La Mon restaurant bombing – 17 February 1978

 

La Mon restaurant bombing

The La Mon restaurant bombing was an incendiary bomb attack by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on 17 February 1978 that has been described as “one of the worst atrocities” of the Troubles.[1][2] It took place at the La Mon House hotel/restaurant near Belfast, Northern Ireland. The IRA left a large incendiary bomb, containing a napalm-like substance, outside one of the restaurant’s windows. There were 450 diners, hotel staff and guests inside the building. The IRA members then tried to send warnings by telephone, but were unable to do so until nine minutes before it detonated. The blast created a fireball, killing twelve people and injuring thirty more, many of whom were severely burnt. Many of the injured were treated in the Ulster Hospital in nearby Dundonald.

Since the beginning of its campaign, the IRA had carried out numerous attacks on economic targets, killing many members of the public in the process. The IRA’s goal was to harm the economy and cause disruption, which would put pressure on the British government to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

Belfast man Robert Murphy received 12 life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. Murphy was freed from prison on licence in 1995. There are allegations that two of the IRA members involved were British double agents.

The bombing

Warnings

On 17 February 1978, an IRA unit planted an incendiary bomb attached to petrol-filled canisters on meat hooks outside the window of the Peacock Room in the restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel, located at Gransha, County Down, about 6 miles (9.7 km) southeast of central Belfast.[3] After planting the bomb, the IRA members tried to send a warning from the nearest public telephone, but found that it had been vandalised.[4][5] On their way to another telephone they were delayed again when forced to stop at an Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) checkpoint.[5] By the time they were able to send the warning, only nine minutes remained before the bomb exploded at 21:00.[3] The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) base at Newtownards had received two further telephone warnings at 20:57 and 21:04.[6] By the time the latter call came in it was too late. When an officer telephoned the restaurant to issue the warning he was told “For God’s sake, get out here – a bomb has exploded!”.[6] Although the bombers tried to warn of the bomb (the IRA often gave bomb warnings when destroying property but never when targeting the police or military), a 2012 news article claimed that the IRA were targeting RUC officers they believed were meeting in the restaurant that night. The article claimed that the IRA had got the wrong date and that the meeting of RUC officers had taken place exactly a week before.[7]

Lily McDowell pictured after the La Mon bomb attack in 1978
Lilly McDowell suffered severe burns in the attack

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La Mon Hotel Bombing

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Explosion and fireball

That evening the two main adjoining function rooms, the Peacock Room and Gransha Room, were packed with people of all ages attending dinner dances. Including the hotel guests and staff, there was a total of 450 people inside the building.[3] The diners had just finished their first course when the bomb detonated, shattering the window outside of which it was attached and vaporising the canisters. The explosion created an instantaneous and devastating fireball of blazing petrol, 40 feet high and 60 feet wide, which engulfed the Peacock Room.[8] Twelve people were killed, having been virtually burnt alive,[4][9] and a further 30 were injured, many of them critically. Some of the wounded lost limbs, but for the most part received severe burns. One badly burnt survivor described the inferno inside the restaurant as “like a scene from hell”, whilst another who lost her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law, Ian McCracken, said the blast was “like the sun had exploded in front of my eyes”.[8] There was further pandemonium after the lights had gone out and choking black smoke filled the room. The survivors, with their hair and clothing on fire, rushed to escape the burning room. It took firemen almost two hours to put out the blaze.[8] The dead included eleven Protestant civilians and one RUC officer. Half of the victims were young married couples. Most of the dead and injured were members of the Irish Collie Club and the Northern Ireland Junior Motor Cycle Club, which were holding their yearly dinner dances in the Peacock Room and Gransha Room respectively. The former took the full force of the explosion and subsequent fire; many of those who died had been seated closest to the window where the bomb had gone off. Some of the injured were still receiving treatment 20 years later.[3]

The device was a small blast bomb attached to four large petrol canisters, each filled with a home-made napalm-like substance of petrol and sugar. This was designed to stick to whatever it hit, a combination which caused severe burn injuries. The victims were found beneath a pile of hot ash and charred beyond recognition,[8] making identity extremely difficult as all their individual human features had been completely burned away.[3][10] Some of the bodies had shrunk so much in the intense heat, it was first believed that there were children among the victims. One doctor who saw the remains described them as being like “charred logs of wood”.[8] According to a published account by retired RUC Detective Superintendent Kevin Sheehy, this type of device had already been used by the IRA in more than one hundred attacks on commercial buildings before the La Mon attack.[11]

