Omagh in North Tyrone is a small but typical Northern Irish market town. The quiet on an August Sunday last month was almost tangible as no shops were open, you could not get a cup of coffee and the chances of finding a pub open were and are less than nil.
For this town was the scene of one of the most horrific incidents to stain the history of Northern Ireland and I was there to take part in a commemorative service to honour the 29 dead and 220 injured in the merciless and savage Omagh bombing of the 15th August 1998.
Omagh is a town of churches and quiet roads and the actual site of the bomb is a narrow shopping street leading to the town centre and on that August day if was crowded with tourists, holidaymakers and local people just going about their business. The bombs were detonated by a republican splinter group the Real IRA who were opposed to the Good Friday Agreement which had been signed in the Easter before that August.
Although the actual spot where the bomb went off is marked with a memorial there is also a commemorative wall towards the edge of town and it was here, around a pool of still water symbolising peace, that the multifaith service was held in a silence that spoke of respect and a sober and sombre atmosphere.
I laid a wreath on behalf of the opposition party in the UK Parliament and it would be a massive understatement if I were to admit to being moved near to tears by the recollections of the relatives of the slain as well as the quiet determination to ensure that the bombers will never win and that there will be no going back to the bloodstained past and the horrors of 30 years of the troubles.
People sometimes ask why I as a west London MP spend so much time in the North and on Northern Irish business. The easy answer is that I am the shadow Minister of State for Northern Ireland and served on the NI Select Committee for twelve years before that. The more thoughtful answer is that we in our part of the world suffered during the 1968-1998 period. The Feathers - then the Town House was bombed, as was the BBC at White City. Arrests were made in our borough and bomb making equipment was actually found in Hanwell.
Ive always felt that as long as the Westminster Parliament has some responsibility for the affairs of Northern Ireland then some of us have the duty to do all that we can to maintain and extend the peace process and to work with progressive sections of the community to create a new Northern Ireland that will allow the long stultified genius of the six counties to finally flourish in freedom.
Forgive me for reminding some who have forgotten that during the Troubles 3,530 people were killed in a tiny part of the UK and 47,500 were injured. The Army lost 750 soldiers, 301 police officers were killed, as were 24 prison officers and nine Garda from over the border. We remember the Harrods, Hyde Park and Canary Wharf atrocities but the true scale of that murderous and merciless 30 years simply be comprehended by most people.
Standing in the soft North Tyrone rain in August of this year I asked the local Police Service of Northern Ireland commander, Chief Superintendent Pauline Shields, what the feeling was like on the ground. She was optimistic and reminded me that the recent flag protests and disputed marches had almost entirely been confined to Belfast and mostly North Belfast at that.
The border counties that I used to travel round in a helicopter with a machine gunner searching the horizon are now more peaceful than most people could ever have imagined and there is a real feeling of hope in the air. East Belfast has been transformed and everyone should visit the Titanic Quarter. West Belfast has the appearance of a permanent City of Culture and peace has allowed the previously inhibited artistic instincts to burst forth in glorious flower.
This week I was back for meetings on the Falls Road and in East Belfast. I even visited the Ballymacarret Orange Hall with senior Orangeman Rev.Mervyn Gibson. Ten years ago I could not possibly have travelled directly from the Falls to the Shankill and it is the little signs of normalcy that give me hope.
I was, however, brought up short by what I saw in the tiny front garden of Rev.Gibsons terraced house. His front door was bullet-proofed and the letter box had long been filled in but against the boundary wall was a glass fronted container with a locked lid. It was into this box that the households post would be delivered. Every single day a cold reminder of the war that was confronts Mervyn Gibson and I think that it will be a very long time before his main front door has a letterbox.
Ive not engaged too closely with the Orange Orders over the years but it is always good to step outside your comfort zone and the conversations that I had proved to me that there is a near universal longing for peace and a safe civil society that can bring prosperity to the less than two million inhabitants of the North of Ireland.
I realise that this piece is called Constituency Matters but what happens in Northern Ireland does matter to my Ealing North constituency and to the wider West London community. I want people to know that there is more to life over the water than you see on the television news and while the water cannon and rioting crowds may steal the headlines there is something more solid and sustainable growing in what is one of the most truly beautiful parts of these islands.
No one would judge Ealing by August 2011 and I ask you not to judge Northern Ireland by what happened in Belfast on July 12th 2013. What keeps me going is the absolute certainty that peace on the streets in Northern Ireland means freedom from fear over here. That is something worth making the effort for!