La Mon House Hotel Bombing

– in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 13th February 2003.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford 6:01 pm, 13th February 2003

I am grateful for this timely opportunity to bring before the House a solemn matter that affects my constituency and which cries out to be addressed.

On Monday next, when the House will have risen and Members will have returned to their constituencies, people throughout the kingdom will go about their everyday chores, in business, at recreation and in the family. But in many parts of Northern Ireland, people will approach Monday in a very different frame of mind. They are the relatives of those who lost their lives in the La Mon bombing, one of the worst atrocities ever to occur in the Province. They are joined by the surviving victims, and by the many members of our emergency services who experienced the horror that unfolded in the Castlereagh hills on that dismal February evening.

Monday marks the 25th anniversary of that horrific bombing at the La Mon House Hotel, in Castlereagh, on Friday 17 February 1978. I speak not just as the Member of Parliament for Strangford, the constituency targeted by the Provisional IRA that night, but also as a member of the La Mon Bursary Committee. The committee comprises a representative group of people: relatives of the victims murdered that evening, victims who were injured in the bombing and former members of the emergency services who were involved in the aftermath of that indiscriminate and appalling attack on innocent people.

We seek, in a positive way, to keep the memory of La Mon alive and in the public domain. I speak not just from the call of duty but as someone who has been touched by the anguish and, yes, the courage of those to whom I shall refer as the "La Mon victims".

Serving with the La Mon group since its foundation in 1998 has allowed me more fully to comprehend the terrible pain and suffering that the victims experienced that terrible night and which abides with them 25 years later. Although those individuals cope with their pain and carry their burden with great dignity, one of the hardest challenges that they face is living with the knowledge that the Government have failed them by not holding an independent public inquiry to investigate the circumstances of the bombing and to establish where the responsibility lies for planning, directing and carrying out the atrocity. Twelve innocent people were killed in the massacre, and many more were seriously injured.

The events surrounding that fateful evening in Castlereagh will for ever be imprinted on the minds of the scores of people who escaped from the clutches of death. Some of those injured are still suffering physical pain to this day. Even those fortunate enough to walk away without a physical mark are haunted by the memories of that dreadful night.

The evening began as a night of celebration. It was a happy get-together for members of the Irish Collie Club and their friends. They had converged on the hotel from around the Province and were in a cheerful mood, looking forward to a pleasant event. They had been allocated a private function room known as the Peacock room.

If ever there was an apolitical and non-denominational group, that was it. If ever there was an event devoid of any political purpose or content, that was it. Yet through the dark of that evening a group of men descended on the hotel. As they approached they would have heard the laughter from inside. They would have seen the innocent families deep in conversation, and they would have assessed the huge numbers who would be their victims.

What followed defies human understanding. To plant a conventional bomb at the hotel would undoubtedly have resulted in loss of life or at least certain injury. But the evil executioners of this terrorist act left no margin for doubt as to the outcome of their evening's work.

The terrorists strapped their explosives to two cans of petrol and attached them to the security grille over the windows of the room. They retreated under the cover of darkness, and no doubt congratulated themselves on their brave act as they journeyed home.

The massive explosion that resulted sent a sheet of burning petrol through the small function room, incinerating those in its path. In addition, the glass and materials from the explosion shredded the many helpless, innocent and unsuspecting victims.

Following the bombing, forensic experts had to use scraps of clothing, jewellery and dental charts to undertake the task of identifying many of the guests that evening, such were the heat and ferocity of the blaze.

It is hard for us to imagine tonight what it was like for the victims. The explosion sent an intense and colossal fireball of blazing petrol raging through the room. It set people alight and fuelled an uncontrollable inferno.

In the adjoining function room, known as the Gransha room, 400 members and guests of the Northern Ireland Junior Motorcycle club, including almost 100 children, were holding their annual dance, but the guests in the Peacock room took the main force of the bomb. Those who could—men and women, old and young—emerged screaming, with their hair, clothes and bodies on fire and scrambled out of the burning ruin. In addition to the many guests in the hotel that evening, there were in the region of 90 staff on the premises.

Eye-witnesses told of hotel guests with limbs blown off who must have been dead or who lay dying in the flames, which spread rapidly, as the burning petrol flowed across the floors. By the time the police received the bomb warning and set out for the hotel the doomed building was well alight.