Aftermath

Gordon & Joan Crothers Killed in the bomb

 

The day after the explosion, the IRA admitted responsibility and apologised for the inadequate warning.[3] The hotel had allegedly been targeted by the IRA as part of its firebomb campaign against commercial targets; however, the resulting carnage brought quick condemnation from other Irish nationalists, with one popular newspaper comparing the attack to the 1971 McGurk’s Bar bombing.[12] Sinn Féin president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh also strongly criticised the operation.[12] In consequence of the botched attack, the IRA Army Council gave strict instructions to all units not to bomb buses, trains or hotels.[5]

As all the victims had been Protestant, many Protestants saw the bombing as a sectarian attack against their community. Unionists called for the return of the death penalty.[12] The same day, about 2,000 people attended a lunchtime service organised by the Orange Order at Belfast City Hall. Belfast International Airport also shut for an hour, while many workers in Belfast and Larne stopped work for a time. Workers at a number of factories said they were contributing a half-day’s pay to a fund for the victims.[6] Ulster loyalists criticised the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Roy Mason, for his “complacent attitude” to the attack. He claimed that the explosion was “an act of criminal irresponsibility” performed “by remnants of IRA gangs”. He also claimed that the IRA was on the decline.[3]

A team of 100 RUC detectives was deployed in the investigation. As part of the investigation, 25 people were arrested in Belfast, including Gerry Adams.[6] Adams was released from custody in July 1978.[13] Two prosecutions followed. One Belfast man was charged with twelve murders but was acquitted. He was convicted of IRA membership but successfully appealed. In September 1981, another Belfast man, Robert Murphy was given twelve life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. Murphy was freed on licence in 1995.[14][6] As part of their bid to catch the bombers, the RUC passed out leaflets which displayed a graphic photograph of a victim’s charred remains.[12]

In 2012, a news article claimed that two members of the IRA bombing team—including the getaway driver—were British double agents working for MI5. According to the article, one of the agents was Denis Donaldson.[7] That year, Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) completed a report on the bombing. It revealed that important police documents, including interviews with IRA members, have been lost.[7][15] A number of the victims’ families slammed the report and called for a public inquiry. They claimed the documents had been removed to protect certain IRA members.[7][15] Unionist politician Jim Allister, who had been supporting the families, said: “There is a prevalent belief that someone involved was an agent and that is an issue around which we need clarity”.[7]

Details

* At the time of the blast there were 450 diners, hotel staff and guests inside the hotel.

* Twelve people were killed when the bomb detonated, and a further 30 were injured. The fatalities included 12 Protestant civilians (see below), including three sets of young married couples.

* The IRA claimed that it had tried to telephone the hotel to warn them about the explosion but, due to various obstacles, was only able to do so nine minutes before detonation.

* The day after the bombing the IRA admitted responsibility and apologised for the inadequate warning.

* In the aftermath of the attack 25 people were arrested, including Gerry Adams, who was released from custody in July 1978 and became president of Sinn Fein two months later.

* In September 1981, Robert Murphy, a native of Belfast, was handed 12 life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. Murphy was freed from prison on licence in 1995.

Victims

 

Date Name and age Status
17 February 1978

Thomas Neeson (52)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Sandra Morris (27)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Ian McCracken (25)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Elizabeth McCracken (25)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Daniel Magill (37)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Carol Mills (26)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Gordon Crothers (30)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Joan Crothers (26)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Paul Nelson (37)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Dorothy Nelson (34)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978

Christine Lockhart (33)

Protestant civilian
17 February 1978 Sarah Wilson Cooper (52) Protestant civilian

here

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First Published 24/08/2013

La Mon bombing

A split second of evil… and then they were orphans

One night 35 years ago, Andrea and Melanie Nelson’s parents went out to a dinner dance and never came back. They died in the IRA La Mon bombing. For their daughters, the battle to survive without them was just the beginning.

Andrea (in pink) and her sister Melanie with their parents Dorothy and Paul Nelson

‘She’s had to travel a long and painful road since she and her teenage sister were orphaned by one of the IRA’s most savage bomb attacks 35 years ago but there’s still one journey that Andrea Nelson simply can’t and won’t undertake

And the resolute Dundonald woman, who now lives in Yorkshire, says she will never go anywhere near the La Mon House Hotel in the Castlereagh Hills above Belfast.

For that’s where Andrea and her sister Melanie lost their parents Dorothy and Paul Nelson in the infamous bombing which killed a total of 12 people — seven of them women — on February 17, 1978 when some of the victims were burned beyond recognition.

