Cold case review of IRA blast attacked by victims

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A police report into one of the most horrific attacks of the Northern Ireland Troubles has been slammed by victims who said it left major questions about the IRA atrocity unanswered.

A huge incendiary bomb sent a fireball roaring through a dinner dance at the La Mon House hotel outside Belfast in February 1978 killing 12 people and leaving many others with devastating injuries.

But survivors of the attack said they were angry that a review by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) of the original investigation offered little new information and raised fresh questions over how key evidence had apparently disappeared.

Three of the families left devastated by the night of horror at La Mon spoke out after waiting two years for the HET report and they questioned if a blind eye was effectively being turned to IRA attacks to avoid unsettling the peace process.

Interviews with IRA members, original papers from up to 100 detectives and notes about a warning call and a car used by the bombers could not be found.

Campaigners asked if other items of evidence referred to in the report were still in existence, and if so, if they could be DNA tested.

Jim Mills, whose wife and sister were murdered, said of the report produced by the HET: “It was just a farce. A waste of two years. Building ourselves up – and we’re not able to cope with all this pressure – and you go after two years, and absolutely nothing.

“You could have went to the library and looked it all up in the newspapers. That’s just how bad it is.

“It is ridiculous, You can’t be any more let down than I am. As far as I am concerned they told us nothing whatsoever.

“We would like to find out who done it. We weren’t asking for an awful lot.

“They more or less know who done it, but they’re not allowed to tell because they haven’t been prosecuted.”

Billy McDowell and his wife were seriously injured in the blast, and he said of his dealings with the HET: “Each time we were hoping for some good news. In receiving the final report, we are disappointed to find that there is very little information that we didn’t already know about before they even started. A lot of questions are left unanswered.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland, who has worked with the families to help deliver the HET report, fought back tears as he said he believed he had failed the victims.

“I honestly feel to a degree that I have let them down in some way,” he said.

“The truth is, tomorrow is the start of the next stage of what we hope to do, because without being seen as detractors, without being seen as living ghosts from the past, we need to know that the history of what went on for the last 30 years or 40 years, when it is recorded, will be recorded in a fair and balanced way.

“There was a term used during the Troubles, the silent majority. There are also silent victims who have borne their pain quietly but that does not take away the expectation of justice.”

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, who was called in by the families involved to offer legal advice, was highly critical of the HET review.

“This report, I had hoped, would have given more succour and comfort to the families who have suffered so much, than it has,” he said.

“And sadly it leaves open so many questions which seem on the face of it capable of being answered.

“Questions like, do we still have the exhibits? Can they yet be subject to DNA analysis?

“And yet, they produce a report which leaves such a fundamental question unanswered.”

The families said that if the government was willing to consider public inquiries into the legacy of the Troubles, they believed the La Mon attack should be a top priority. But they said they would also put the HET under pressure for more answers.

In a statement, the campaigners said: “It would appear to the victims that key documents were removed from the files with the view to protecting IRA members who today may be involved in the peace process at the highest level.

“This case, in common with other major investigations, appears to show that the will to uncover the truth has been curtailed for fear of destabilising the current political process.”

The victims, all Protestants, had been attending the annual dinner dance of the Irish Collie Club, and included three married couples.

West Belfast man Robert Murphy was sentenced to life imprisonment for manslaughter in 1981. He was released in 1995 and died in 2006. A second man was acquitted.

A waitress told a coroner’s court inquest: “People were on fire, actually burning alive. I watched men pulling long curtains off the rails and wrapping people up in them to try to put out the flames. I could smell the burning flesh.”

Adhesive tape recovered from the bomb was investigated but not enough DNA was found to create a profile, a campaign group working with the families said.

Two fingerprints and two palmprints found in the Fiat car used to transfer the device remain unidentified.

The names of 69 people were mentioned in intelligence documents or featured during the initial investigation but the HET did not know who authorised or sanctioned the attack, according to Ulster Human Rights Watch lobbyists.

A total of 35 people were arrested but the campaigners said that, without original documentation, the details of the interviews are unknown, adding that records were not automatically updated.