It’s been three decades since the Teebane massacre but families are still no closer to getting answers about the terrible atrocity
In the early hours of Friday, January 17, 1992, the fog hung thick in the air, casting a cloak over the barren wasteland lining the main road between Cookstown and Omagh.
Sixteen young workmen clambered into the back of a minibus, the employees of Karl Construction setting out for another normal day on the job.
On their way to the site at Lisanelly Army Barracks in Omagh they took the usual route. They passed the Teebane junction, around 10 miles into a journey the van had made consistently for 12 months.
No-one noticed members of the Tyrone brigade of the IRA laying silently in wait ready to trigger a roadside bomb. The IRA never noticed the van either. The mission was aborted.
Later that evening, 14 men got back into that van for the homeward journey. Two of them decided to take a lift in a car behind. They watched their workmates blown up as they passed back by that same junction. Eight men died, six survived.
The bomb was said to have contained 600 lbs of home-made explosives packed into two blue barrels. It was detonated from a power source located at the vantage point, 230 metres up the hill overlooking the road. They had waited for the moment, and had likely watched the same van for several months as it took the Protestant workmen to their work.
The years may disappear, but the memories and the pain never do. All that stands there now, passed by thousands of cars every day, is a granite monument to the lives lost, largely unnoticed after all these years, except by those who remember the events all too well.
For the families of the eight who lost their lives by the roadside and those who survived to live through it every day since, it might as well be 30 days ago, 30 hours.
Yesterday the families were together once again to mark the anniversary to remember David Samuel Harkness, William Gary Alexander Bleeks, John Robert Dunseith, John Richard McConnell, Cecil James Caldwell, Nigel William John McKee, Robert Irons and Oswald Wilson Gilchrist.
There was a poignant gathering at the monument at 3pm, but some can still not bear to visit the scene. A second service in Orritor Presbyterian Church followed at 6pm in the evening to allow them to remember.
Among those remembering was Ruth Forrest, who still lives in Cookstown. Her brother David Harkness had just turned 24. It took over two decades for Ruth to break her silence over the events of that day. Most of the other families never have. It was frustration, a determination her brother and the others killed and injured should not be forgotten, that meant she could hide away in silence no longer.
“That first year after Teebane was terrible. I’m not sure how I functioned. I can remember my husband coming home to me and telling me he just wanted the girl he married back,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for having small children I would have disappeared completely as the person I’d been before.
“You get through,” she added. “It’s not easy, but for the sake of the others who need you. You manage.”
The events of the day remain imprinted on her mind. They will never fade.
“David had considered taking the day off on the Friday. He’d been off work for a couple of days and when I phoned him on the Thursday night he said he wasn’t sure he was going in the next day,” she continued as if describing the events of yesterday.
“The last thing he said to me was that if the blinds were down the following morning I was to call in because he’d decided to stay at home but when I drove past the blinds were up.
“David would normally have taken mummy’s car to work but that day, for whatever reason, he got the minibus.”
David, a joiner and the youngest of six children, was staying at his parents’ Cookstown home for what was supposed to be a few months before returning to Australia, where he’d been working. Their mother and father had been staying with relatives in England.
“Around 5.10pm I heard a bang. I opened the door and looked out and a neighbour shouted that a bomb had gone off somewhere.
“I could hear sirens and they were coming from the direction of my parents’ house, then I caught a news bulletin saying workmen were feared dead in an IRA bomb.
“I fell to my knees.
“I told my husband Adrian that David was caught up in it. It was just a gut instinct. My sisters were the same. We all knew something was wrong.
“At 9pm my sister Heather phoned to tell us David was dead. My parents were still on a flight back home.”
“Part of me died with my brother,” Ruth said.
“We were the two youngest. I was always watching out for him. I still feel I failed him because I wasn’t there when he needed me the most.
“Of the eight men who died David was the only one with an open coffin. He was only scratched and bruised. But he was dead.”
David was buried in the family plot at Cookstown Cemetery on January 20 — the day after Ruth’s birthday and just nine days after he had celebrated his own.
Thirty years later and you’d be forgiven for thinking what happened that same evening, under the bright lights of a Dublin television studio was the most significant event of that evening. In truth it should be a footnote to the day.
The shadow that fell over Cookstown was the loss of eight innocent lives. That was eclipsed on prime time television, the Late Late Show, watched by practically the entire population of the Republic of Ireland, when Gay Byrne’s special guest was then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Brooke.
The UK Government Minister was in the city for talks with the Irish foreign secretary. The appearance on the show was pre-arranged. But it effectively ended his front line political career.