The Nelsons, who weren’t ones for socialising on a regular basis, had accompanied friends to the hotel for a Friday night dinner dance organised by the Irish Collie Club after ensuring that 13-year-old Melanie and Andrea, who was a year older, were in safe hands back home.

Andrea recalls: “They didn’t go out very often. We were basically a quiet little family unit of four and it was a big thing for mum and dad to attend a function with their chums.”

However, it was a night out which was ruthlessly cut short by one of the most lethal bombs ever assembled by the IRA, one which was later likened to the type of horrific device which might have been seen in the war in Vietnam.

The blast bomb was attached to four large petrol cans, all of them filled with a home-made napalm-like mixture of petrol and sugar which was designed to stick to whatever or whoever it hit

The IRA said they tried to give a warning but claimed a telephone box wasn’t working and shortly afterwards a huge fireball — over 60ft wide and 40ft high — engulfed the guests in La Mon’s Peacock Room, creating a scene of almost unspeakable carnage which still haunts many of the survivors three-and-a-half decades on.

The Nelsons quite simply didn’t stand a chance. Andrea now knows that her parents were seated right beside the huge bomb which had been hung with a meat hook on to a window grille.

One of their friends was also killed. Another member of their party survived. “I think she had just popped out to the toilet,” says Andrea.

Back in 1978 in their house at Brooklands Gardens in Dundonald, the Nelsons’ daughters were blissfully unaware of their parents’ deaths, even though Andrea had seen TV coverage of the atrocity.

“I didn’t know the name of the place they had gone to for their evening out,” says Andrea, who was babysitting for a family next door. “I actually saw the fire on the television news but I didn’t realise my mum and dad were there.”

The Nelsons’ neighbours returned around midnight and Andrea immediately saw that they were upset. “They asked if our parents had got back yet but when we said no, they told us they’d been at the hotel which was wrecked by the explosion”

It was then that the sisters’ happy and secure world started to fall apart. Their minister, the late Rev Roy Magee, was to describe their despair as he addressed mourners at their parents’ funeral in his Presbyterian Church at Dundonald.

Talking directly to the Provisional IRA he said: “Try to picture the scene at 4.30am on Saturday when two young girls were still waiting in vain for their parents to come home. Ponder the agony and heartbreak you have caused to so many families but remember that though you may escape the law of man, you cannot escape the law of God.”

Mr Magee, who became a central figure in moves to persuade loyalist paramilitaries to stop their violence, had gone to Brooklands after the bombing to see if he could help the Nelson sisters.

Andrea says: “In the hours after the blast there was a lot of confusion as relatives tried to find out about their loved ones. Some people were in hospital, some had gone home from La Mon. But we didn’t know what had happened and it was almost like a period of a dawning realisation that our parents weren’t coming back.”

Mr Magee liaised between the families and the police and hospital authorities. Tragically he held out little hope for Andrea and Melanie. Andrea says: “The strange thing was that because our parents didn’t return and because of the ferocity of the bomb there wasn’t any way of identifying them positively for days and days. We had to provide hair brushes and toothbrushes from the house to try and match them with the remains.

“The penny was dropping with us slowly rather than anyone telling us definitively that our parents were dead. There was always the straw to clutch on to that they might have been in hospital somewhere or they might have been wandering around Castlereagh with head injuries, having lost their memories.

“Obviously you want to have any options rather than the one you think is coming towards you.”

It was nearly a week before Andrea and Melanie received confirmation that their parents had perished in the devastation at La Mon. “With the limited techniques 35 years ago, the forensics people had a real challenge giving any certainty. I suppose the advances in DNA would make it all very different nowadays”

The sense of emptiness was now complete for the girls who no longer had “two important members of their little team of four” in their lives, but their relatives rallied around them.

At first they lived with an aunt and uncle in Chester but after the summer of 1978 they returned to Northern Ireland where their grandparents looked after them as they went back to Bloomfield Collegiate on the Upper Newtownards Road.

The sisters, who were always close to each other, became inseparable after the deaths of their parents. “There’s a bond there which will never be broken,” says Andrea.

After leaving school, the girls enrolled in English universities with Andrea studying mechanical engineering and then nursing before working towards a PhD in bio-engineering, while Melanie qualified as a nursery nurse.

The two sisters travelled extensively to further their careers but they’ve now settled 40 minutes from each other near Leeds.

