This document is a summary analysis of the HET (Historical Enquiries Team) Review Summary Report on the explosion at La Mon House on 17 February 1978.
The outline of the points considered is as follows:
1. Objectives of the HET;
2. Sequence of events, details of the attack;
3. Nature of the device;
4. Persons in charge of the investigation;
5. Provisional IRA responsibility;
6. Arrest and convictions;
7. Stages of the review process;
8. Documents missing from the investigation files;
9. Summary of the figures;
1. Objectives of the HET
At the beginning of the report the HET outlined its objectives, one of them being:
“To re-examine all deaths attributable to ‘The Troubles’ and ensure that all investigative and evidential opportunities are subject to thorough and exhaustive examination in a manner that satisfies the PSNI’s obligation of an effective investigation as outlined in Article 2 of the PSNI Code of Ethics” (emphasis ours).
Article 2 of the PSNI Code of Ethics states that: “Police investigations shall … be conducted in a prompt, thorough, impartial and careful manner … in accordance with the law”.
The HET, which is an operationally independent unit of the PSNI, indicated that they “seek only to conduct a factual review to a modern, professional policing standard, to determine whether any additional evidence can be found” (HET Report, page 2).
It committed itself to carry this out in a way that commands the confidence of the wider community (HET Report, page 1).
2. Sequence of events, details of the attack
The sequence of events from the information gathered by the HET could be described as follows:
- On 17 February 1978 at 6.20pm a Fiat 128, car registration AIW 4184, is hijacked in west Belfast;
- The bomb is put on the back seat of the Fiat 128 in a large package according to Murphy’s statement (HET Report, page 48);
- The Fiat is seen by a witness at 7.45pm turning left from the Ballygowan Road and heading towards La Mon House (HET Report, page 64);
- The bomb is placed at La Mon House around 8.00pm on Friday 17 February 1978 by one man who was seated in the back of the Fiat 128, got out to leave the bomb at La Mon and returned to the car within a few minutes, according to the written statement made by Murphy (HET Report, page 48);
- The Fiat 128 is abandoned at the side of the road on Lisleen Road, Gransha and is seen shortly after by two witnesses at 8.25pm and 8.30pm (HET Report, page 48);
- The bombers are picked up by another red car on Lisleen Road (HET Report, page 50);
- On the way back they are waved through an army check point under the bridge at Finaghy Road North and return to west Belfast (HET Report, page 50);
- The first warning call is made at 8.51pm to the Operator (nine minutes warning);
- The RUC is informed by the Operator at 8.57pm;
- The bomb explodes at about 9.00pm;
- A second warning call is made at about 9.03pm;
- Police arrive at the scene at 9.08pm;
- Detective Inspector Colgan asks Detective Inspector James Reid, RUC headquarters crime squad, to set up a major incident room at Newtownards RUC Station at 11.10pm;
- The blaze is brought under control on Saturday morning at 1.30am (HET Report, page 35).
3. Nature of the device
The evidence was recovered by SOCOs Constable Cunningham and Constable Arnold with forensic scientist David Brooks. The bomb was an incendiary device placed either on or against the window ledge outside the Peacock Room of the La Mon House (HET Report, page 36).
a) Parts recovered
The parts that were recovered included:
- pieces of distorted tin and metal recovered below the window;
- parts of a Slava brand travel alarm clock (HET Report, page 36);
- the base and top of a tin container of approximately one gallon capacity (HET Report, page 53, item 2);
- two tops and three bases from at least three tin containers (motor oil cans) (HET Report, page 53, item 4);
- a top and further fragments from tin containers similar to those mentioned above (HET Report, page 53, item 9);
- at least four containers were used in the device (HET Report, page 54);
- petrol was used and it is not suggested that there was an additive (HET Report, page 54);
- four times the normal amount of flammable liquid used in other devices of the same type was used in this device (HET Report, pages 54, 65, 67);
- the device was placed in a light brown coloured leatherette holdall (HET Report, page 54).