A political storm followed as Brooke was coaxed into singing ‘Oh My Darling Clementine’ as the body parts were still being picked off the road at Teebane.
Though not many would have seen it initially, all the workmen killed being Protestant and RTE’s Late Late Show not part of the usual Friday night viewing, it wasn’t long before the uproar in the unionist community came.
Peter Brooke later revealed he had offered his resignation to Prime Minister John Major shortly afterwards. He remained in the post until April.
Presenter Gay Byrne finally revisited the moment in 1994.
“That was a straightforward honest mistake,” the now deceased broadcaster revealed.
“What I cannot understand is that he (Peter Brooke) knew about that explosion and I cannot understand why the man did not, there and then say to me, ‘I’ll sing it for you some time, but tonight is not the night for singing’.
“It was poor political judgment on his part insofar as the impression given by the anti-Byrne falange was that Gay Byrne, this awful ogre forced him to do something: on The Late Late Show which he had no intention of doing.”
What Byrne doesn’t address, and now never will, is that fact that he too knew of the bombing, yet still pressed the Secretary of State to sing during the interview.
It was seen as disrespect all round, and it’s a disrespect the families of Teebane still feel that way today, having now gone 30 years without answers. Forgotten and left to carry on alone.
The anger within the unionist community was compounded when Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams described the bombing as “a horrific reminder of the failure of British policy in Ireland”. He added that it highlighted “the urgent need for an inclusive dialogue which can create a genuine peace process”.
The Prime Minister John Major visited Northern Ireland within days and promised more troops, pledging that the IRA would not change government policy.
Three weeks later on February 5, in retaliation, five Catholics were shot dead by the UDA at Sean Graham’s betting shop Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
There has never been an inquiry. No one has ever been convicted. And that’s despite the Historical Enquiries Team investigating the bombing several years ago.
“We went there looking answers, and left with more questions than ever,” said Ruth. “We were told 18 suspects had been rounded up at the time. Six of them were never even questioned.”
Also at the time one of those seriously injured, Bobby O’Neill, who has since died, gave a vivid account to the RUC.
“Bobby told police that as he lay injured on the ground, he had seen a ‘bearded man’ appear at the scene of the bombing. He walked through the wreckage, showing no compassion or emotion, stopping to gaze down at each of the bodies of the dead and injured, making no attempt to help the wounded. Bobby believed this man was one of the bombers.
“The following month Bobby helped the RUC to compile a photo-fit image of him which was then circulated to all RUC divisions. It was never released to the public.”
That others have seen justice served, had their inquiries, still rankles with the families of Teebane.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions and I believe deaths could have been prevented. We need a complete inquiry into what happened.
“You hear about other Troubles-related killings but you don’t often hear about Teebane. There is a hierarchy of victims and we have been left among the forgotten.”
Forgotten in the wider Northern Ireland context, possibly, but not within their own circle.
This will be the 29th time Rev William McCrea and Rev Ivor Smith have marked the date with the families.
“We will be there again this year to mark the milestone, as we have done all these years in wind, rain, sleet and snow,” said Rev McCrea.
“Families still need that comfort in their grief than never goes away. We are all older now. Those lads never got the chance to grow older. That was brutally taken away from them, as they were from their loved ones.
“I can remember the very spot on the carpet at home when I took the phonecall to be told what had happened,” he said. “Those moments never leave you.
“For young people, today it’s important that these stories are always here as a reminder of what happened, what families went through, the sacrifices made and the lives needlessly taken away.”
Kenny Donaldson at victims support group SEFF has watched as other atrocities have been highlighted over the years and said it’s time Teebane was revisited.
“There has been little focus upon Teebane over the years, no multi-million-pound inquiry, no apology or acknowledgement shown by the perpetrators, the Teebane families and those injured have had to battle on, often alone. Yet they have kept their dignity,” he said.
“On this 30th anniversary we would re-issue an appeal for information. There are people living within the community who possess the information which could bring to account those responsible. Those who refuse to provide this information are complicit with the terrorists who actually carried out the attack,”
While the families gather silently each year and maintain their dignity, the memorial to their loved ones remains a target of hate.
They’ve lost count of the times the simple roadside acknowledgement has been attacked.
“People drive past it and don’t notice it,” said Ruth, “but we know it’s there and why it’s here.
“Every time IRA paint is daubed on the granite there’s a rush to get it washed off. I say let the paint stay, let those driving past know the sort of people who did this to our families and that they still want us to be suffering.”
The 1992 words here remember January 17, 1992.