Andrea is a nurse and a professor of wound healing at the University of Leeds and Melanie has just graduated with a degree in sociology and criminology.

And it was Melanie’s successful return to her studies which prompted the sisters to write a letter earlier this week to the Belfast Telegraph — where their mum was a secretary in the Seventies — to thank the people of Northern Ireland for the huge impact they’d made on their lives.

“This letter of thanks is long overdue,” wrote the girls. “But we want to acknowledge our gratitude to everyone who contributed to a public collection in 1978. That generosity has allowed us both to pursue our education.”

The money raised for the La Mon families helped the sisters to buy a small house of their own in London, a place they could call home in the absence of a family base back in Belfast.

“We didn’t have a mum and dad to go home to but we had each other, to have a home for each other. That fund made a real difference to our lives because we were able to go on with our studying rather than having to get a job as we didn’t have our parents to assist us financially,” says Andrea.

The sisters have also thanked their family, friends and schoolteachers at Bloomfield for being their rocks in their crisis years. Andrea says: “We lost a massive part of our lives when we were just ordinary young girls but we’re grateful to so many people who gave us a safe and stable anchor.”

Despite all the trauma and turmoil of the sisters’ youth, Andrea still calls Northern Ireland home and clearly has a deep and abiding affection for the province that she left behind in her quest for a new life in Britain.

She says: “I married a Scotsman and I took him home to show him that Scotland wasn’t a patch on Northern Ireland. We don’t get back as often as I would like but I always visit my parents’ grave at Redburn Cemetery. But I’ve never seen La Mon and I never will. That’s a blank page which I want to remain a blank page.”

The La Mon massacre has been the subject of an investigation by the Historical Enquiries Team and last year the Nelson sisters, like the families of all the victims, received an 81-page report about the killings though many of the documents relating to the original RUC probe were missing.

A number of the La Mon survivors called for a public inquiry after questioning if the disappearance of the files was linked to a bid to protect IRA members now involved in the peace process.

Andrea Nelson prefers to keep her own counsel about the HET inquiry. “They’ve done their bit and they produced a comprehensive narrative of all the information they had but the passage of time from 1978 has meant that there’s no prospect of more cases being brought.

“However, I don’t feel I am able to judge whether or not the investigation was satisfactory.”

Two men were arrested and tried on charges linked to the outrage. Edward Manning Brophy was acquitted and Robert Murphy, who pleaded guilty to 12 counts of manslaughter, was jailed for life in 1981 but freed 14 years later. Both men are now dead.

Neither Andrea nor Melanie have maintained any real contacts with the rest of the La Mon families.

An aunt was closely involved with Iris Robinson and Castlereagh Borough Council as they developed plans for a La Mon memorial but she died around 10 years ago.

An Ulster exile she may be, but Andrea isn’t fixated on what goes on back home.

She accepts that she’s probably moved on in more ways than one.

“I’ve kept my accent but I haven’t kept up my interest in Northern Irish politics,” she says.

Melanie has a 12-year-old daughter but Andrea hasn’t any children. “I’ve been too busy,” she says.

Andrea says she hasn’t allowed herself to think too much about the IRA terrorists who killed her mother and father. “We dwelt instead on surviving and making our parents proud of us,” she says. “We didn’t want to spend all our time being reactive to negative things and not being in charge of our own lives.

“So our determination was that while the bombers took something from us, they weren’t going to take everything. If we had lived our lives according to anger or spite, we would have been the worse off and the people who did it would have moved ahead. The only losers would have been us.”

Factfile

* The restaurant of the La Mon House Hotel, in Gransha, Co Down, was bombed by the IRA on February 17, 1978. The attack was thought to be part of the Provo terror campaign against economic targets.

* At the time of the blast there were 450 diners, hotel staff and guests inside the hotel.

* Twelve people were killed when the bomb detonated, and a further 30 were injured. The fatalities included 11 Protestant civilians and one Royal Ulster Constabulary officer.

* The IRA claimed that it had tried to telephone the hotel to warn them about the explosion but, due to various obstacles, was only able to do so nine minutes before detonation.

* The day after the bombing the IRA admitted responsibility and apologised for the inadequate warning.

* In the aftermath of the attack 25 people were arrested, including Gerry Adams, who was released from custody in July 1978 and became president of Sinn Fein two months later.

* In September 1981 Belfast man Robert Murphy was handed 12 life sentences for the manslaughter of those who died. Murphy was freed from prison on licence in 1995.

See Belfast Telegraph for full story

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