Although it is mentioned that the inflammable liquid was four times the usual amount used in similar devices, the amount of petrol used with this device is not indicated anywhere in the report. An experiment was made by the scientist, David Brooks, with a similar blast incendiary. When it exploded it resulted in a fireball in excess of 60 feet in diameter and 40 feet in height (HET Report, page 55).
Action required by HET: firstly, the amount of petrol used in the device should be determined in gallons and/or litres; secondly, the number of people involved in carrying the bomb from the FIAT car to the La Mon House should be determined.
Six pieces of adhesive tape were removed from the remains of the device and were placed onto acetate sheets. These presented further investigative opportunities, which were investigated by HET, but unfortunately the outcome was not positive since it appeared that not enough DNA was found to enable a DNA profile to be developed (HET Report, pages 54, 63).
It was found that the alarm clock that was used had been modified to allow a maximum delay of about 58 minutes (HET Report, page 55).
Two fingerprints and two palm prints found in the Fiat remained unidentified after comparison with the RUC suspect collection.
Action required by HET: fingerprints and palm prints should be checked again with all available police records.
4. Persons in charge of the investigation
The investigation was overseen by a Detective Chief Superintendent and was entrusted to Detective Inspector Colgan, who was assisted by 100 detectives from:
- District CID offices;
- Belfast Regional Crime Squad (BRCS);
- RUC headquarters crime squad (HET Report, page 36).
5. Provisional IRA responsibility
The HET states that “from the outset detectives attributed the La Mon House bombing to the Provisional IRA” (HET Report, pages 41, 60). However, it does not reveal why the RUC were rightly convinced that the PIRA was behind the attack.
The admission of responsibility by the PIRA came later on Monday 20 February 1978 (HET Report, pages 41, 68).
The HET indicates that “high grade intelligence reports received between 1978 and 1980 named a large number of suspected members of the Provisional IRA from west Belfast as being responsible for the bomb attack. A number of the reports specifically outlined the roles played by some of those suspected.” (HET Report, page 57).
It also appears that the names of 69 people were either mentioned in intelligence documents or featured during the initial investigation (HET Report, page 60).
In answer to a question asked by the victims, the HET indicates: “Provisional IRA commanders, responsible for specific geographic areas such as west Belfast, would have been expected to plan and carry out operations to progress the strategic aim of the organisation.” But it added “the HET do not know who authorised or sanctioned the attack.” (HET Report, page 80).
Action required by HET: an explanation should be given as to what made the RUC detectives fully convinced from the outset, prior to any acknowledgement from terrorists, that the PIRA were responsible for the atrocity.
6. Arrests and convictions
The total number of people arrested in connection with the La Mon House atrocity was 35.
The persons arrested were:
- Witness J, owner of the hijacked Fiat 128;
- A friend of witness J;
- Edward Brophy;
- Robert Murphy;
- 19 other people were arrested on 18 February 1978 and interviewed about the La Mon House bombing. All of them, including Edward Manning Brophy, were suspected members of the PIRA and included those believed to hold senior positions within the organisation. They were taken to Castlereagh police office;
- 8 other men were arrested and interviewed in the days immediately after the explosion in connection with the La Mon House bombing;
- 3 other men were arrested between May and August 1978 in connection with the La Mon House bombing;
- One other man was arrested in 1987 in connection with the La Mon House bombing.
All these arrests were based solely on intelligence. The HET found that there was a rolling programme of arrests, mainly of republican terrorist suspects from west Belfast, during the months following the La Mon House bombing.
The HET report states that in the absence of admissions or any other evidence to link those arrested to the attack no one else was charged in connection with the bombing (HET Report, pages 42 and 52). It should be noted that the HET recognises that in the absence of original documentation the details of the interviews are not known (HET Report, page 52).
The report also mentions that other people may have been arrested under terrorism legislation and questioned during “The Troubles” about this attack but, says HET, it is possible that the La Mon case records were not updated as it was not the practice to automatically update records (HET Report, pages 52, 68).
The only two men arrested and tried were:
- Edward Manning Brophy, who was charged and later acquitted. He died in 1997;
- Robert Murphy, who pleaded guilty to 12 counts of manslaughter and causing the explosion at the La Mon House but he denied planning the bombing. He was sentenced in 1981 and released in 1995. He died in 2006 (HET Report, page 7).
