Narrow Water para returns after 30 years

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THREE decades after the Narrow Water massacre of 18 soldiers, a paratrooper who witnessed the barbarity returned to the Province for the first time and spoke of the atrocity.

David Wright, now 53, told the News Letter how that as a 23-year-old paratrooper he was sent to the harrowing scene of the double bomb blast.

After detonating a 500lb bomb on August 27, 1979, at Narrow Water near Warrenpoint, the IRA fired at the dying and injured from across water in the Republic before setting off a second, larger bomb as reinforcements and rescuers arrived.

The atrocity was the greatest single loss of life by the British Army since the Second World War, killing 18 soldiers. Pieces of human flesh and dismembered bodies were strewn across the area close to Narrow Water castle.

Yesterday Mr Wright, who lives in Southend, returned to the Province for a memorial service in nearby Kilkeel.

Speaking after the service, Mr Wright said that the bomb scene was "just carnage" when he arrived. "I was in the Falklands and I saw dead and injured soldiers there, but not as concentrated – everything was so close together at Warrenpoint.

"We were also all friends, all members of the same unit, in Warrenpoint."

Mr Wright said that on that day he lost a pal from Belfast, Thomas Vance, who had joined the Army on the same day as him and was godfather to his daughter.

"We joined the Army on the same day. We got the same train from Waterloo down to Aldershot.

"He was the first person I spoke to – he asked me the time and, no disrespect, I couldn't understand a word he said.

"I'd never spoken to an Irishman in my life.

"Since my last tour of Northern Ireland, I've never been back. I've always sent Christmas cards to the Vance family and they've always responded so I said that after 30 years I should come back and see them.

"I always said that I would come back some time and a lot of my friends are coming back this week." Jaqueline Mahon, 48, the sister of Mr Wright's pal who was killed at Narrow Water, said that the reports of young British soldiers being killed in Afghanistan brought back the anguish of losing her brother.

Mrs Mahon, who was 18 when her brother was murdered, said that her parents are now dead but would have been proud to have seen the work to remember their son.

Mr Wright said that he may visit Narrow Water for the first time in three decades today.

"I may go there in the morning and say a wee prayer before flying back. On the whole, I think the peace process has been a good thing."

The Narrow Water massacre was planned by Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, described by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams in 2006 as a "good republican".

In January Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane and West Tyrone MLA Barry McElduff addressed a "tour" of Narrow Water organised by Sinn Fein's youth wing.

Mr Wright said that seeing former IRA members such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly as Government ministers at Stormont "leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth".

But he said that if it was the price required for peace, he accepted it. He said that he would like to see a Sinn Fein apology for IRA atrocities but added "It's not going to happen, is it?"

Local MLA Danny Kennedy, the Ulster Unionist deputy leader, laid a wreath during yesterday's service.

He said that August 27, 1979, also the day of the bomb which killed Lord Mountbatten and three others was "one of the blackest days of the Troubles".

The veteran UUP politician said that he hoped such atrocities were a relic of the past but warned: "There are elements within the IRA and within dissident republicanism who haven't yet put the past behind them and embraced the future."

Henry Reilly, chairman of the memorial committee which six years ago erected a statue in Kilkeel to Troubles victims from the Newry and Mourne area, said that the Narrow Water anniversary brought particular poignance to this year's service.

Mr Reilly, now a UKIP councillor for the town, said that he remembered hearing the first bomb going off while he was at home in Cranfield. "It was my brother's 10th birthday and my parents had taken him into Kilkeel," he said.

"I thought that it had exploded in Kilkeel and was worried about my brother. It was a very traumatic event for the area."

Victims' campaigner Willie Frazer, who was also at yesterday's service, said: "It was the biggest British military loss of life but the injuries people received that day were unbelievable. It wasn't just about the deaths – people lost limbs and suffered horrific injuries, but that's all been forgotten about."