The upcoming inquiry into the Omagh bombing must establish if the bomb planted by the Real IRA was being tracked before it went off, Bertie Ahern has said.
Today is 25 years since the atrocity which killed 29 people, two unborn twins and injured hundreds.
It came mere weeks after the Good Friday Agreement had been negotiated - leading many in Ireland and Britain to believe such events were in the past.
The former Taoiseach was in his Dublin constituency office when he heard the news.
“I had just come back from Kerry the day before and I was in on Saturday evening trying to catch up on work,” Mr Ahern told Newstalk Breakfast.
“My brother Maurice was listening to BBC Radio and on a sports event it declared there had been a bomb.
“So, he rang me.”
Immediately, Mr Ahern rang An Garda Síochána and it was soon apparent that they had a “huge tragedy” on their hands.
“I went straight to Government Buildings and I was there till late into the night,” he said.
“Very quickly it became a world story because a lot of the international media, it wasn’t that long since they had been doing programmes on the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent referendum vote on May 22nd.
“So, it was fresh in the international people’s minds; it was a horrific, horrific event.”
Over the next few days, he spent much of the week in the North meeting victims and the emergency services.
“A vision that will always stick in my mind is going to the houses where a lot of the children were laid out and waked in different parts of the North,” he said.
An inquiry is due to examine whether the bombing could have been prevented and Mr Ahern said the actions of the British intelligence agencies will be crucial in this.
“The issue was that there was great intelligence within the Real IRA by the security forces and they had thwarted a number of their actions over that summer of 1998,” he said.
“It was well known that there was a hardcore group who were in the Real IRA, some of them had since passed, some of them served long sentences.
“They had been very active in that period and the rumour was… that the intelligence [service] that day [were] tracking the bomb, tracking the bomb when it was made.
“I think what would be very important for the relatives and maybe for all of us so that lessons are learnt for the future [would be to know] what actually happened?
“Was the tracking missed somewhere along the way or was it lost?”
Mr Ahern said the inquiry should also consider how the actions of officials in the aftermath of the bombing did not help the situation.
“Then of course, there was the botched warning,” he said.
“They said the bomb was at the courthouse and the RUC pushed people down from the courthouse right down into Market Square… Rather than people getting a warning to get away from the event, they were pushed right into where the bomb went off.”
Tánaiste Micheál Martin has promised victims that “this State will cooperate fully” in the inquiry when it begins.
The former Taoiseach speaks at greater length about his role in the peace process in the podcast series As I Remember It: Bertie Ahern & The Good Friday Agreement.
Main image: Bertie Ahern in Omagh. Picture by: Alamy.com