Action required by HET: any information concerning the La Mon House attack the HET may have discovered while re-investigating other cases should be used to up-date its records on this atrocity.
7. Stages of the review process
At the beginning of the review process at the assessment stage, the HET states that: “The original papers are retrieved” (HET Report, page 4). These are the original investigation documents, which enable HET re-investigations to focus initially on the new opportunities identified in order to gather further evidence. Focussed investigations, according to the HET, could lead to a wider review if appropriate (HET Report, page 4).
Among the documents considered by the HET were a number of copies such as:
- Copies of RUC files forwarded to the director of public prosecutions regarding Edward Brophy and Robert Murphy;
- Copy of inquest files and associated documents from the coroner;
- Copies of RUC reports compiled by Detective Colgan;
- Copies of post-mortem examination reports for the 12 victims;
- Copies of forensic reports (HET Report, page 33).
It shows that instead of proceeding on the basis of “original papers”, as indicated at the beginning of the report, most of the review was in fact carried out on the basis of copies. This was not the only inconvenience met by the HET review of the La Mon House bombing’ since a number of important original documents also appeared to be missing from the investigation files concerning the atrocity.
Action required by HET: every possible attempt should be made to recover the original papers concerning the La Mon House investigation.
8. Documents missing from the investigation files
The HET confirmed throughout the report that it did not find a number of important documents that were either mislaid or removed from the original files: a) the MIRIAM documentation, b) original documents concerning the second warning call, c) original papers concerning the house-to-house enquiry, d) documents concerning the car used by the bombers on their return journey, e) the original documentation concerning the interviews of arrested terrorist suspects.
a) The MIRIAM documentation
The management and recording of the investigation was done using MIRIAM (Major Incident Room Indexing and Action Management) system. It was a manual card indexing system that was devised by the police to enable investigators to cross reference documentation and link the outcomes of enquiries to other information already in the system (HET Report, page 33).
The system ensured that all information was recorded in writing and that relevant enquiries were directed. The procedure was as follows:
- First, the information received was recorded on message forms;
- Then the information was assessed and specific enquiries ordered, called actions;
- Finally, the details and outcome of the enquiry were written on forms known as action sheets.
The HET acknowledges that it was “unable to find the original MIRIAM documentation”, including the card index, message forms and action sheets. Therefore, it recognises that its ability to comment fully on the extent of the original investigation and the precise details of all the enquiries undertaken has been considerably restricted.
The HET report indicates that it met with Mr Colgan, who had retired from the RUC as a Detective Superintendent, to discuss details of the investigation (HET Report, page 58). It does not say how many times the HET met him, but Mr Colgan could not help to locate the MIRIAM documentation (HET Report, page 59).
The copied documentation that was at the disposal of the HET only outlined the main lines of enquiry and the direction and progress of the investigation. The report indicates that the HET review was carried out using prosecution papers, which include typed copies of the original statements of the witnesses deemed relevant by the DPP in the prosecution of Brophy and Murphy, the only two people that were ever brought to justice in this case.
It would therefore appear that not all lines of enquiry were reviewed by the HET, but only the main ones, since it is admitted that the review was carried out using prosecution papers only (HET Report, page 34).
Action required by HET: the HET should endeavour to do all that is necessary to recover the MIRIAM documentation, with the assistance of former Detective Inspector Colgan, the Detective Chief Superintendent who oversaw the investigation and all the other detectives who took part in the investigation.
b) Second warning call
The second warning call was made from a public telephone at Glenowen Inn, Glen Road, west Belfast at 9.03pm. The HET states that in the absence of original documentation, the outcome of any further enquiries to identify the man who attempted to use the telephone shortly after the warning call had been made cannot be established (HET Report, page 37).
Action required by HET: the HET should endeavour to uncover the original documentation concerning the second warning call.
c) House-to-house enquiries
House-to-house enquiries were carried out in the vicinity of the La Mon House to try to identify anyone involved. The HET states that in the absence of original papers it is not known what information was obtained during these visits (HET Report, page 41).