The IRA killed 12 innocent people that night. Altogether some 33 people were injured, all suffering various degrees of burns. The number of those who to this day live with the mental scars remains unknown.

In the aftermath of the massacre, republicans sought to deflect criticism by suggesting that it had not been their intention to kill anyone and that the police were responsible for not acting on the warning. The more things change, the more they remain the same. That craven lie—blaming the police for not acting on the warning—grieves the victims.

The police investigation into the type of bomb used by the IRA found that four times the normal amount of inflammable liquid had been used. Those who planted the bomb at La Mon would have seen through the window, as they attached the bomb, that the room was full of innocent people.

The death toll included three married couples. Those murdered were Mrs. Christine Lockhart, aged 32; Mrs. Carol Mills, aged 26, and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Sandra Morris, aged 27; Mrs. Sally Cooper and her son-in-law, Thomas Neeson—Sally Cooper was 62, but I do not have an age for her son-in-law—Mr. Paul Nelson, aged 37, and his wife, Dorothy, aged 34; Mr. Gordon Crothers, aged 31, and his wife, Joan, aged 23; Mr. Ian McCracken and his wife, Elizabeth, both aged 25; and, finally, Mr. Daniel Magill, aged 37.

The minister at the funeral of Gordon and Joan Crothers, who left behind a two-and-a-half-year-old child, made the following comment:

"What makes men behave in a fashion worse than the animal creation about them? Animals kill only to eat when they are hungry and, within that law, they are clean. But when men kill in wrath, brutally and without mercy and consideration, from some misguided sense of racial hatred, then they are worse than the mad dogs. They are without mercy and deserve none in return."

I remember the evening of the La Mon bombing only too well. My husband, then a young councillor, visited the site shortly after the explosion and still speaks of the scene of devastation and horror that he witnessed and how even the experienced members of the emergency services were overcome with the enormity and the awfulness of the slaughter and carnage.

I should like to refer to a newspaper account of an interview with one survivor, Mrs. Lynette Holt, recorded in the Daily Mirror. She describes the IRA attack as follows:

"I remember a bang and seeing flames all over the dance area, someone pushed me under the table. Then the lights went out. My best friend, Christine Lockhart, was sitting next to me. I don't know what happened to her. I knew if she fell, she wouldn't get up without help because she had an artificial leg. The girl behind me was killed, and my husband, David, was blasted halfway across the room. A man came out onto the dance floor, he was completely on fire . . . like a torch. Then my husband pulled the table off me and shouted at me to come on. I put my hands out to see if I could find Christine. I wanted to drag her towards the kitchen. The smoke and flames were like plastic burning. You couldn't breath. I knew that if I didn't get out I would suffocate. I was in a pitch black cloud of smoke, and all around me were people screaming and panicking. The heat was indescribable. I felt my back was on fire."

I have given Lynette's description, although I have to point out that it is only one of many such accounts from people who suffered injury or bore the loss of a mother, father, wife, husband, son or daughter. Yet who is listening to these people? Who is allowing them to tell of their pain and suffering? Who is investigating these events and reporting on them? The Police Service of Northern Ireland tells us that the file is open, but those responsible are not even being actively pursued by the police. The families want an inquiry. The Government say that it would not be appropriate. The Minster wrote to me almost a year ago in response to my letter asking for an inquiry, and said:

"Bloody Sunday for example, was different because where the State's own authorities are concerned, the Government must be sure as it can be of the truth, precisely because in this country we pride ourselves on our democracy and our respect for the law, and on the professionalism and dedication of our security forces."

That statement might have flowed well from the Minister's pen, but it was received with astonishment by the victims who read it. This, they would tell the House, is precisely why an inquiry is needed.

The Government's policy in Northern Ireland is to place in government those who represent the organisation that carried out this attack. More than that, the distinct possibility is that a candidate for one of the top Government posts after the next election will be the man who was arrested by the police during their investigation into the bombing, and who is known to have had control over the team responsible for this outrage and carnage. The car that was used in the terrorist attack was hijacked in his area, and those brought before the courts came from his area of command. The Daily Telegraph of 20 February 1978 said in its editorial:

"One of those now being detained for questioning in connection with last Friday's murders is Gerry Adams, formerly known as the head of the IRAs Belfast Brigade and now described as an active member of provisional Sinn-Fein. If the evidence to support any specific criminal charges against this man is not forthcoming, he will presumably be released to continue in his activities. Can this, as things are now, be right?"

