Tory MP still 'marked' by Ballykelly atrocity

A NEWLY elected MP, who was an Army officer stationed at Ballykelly on the night of the Droppin' Well bomb, has spoken of the atrocity in his maiden speech at Westminster.

Bob Stewart, MP for Beckenham in Kent, was a company commander in the Cheshire Regiment based at Shackleton Barracks when an INLA bomb exploded inside the local bar, killing 11 soldiers-including some directly under his command, as well as six civilians, in December 1982.

The former Lieutenant Colonel, who served in Londonderry on three occasions, and who later commanded British troops in Bosnia, returned to visit the memorial to the victims in for the first time in 2008, 26 years after the event.

In his maiden speech, during a debate on defence, the former Lieutenant Colonel said: "Just after 11 o'clock, on 6 December 1982 in a place called Ballykelly, a bomb exploded. I heard it. I was the commanding officer of A Company, 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment. I got there in two or three minutes and found 17 people killed.

"What was most horrific for me was that six of the dead were from my company, including my clerk and my storeman. I was the incident commander. In one night, of 115 soldiers, I had seen six men killed and more than 30 wounded. That is a 30% casualty rate and it marks me."

The MP, who is lobbying for better post conflict care services for the wounded and all veterans praised the current services in place, but said: "I am nevertheless reminded of Ballykelly and two people badly hurt under my watch who continue to suffer from their wounds; they have not had much of a life."

Speaking to the Sentinel, the now MP, said that what greeted him was a "horrific sight."

"One of my soldiers was leaning up against a fence. His stomach was badly distended and what I didn't know at the time was that his back was broken. Then a young man jumped up and said 'are you a doctor?', I said that I wasn't.

"Then I looked down and saw a girl very badly injured. I was 32 and I was in deep shock. They say soldiers get used to such things. They don't. I'd said unfortunately that ambulance service personnel in Northern Ireland were more used to it.

"I knelt down beside the girl and I asked her 'are you alright?' This was a stupid question. She spoke very calmly and she asked if she was hurt. I told her she was badly hurt. Then she said, 'I'm I going to die?'

"I said that I thought she was and she asked me to hold her. I put my arms around her. She was 18-years-old.I was supposed to be incident commander, but it ripped me apart."

The former soldier spoke of his part Irish ancestry and of his love for Ireland, north and south said: "I loved Ireland, not in a political way, not as part of the UK-I don't care about that. I loved it as much as any other place and the people as much as any other place I know."

The group responsible for the atrocity, the INLA, have handed over their weapons and at the time issued a statement said: "We make no apology for our part in the conflict."

But, the fact that the organisation concluded their part in the conflict proved cold comfort for INLA victims.

Bob Stewart told the Sentinel: "I am glad they handed over their weapons, but there were 17 people and over 30 more lives destroyed. Would I accept an apology? Would I hell. Besides, I am not the person to apologise to.

"I am scarred by that day, but not as much as some others. Some are scarred more by the memories of that night. Bombs do not discriminate, and it is not fair to use the phrase 'innocent civilians' because it implies that they were guilty soldiers. they were just doing their duty for their country.

"But, they key is that six totally innocent civilians were killed. The only thing they were 'guilty' of was going to the Droppin' Well on December 6, 1982. This stays with me every day."

The MP also spoke of his 'devastation' that republican bombings are still be carried out in Londonderry.