Action required by HET: the HET should endeavour to locate the original papers concerning the house-to-house enquiries.
d) Red car
There is nothing in the papers to indicate what enquiries were carried out to identify the red car referred to by Murphy which was used to pick up the bombers and bring them back to west Belfast, although intelligence received by the RUC in late February 1978 suggested that on their way back from La Mon House the terrorists were stopped at an army check point (HET Report, pages 50 and 57).
Action required by HET: the HET should endeavour to find out the original documentation concerning the red car used by the bombers on their return journey.
e) Interviews of republican terrorist suspects
The HET states that in the absence of original documentation, the details of the interviews of mainly republican terrorist suspects from west Belfast are not known (HET Report, page 52). This would mean that all the documents detailing the interviews of 33 suspected terrorists have been either mislaid or removed from the original files.
Considering the number of original documents missing, some of which were crucial to understanding how the investigation was carried out, and which could have opened up new lines of investigation, it is submitted that the HET review could not reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Action required by HET: the HET should endeavour to track down the original documentation concerning the interviews of all terrorist suspects arrested in the aftermath of the atrocity.
9. Summary of figures
The number of victims and suspects is as follows:
- 12 people dead;
- 23 injured, some very seriously;
- 35 people, mostly suspected members of the Provisional IRA, were arrested;
- 69 people in all were suspected of involvement.
The La Mon House bombing was one of the most disturbing attacks carried out by the Provisional IRA during their terrorist campaign.
The HET states: “The La Mon House attack was one of the most horrific incidents in Northern Ireland’s history” (HET Report, page 69). The report also contains a number of statements:
- Sergeant Clifford McIlwrath in charge of RUC Special Patrol Group (SPG) officers who assisted with the removal of the victims from the building and described the victims as “barely recognisable as human remains” (HET Report, page 25);
- The book ‘Lost Lives’ records: “The incident is regarded as one of the most horrific of ‘The Troubles’, with many of the victims burned beyond recognition by a fireball” (HET Report, page 70);
- Lord Justice Gibson, when sentencing Murphy on 29 September 1981, commented: “The one [attack that was] by far the most serious, indeed the most horrific in the history of this community” (HET Report, page 77).
At a service at the City Hall on 23 February 1978, Thomas Passmore said: “too much attention is being paid to the rights of IRA terrorists while innocent people are being denied even the right to live” (HET Report, page 74). Indeed a lot has been done over the years to guarantee the rights of terrorist suspects and on many occasions the victims of terrorism have been forgotten.
It is deeply disappointing that the re-investigation of the La Mon House explosion has not been thoroughly carried out. Indeed, the review was carried out mainly on the basis of copies of various documents in the absence of the original key documents, particularly the MIRIAM documentation and the details of the interviews of all the terrorist suspects arrested in the aftermath of the attack.
In view of the above findings it is recommended that:
1. All the original papers concerning the investigation into the La Mon House be recovered as soon as possible;
2. The essential information mislaid or removed from the investigation files be traced and recovered as soon as possible, concerning a) the MIRIAM documentation, b) original documents concerning the second warning call, c) original papers concerning the house-to-house enquiry, d) documents concerning the car used by the bombers on their return journey, e) the original documentation concerning the interviews of arrested terrorist suspects;
3. The amount of petrol used in the device placed at the La Mon House on or beside the ledge of the window at the front of the Peacock room be determined in gallons and/or litres;
4. The number of people involved in carrying the bomb from the FIAT car to the La Mon House on 17 February 1978 at 8.00pm be determined;
5. The responsibility of all 33 PIRA suspects who were arrested and questioned in relation to the La Mon House attack be reviewed;
6. The possible involvement of any other person(s) mentioned in the intelligence documents or featured during the initial investigation be reviewed;
7. All necessary complementary measures be taken to ensure the manifestation of the truth and identify those responsible.
In order to discover the truth and find those responsible for the planning and execution of the bombing, the victims are now calling for a full public enquiry into the La Mon House atrocity.