omagh’s huge car bomb. As prime minister, Hayden said, he should go home. Until then, Ken Maginnis would hold the line, conducting a marathon session of television and radio interviews from the scene of the atrocity.
The next issue for Hayden was the logistics of getting Trimble home. “I told him that we were going to get him and his family out of Europe as quickly as possible and that the NIO would take care of it.”
Hayden opened negotiations with the NIO which, according to the PR man, degenerated into a shouting match with him and Lord Maginnis on one side and senior NIO officials on the other.
Trimble’s men demanded a chartered jet which the NIO refused, then suggested that the RAF might be able to fly it to Northern Ireland once it had boarded a cross-Channel ferry. When the RAF said they had no spare aircraft in the south of England, the NIO finally agreed to hire a private plane from the Isle of Man which would fly to a rendezvous point. you near Dover.
Hayden recalls the turbulent meeting with the NIO: “I found them very unnecessary and met a few during the negotiations. I told them David was the goddamn First Minister of Northern Ireland, and I couldn’t understand why they found it impossible to get him back to respond to one of the worst atrocities of The Troubles.
Trimble himself was relieved to have been found because from Sunday morning he planned to drive from Germany to France, and until late in the evening he would have been incommunicado.
“I wouldn’t have known anything about what had happened until I reached my flat in London in the early hours of Monday morning. I remember thinking when I heard about Omagh that it was horrible – that we all thought we had peace and that there were already over 20 people dead in a major bombing.
The chartered light aircraft took three hours to reach Belfast. Hayden met Trimble as he exited the plane and drove him to his home in Lisburn to allow him to freshen up. After showering and changing clothes, Trimble was driven to Hillsborough Castle where Hayden, David Kerr and Maginnis briefed him ahead of a meeting with the Prime Minister.
His subsequent meeting with Blair centered on the need for a security crackdown on the Real IRA bombers. Blair accepted immediately.
Maginnis and the Prime Minister have insisted that the UK and Irish governments must have a coordinated cross-border strategy to catch those responsible.
Trimble said Blair was in shock after returning from Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital where he visited some of the injured.
For Ray Hayden, after months of political turbulence and violence over the Drumcree dispute, it was an overwhelming experience: “It was three in the morning on Monday when I left David and when I got home I sat down and I cried. A few hours later, on the way to the airport for our flights to Vancouver, I never said a word to my wife.
Trimble was also completely surprised by the scale of the carnage – 29 men, women and children with one victim, a pregnant mother with near-term twins. Hayden said the Prime Minister looked and sounded “devastated” by the massacre.