La Mon House Hotel Bombing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 13th February 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

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.