There are many unanswered questions and many people to be called to account. I believe that the victims of La Mon cannot simply put this chapter behind them until such time as they obtain answers to their questions. There should be no cover-ups and no one should be above the law. The police are certain that the attack was sanctioned and approved by Gerard Adams, who was then in command of those who are known to have carried it out. The extent of his involvement in the planning and directing of the attack also needs to be probed. When the Minister says that

"the Government must be as sure as it can be of the truth, precisely because in this country we pride ourselves on our democracy"

I agree with her. Indeed, that is the case regarding the victims of the La Mon bombing. Do the Government not want to be as sure as they can be of the truth of La Mon before advocating that one who it is believed was intimately and directly involved in masterminding and ordering the carnage at La Mon should be placed at the head of our democratic institutions in Northern Ireland? Can the Minister imagine what it must be like for those affected by the La Mon bombing to have to live in Northern Ireland every day and to witness Mr. Adams being elevated and courted by this Government while they live with the loss that he was complicit in causing?

I am proud to say that Castlereagh borough council, of which I am a member, has supported the La Mon victims committee in all its work, including the development of its bursary scheme. The council has also dedicated a stained glass window in its council chamber to the memory of the 12 innocent victims. The words of the Ulster poet, James Hewitt, are used:

"You say the name and I see the place—La Mon."

Although I believe that today is a time for remembrance and for respecting and honouring those who were murdered, we have to do more. None of those people were military or police targets. The Provisional IRA can make no excuses. The La Mon victims were innocent, decent, respectable citizens who were out for a night of enjoyment. As hon. Members would expect, the IRA bombing of La Mon House hotel continues to cause anguish and pain to this day. Those left behind have not forgotten it, and I will certainly not forget them. It is right and proper that that crime against humanity is investigated and the truth made known. We need closure, and to stem the pain and show that the suffering has not been in vain.

As the victims prepare for the 25th anniversary of the bombing, the Government can show understanding and solidarity with them by announcing an inquiry. Frankly, the relatives and surviving victims are not asking for another farce such as the Bloody Sunday inquiry. They want a simple, legally competent inquiry that allows their questions to be directed to the relevant individuals and conclusions to be reached.

Is their pain less important than that of the relatives of Bloody Sunday? Are they citizens with lesser rights? Should not the Government take more care to ameliorate the hurt of the innocent victims of terrorism rather than pandering to and appeasing its perpetrators?

"La Mon—you say the name and I see the place."

Yet I also see the aftermath. I see the legacy of the bombing on the lives of those it touched. I see the scars on the bodies and the minds. I see the cruel loss of those who have had their loved ones plucked from them. I see the hurt and the injustice. I see decent people crying out to be heard, and those who had courage in the face of adversity now showing courage in the face of obduracy. I see a great and terrible wrong that must be put right.

In the name of those who cannot speak, I urge the Government to act.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 6:22 pm, 13th February 2003

I congratulate Mrs. Robinson on securing the debate. She has done us all a service by enabling the House to remember the tragic events of 25 years ago on Monday, when the La Mon House hotel was bombed. I congratulate her on ensuring that the anniversary did not pass unmarked by Parliament.

As the hon. Lady reminded us, the details of the attack on the La Mon House hotel are horrific. We recall that outrage not only with sorrow but with revulsion. For those to whom the subject is only a faint memory, it was opportune for the hon. Lady to recall the details of the event. It was clear from the manifest emotion that that engendered in her that she feels for the victims and survivors in a very personal way. The bravery that she showed in articulating the story as she did has done us a great service. It was a privilege to be present.

I intended to refer to the details, but it would be an inappropriate use of the short time that I have left. I do, however, want those present to understand that I know the details of that particularly horrific attack. Reminding myself of them in anticipation of the debate brought home to me the nature of the horror. As Minister for victims, I have had the privilege of hearing many moving stories and meeting many brave people. I would not seek to pick out any individual from among those who have survived or been hurt by this terrible tragedy, but one of the most moving stories of all was from Rita Crawford, who lost her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Ian McCracken in this incident. As the hon. Lady reminded us, they were just 25. They were newly married. I met Mrs. Crawford last May during the golden jubilee garden party at Loughry, and I was particularly struck by her dignity and spirit in the face of such overwhelming tragedy. She is a true heroine.

