Justice still sought for Enniskillen bombing

It happened 25 years ago.

Justice still  sought for Enniskillen bombing

But for Daphne Stephenson who survived the IRA outrage that shocked the world, the memories, like the pain, have never faded.

“I can still feel the rubble thumping on top of me,” she said. “I can honestly say I was seconds from death.”

The Poppy Day bombing at Enniskillen still ranks among the worst atrocities of Northern Ireland’s bloody 40-year conflict.

The carnage and devastation that was visited on the Fermanagh town on Nov 8, 1987, plunged a community already wearied by decades of murder even deeper into despair. “Twenty-five years later it’s all very clear,” said Mrs Stephenson. “But it’s something that you have to live with.”

Speaking from the Ely centre — a support group set up to help the victims of terror in Enniskillen — her tear-filled eyes and tightly clasped hands hint at the horror etched permanently in her mind. “I didn’t hear any noise or bang,” she said.

“It came in slow motion — just like a complete blackness over your head.”

Mrs Stephenson had gone to the cenotaph on Nov 8, 1987, with her husband to pay her respects, something the couple had done many times before. Having found a space outside the Reading Room she was pleased to have secured a spot with a good view of the war memorial.

A few metres away stood Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the bombing but inspired the world with his words of forgiveness for her killers. School principal Ronnie Hill who spent 13 years in a coma as a result of the explosion, was just behind.

Unwittingly, Mrs Stephenson had put herself directly in front of the bomb which detonated without warning at 10.45am. “The force of the explosion blew me off my feet. I was told afterwards I had been thrown several feet forward. The whole building came down on top of me. It covered every bit of me. I remember under the rubble grimacing. I was lying to one side and my arms were pinned. I couldn’t move at all. There was rubble all over my head, dust and dirt everywhere. The only air I had was from an air pocket from the tip of my nose to my mouth.

“I can honestly say I was seconds from death. There was no doubt about it. The air was getting hotter and hotter so that there was nothing to breathe. I was literally gasping.”

Mrs Stephenson suffered multiple injuries including a broken pelvis and smashed ankle. The bruising to her face was so bad that even her own brother did not recognise her. She spent four weeks in hospital and had to learn to walk again. A quarter of a century later, she can recall the agony of every step.

“I was just helpless. It was just a long, slow road to recovery. I couldn’t do anything for myself.”

She also feels deep-seated anger and a sense of injustice which would only subside if someone was held to account. “Nobody was ever arrested, nobody was ever charged. There was no inquiry. Nothing.”

Eleven people were killed when the IRA bomb ripped through Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday, 1987. A 12th victim, Ronnie Hill, died after 13 years in a coma. Three married couples were among the dead and of the 63 injured, 13 were children.

A retired nurse, Alberta Quinton was also murdered on that dreadful day. The 72-year-old had served with the RAF and never missed a Remembrance Sunday service.

Her daughter, Aileen Quinton, 54, said the brutal nature of her death was difficult to rationalise. “Considering my mother was a nurse and in her later nursing career worked in geriatrics where she helped a lot of people die with dignity. That was very important to her. The difference between the care that she took over people and what had happened to her could hardly be starker.”

The Enniskillen bomb was seen as a seminal event of the Troubles. The huge display of public revulsion briefly embarrassed the IRA who expressed “regret” the following day. Republicans claimed they had only meant to kill soldiers on patrol.

Nobody has ever been charged or convicted in connection with the explosion. The PSNI Historical Enquiries Team has been investigating. However, many victims also want a public inquiry.

Jim Dixon, a businessman originally from Clones, Co Monaghan, suffered some of the most horrendous injuries as a result of the blast.

The father-of-three had been at the war memorial hoping to take a photograph of his daughter, who had been chosen to lay a wreath on behalf of her school. He was just 3m away when the bomb went off.

He said: “Part of the building hit me in the side of the face. It smashed my skull and the fluid from my brain was coming out through my ears.

“I am told by the surgeons that my eyeballs were sitting on my cheeks. I was split from my chin up to my ear. My face is paralysed. I had a lot of grafting — about five or six operations on my face alone. I had three operations in the last two years on my face.

“I had ribs broken, hip was smashed, pelvis broke in three places, and a leg badly smashed. I was told by the surgeons that I never should have survived.

“After the bomb I was so badly injured they couldn’t give me painkillers. I couldn’t breathe I was so weak and I just pleaded with the surgeons to hit me over the head with a hatchet and put me out of my misery.

“Death is the decent thing. Dying and not fit to die is something else. I never could believe that there could be such fear and terror in a person’s body. It was as if I was placed in the very crypt of hell.”

Mr Dixon has dedicated his life to helping other victims. He said the 25th anniversary has prompted an influx of people in need of help. “Our membership has doubled in the last 18 months,” he added. “Very few people realise the horror that was suffered from a bomb. It goes on for years. I am dealing with people now that have never come before but are feeling terribly traumatised by the bomb — people who were children 25 years ago.”

Stephen Gault had turned 18 just a few days before the bombing. He had been standing between his father, Sammy Gault, a retired RUC officer who had survived an IRA gun attack 26 years previously, and Ted Armstrong. Both his father and Mr Armstrong were killed instantly.

Mr Gault said: “I remember coming round and I couldn’t feel my legs. To this day I can still taste the dirt in my mouth. There was an eerie silence. You could hear nothing except for a shop alarm and it was as if the volume had been turned up on the screaming and crying.

“I looked down and saw my dad lying across the bottom of my feet. I knew right away that he was dead.”

Mr Gault suffered superficial injuries. Medics said his life had been saved by a padded leather jacket he had bought the day before and begged his mother to let him wear it.

However, distress and anxiety attributed to the explosion have had a devastating impact. Two weeks’ after the bomb he developed the psoriasis. He was diagnosed with debilitating arthritis and has had to have surgery on his hands. Just 43, he needs a walking stick and faces the prospect of life in a wheelchair.

He is a member of the new Northern Ireland Victims’ Forum and has committed his life to ensure victims’ voices are heard.

“I remember my mother saying, ‘listen you boys, do not seek revenge — do not get tied up with paramilitaries, your father would not have wanted it’. Thankfully I went down the right road. I didn’t seek revenge. My revenge will come through the courts and through justice, which is something we are still trying to achieve.”

There is a genuine feeling among many of the Enniskillen victims that they have been left behind and forgotten in the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland.

Shop owner Margaret Veitch, who lost both parents, William and Agnes Mullen, said her grief was still raw because of the lack of justice. “The people that were at Enniskillen were ordinary, decent, lovely people. I really do feel Enniskillen has been forgotten. Through the carnage and devastation the families all kept dignity — but that still doesn’t mean that we need our justice any less. And, I hope some day that the terrorists will be caught because we do need some kind of closure for our families.”

The 25th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing is to be marked with a service of remembrance at the scene on Thursday. Afterwards, a service will be held at St Macartin’s Cathedral. First Minister Peter Robinson is expected to attend.

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