Bomb survivor slams victims group over IRA memorial event

The aftermath of the Ballygawley bus bombing
The aftermath of the Ballygawley bus bombing

A survivor of the Ballygawley bomb massacre has slammed a victims’ group for attending a memorial event for three men he believes were behind the attack.

James Leatherbarrow was a private in the 1st Battalion The Light Infantry when the IRA roadside bomb went off at Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, on August 20, 1988, destroying their army bus and killing eight of his colleagues.

He was speaking after victims’ group Relatives For Justice (RFJ) posted an image on the web service Twitter of an IRA memorial plaque to Brian Mullin and brothers Gerard and Martin Harte.

The Twitter message said RFJ was privileged to attend a memorial mass in their honour.

They were killed by the SAS as they attempted to ambush an off-duty UDR soldier at Cloughfin, Co Tyrone, 10 days after the bus bombing.

Mr Leatherbarrow was travelling back to his Omagh barracks after a weekend visit to his fiancée in England in 1988 when the IRA roadside bomb went off at Ballygawley.

He suffered a broken back, perforated eardrums, various scars and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was 21.

“It ruined my first marriage. I lost all my friends, my house, my job — everything,” he said.

He added: “This group should not be glorifying the IRA. Everyone knows what they [the three men] were doing before that.”

The former soldier believes all three had a hand in the attack.

He said when he arrived back in Northern Ireland on the day of the bomb, as the army bus left the airport, a man – whom he said was one of the IRA trio – came alongside the bus and made a threatening gesture to him.

A black car then followed the bus for the whole journey and overtook it just before the bombing.

“They were cowards,” said Mr Leatherbarrow.

“We did not want to be in Northern Ireland. We were just doing our jobs.”

He added: “Taxpayers’ money should not be used to support a group which glorifies these three men. If it is, I will stop paying my taxes. I don’t care if I go to jail.”

South Belfast DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly said she was “shocked and dismayed” at the tweet, and asked the main funders for RFJ, the The Victims and Survivors Service (VSS), to suspend their funding pending an investigation.

However VSS said it was “satisfied” with RFJ and operates under the statutory definition of a victim which includes everyone who was killed in the Troubles and their families. Critics have long complained that it includes terrorists killed in action.

RFJ was invited to comment on Mr Leatherbarrow’s remarks specifically, but did not do so.

It had said previously, after criticism from Emma Little Pengelly, that it was “always privileged to attend remembrance activities organised by families in respect of their loved ones”.

It had added: “RFJ provides a fully inclusive and professional non-judgmental range of support services to people affected by the conflict whatever the circumstances in which their loved ones were killed.”

In 2015 the families of three IRA men said they were taking legal action against Lord Maginnis, the government and chief constable after an RTE documentary in which Lord Maginnis – an ex-UDR officer – said he had supplied Margaret Thatcher with the names of three IRA men as having been responsible for the Ballygawley bombing.