I have not yet had the privilege of meeting many more of those who were affected by the La Mon House atrocity. I am sure that they will be consistent with my experience throughout Northern Ireland: all victims and survivors of violence over the past 30 years are, in their own way, heroes. They are the people who have paid the price of the violence that has scarred Northern Ireland for the past three decades.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I will just finish this point.

At this time, when there is talk of acts of completion, it is imperative that those who are involved in discussions give the victims of violence their rightful place. I will ensure that that is done. It is a pity that the hon. Lady's party is not represented in some of those discussions, especially in the implementation group for the Belfast agreement, where I intend to hold discussions with politicians in Northern Ireland about victims.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford

Is the Minister aware that, on Sunday at 2.30 pm, Castlereagh borough council will hold a service at St. Finian's church? I am sure that the families would be delighted to have the Minister in attendance, if that were at all possible.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the invitation. I am sure that she will understand that, because of my present responsibilities, my diary is very full. I will have to check what I intend to do this Sunday, but she can rest assured that, if it is at all possible, I will try to be there. However, I have to spend some time with my own family; I know that the hon. Lady will appreciate that, as she has a family herself. If I am unable to be there, it will be for pressing reasons, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will pass on my regards to the people who will be present. My thoughts will be with them on Sunday afternoon.

On the principal call that the hon. Lady made, I will have to disappoint her. I was not the author of the letter to which she referred. However, my fellow Minister who penned that letter gave the appropriate response at this time to the request for a public inquiry. Having listened carefully to the hon. Lady, I say to her with the greatest respect that the Government have no plans to establish a public inquiry into the tragedy at La Mon House. However, I understand the arguments that she made. In particular, I understand the reference that she made to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

In the two minutes remaining, I want to set out in greater detail what was said in that letter. I know that the hon. Lady is a great supporter of our police force, the public prosecution system and the legal system. She holds them up, as I do, as examples of how crime should be pursued. It is because we take such pride in the police and the court system throughout the United Kingdom that we must make every effort to ensure that nothing detracts from the highest standards of behaviour in our police forces and in the administration of justice. There must be nothing questionable in their actions, nothing indefensible in their behaviour, nothing iniquitous and nothing base. That pride in the police and security forces has caused the Government to agree to investigate cases where allegations have been made against them—those very few cases where there has been cause for concern about their actions. We want to trust them; we have to trust them. We must therefore ensure that we are able to trust them. Our police and security forces must be whiter than white. That is why we have these inquiries. They are not designed to punish the police or to make comparisons between the police, the security forces and the other victims of crime. We have a different structure for dealing with such cases. The police investigate, and as the hon. Lady said, the police file is still open.

If there is additional information and evidence at this remove from the incident, it should be examined by the police. We should not set up inquiries which compete with the police investigations and which somehow suggest that there is something that the police could have done at the time. We know full well that that was not the case. Indeed, at the time, about 100 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary were devoted and deployed to the investigation. As the hon. Lady has pointed out, 25 people were arrested, including Gerry Adams. One man was successfully prosecuted and he was given 12 life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. As the hon. Lady will know, he served more than 15 years in jail.

It is because we rely on that structure to investigate and to prosecute that the Government do not draw the comparisons that the hon. Lady asks us to do. We do not say the same things about the police force as we say about terrorists. We rightly treat terrorists as criminals and look to the police to investigate them and the courts to punish them. Therefore, we entrust the investigation of the bombing at the Le Mon House hotel to the police.

The hon. Lady made an implication that, in my respectful submission, is not fair. I do not believe that it would be fair to the men and women of the RUC or the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who have served and who have continued to serve the people of Northern Ireland so bravely, to have them treated in the same way as we treat the other investigations that we carry out. Conversely, it would not be fair to grant to the terrorists the concern that we give to the security forces and to their standards.

I deeply regret that that is my response to the hon. Lady. We should not forget the frightful deaths at Le Mon. The House is grateful to her for giving us the opportunity to consider the issue today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Seven o'clock.