They Killed The Ice Cream Man:
My search for the truth behind my brother John's murder
by George Larmour
“I believe the killing of the Gibraltar Three in March 1988 started a murderous series of events that saw Michael Stone carry out his attack in Milltown (Cemetery) that month, then Corporals Howes and Wood being murdered at the funeral of one of those killed by Stone, then my brother John being murdered in revenge for the killing of those in Gibraltar – all of which led ultimately to the orchestrated murders of Patrick Finucane and Joseph Fenton, and possibly the biggest super tout within the IRA. And it is my belief that there are former members of the RUC Special Branch who know the truth.” (George Larmour).
This is a powerful book about shocking events in Northern Ireland. It is part-autobiography but, at its core, a terrible tragedy haunts the story and draws you into an emotional narrative that angers and informs and permeates and lingers with you. Whatever your background, this is as human a story as it gets.
At some points in our lives we have to confront death. Most of us mourn loved ones who have passed away from natural causes. Some of us mourn people killed in accidents. But murder? Now that’s a different level of grief to deal with, if it ever can be dealt with. Thus far in my life, I have not had to confront the awful trauma of someone close to me being murdered. But George Larmour and his family have had to do just that.
In October 1988, his brother John, a policeman, was off duty and looking after the family’s ice cream shop on the Lisburn Road in Belfast. George, his wife and daughters were on holiday in Spain. It was getting close to closing time. Two customers were enjoying the last scrapings of ice cream at a table and two men arrived. One of the men guarded the door. The other shot John Larmour dead. The two customers were badly wounded in more gunfire. The gunmen fled. The IRA claimed responsibility.
George Larmour writes movingly about the effects the murder had on him and the other members of his family. The devastation is unthinkable, especially the burden of heartbreak for his mother and father. Apart from the ever-present family anguish, there was sympathy and tender reflection from the wider world, none more so than in a cherished poem by Michael Longley, inspired by his daughter, “The Ice-Cream Man”:
Rum and raisin, vanilla, butter-scotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
The two guns used in the ice-cream shop murder have a history of killing. Bizarrely, one of the guns eventually ended up as a German police training prop, any forensic evidence wiped away long ago and lost forever. In fact, the apathy, ineptitude, deliberate avoidance or destruction by the police of any detailed analysis of the weapons to identify the killers is both scary and disgraceful. In addition, the RUC’s inventory of, for example, Ruger pistols, their serial numbers and issue logs no longer exists, yet some of these guns went missing over time and have never been found. How many of these and other types of weapon are unaccounted for and possibly/probably are in the wrong, murderous hands?
There is an emotional chapter of George comforting a man, Jimmy Hasty, shot in the street in 1974 and a meeting that George had many years later with Mr Hasty’s wife. The exchange of memories and emotions is very touching. This sincere human interaction contrasts with the weasel words and insincerity of politicians down the years (Tony Blair is singled out for an onslaught) and others in authority, playing to the news cameras, promising to do things but failing to deliver more often than not.
The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was set up in 2005 to investigate 3,269 so-called cold cases “attributable to the security situation” and promised to do so stating that “families will sit at the very heart of our investigations”. In the case of John Larmour’s murder no one was arrested or interviewed, so there was no resolution, no closure, only huge disappointment for the Larmour family. The HET, wound up in 2014, was seen by many as a waste of time and money. George Larmour wanted honest, accurate, clear answers but often he got carefully worded statements in “politically correct, academic, civil-service type language” and sometimes he got no responses at all. But, terrier-like, he refused to let anyone off the hook. The chapters The Usual Suspects, Double Standards and Super Tout, amongst others, are both riveting and disturbing in their descriptions of evidence ignored or buried, of prime suspects released without charge, of informers protected and of a lack of communication from the upper echelons of the police.
Of course, there is sentiment in the book, as well as compassion, nostalgia, regret, frustration, anger and touches of humour along the way. But the overarching theme is one of sadness and disappointment. George Larmour: “My brother’s murder didn’t further the path to a united Ireland. The truth is that my brother’s murder was a waste. It served no purpose. Like all the other’s, John’s murder was simply wrong and ultimately just another pointless bloody footstep along that long, blood-splattered walk to Stormont. Lives and years wasted for nothing.”
I repeat, this is a powerful book, the sharing of personal memories, frustrations and grief, a dogged investigation that found more brick walls than clear answers, a story that needed to be told for public knowledge about a very flawed “system”, and for cathartic reasons. Many in authority should be ashamed of themselves but George Larmour can hold his head high as he fought relentlessly to ensure his brother’s death did not become another forgotten statistic. He cajoled and harassed but concluded: “I’ve wasted too many years chasing shadows and liars. Like all victims and their families, I shouldn’t have had to carry out my own investigations. We expect the police to do that but they don’t always do their job. We hear about the need for transparency when dealing with our Troubles past. There is none. We hear how victims and their families deserve justice. There isn’t any.”
The whole truth has eluded George Larmour so far (I doubt his quest has ended) and that is heart-breaking. But he has written a great book nonetheless, a book that deserves wide readership.
I wish him and his family well.
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