Friday, December 1, 2017

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They Killed The Ice Cream Man

Christopher Owens reviews a book on Britain's Dirty war in Ireland.

The murder in the ice cream parlour sounds like a plot from a Val McDermid novel, but has all the real life complexities of a Dashiell Hammett hard boiled paperback.

They Killed the Ice Cream Man, as you can guess from the subtitle, is about the murder of his brother (an RUC officer) John by the IRA, in the family ice cream shop on the Lisburn Road in 1988 (later eulogised by Michael Longley in verse form).

Interestingly, after the publication it became clear that there seemed to be a divide in the Larmour family. Gavin Larmour (John's son) was recently quoted in the News Letter (in relation to a review of this book) as saying "I had previously paid little attention to the book and tried to remain positive thinking that any publicity could help my cause, but...I want to clarify a few things. I have never had much contact with my uncle George ... Nothing would have gotten this far if I hadn’t persisted."

Obviously, I am unaware of what the driving issue is that made Gavin feel he had to distance himself from this book. He is certainly mentioned in glowing terms, and is given credit for uncovering facts that the HET were seemingly unable to do (such as uncovering that one of the weapons used was lying in an evidence bag in Belgium as it had been used to murder two Australian backpackers in Holland, mistaken for British soldiers).

Anyway, onto the review.

This is a book that provokes many an emotion. At the heart of it is a brother attempting to come to terms with what has happened, the impact it has had on his family and his search for justice. On a purely humanitarian level, it is impossible to not feel sympathy for him.

Where the book really hits home is his descriptions of dealing with the Historical Inquiries Team, the PSNI and the Ombudsman. Not only does it clearly demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the original RUC investigation, but it also highlights the PC, nondescript world of civil servants that made up the HET, wanting to avoid taking responsibility for anything, using words like "possibly" and "likely" in the hope that this will quench the thirst of the victim's families.

Larmour depicts all his dealings with these bodies in a manner where it seems pulling teeth would be much easier. He asks for DNA profiling to be done on one of the weapons, which leads to a consultation with Queen's lawyers over the legality of such a practise. Eventually, such tests are conducted but there are no DNA samples available of the two suspects and apparently the "current circumstances" do not allow for them to be brought in for DNA samples.

It's made abundantly clear, the HET was nothing more than an exercise in spin, with arresting and charging people considered a secondary feature (unless it was clear that there were no "difficult" elements to a particular case). Instead of putting victim's families first, they were barely considered.

And the reason for such inaction? 

It's quite simple: the planner (a very well known republican) was brought in for questioning after the murder. One of the safe houses (provided by Joe Fenton) had been bugged, so the Special Branch were able to playback the recordings relating to the murder to said republican, who then became an informer, and later rose to the Army Council.

Huge embarrassment potential for the Provos (especially considering his role in the 1997 ceasefire), and awkward questions for Special Branch.

When dealing with this, They Killed the Ice Cream Man is a fascinating, compelling read.

However, there are problems: the characterisation of his brother's killers in the opening chapter are so stereotypically "baddie" like, that I half expected to read that one of them said "muahahaha" straight after the shooting. While it's understandable (from Larmour's point of view) that he portrays them this way, it gives the description of the murder a somewhat cartoon like quality which I have no doubt was not intended.

Certain lines invoke a heavy amount of eye rolling, such as "Here we were, two ordinary people, one Protestant, one Catholic, who, through a simple act of birth, were considered to be on opposite sides of the sectarian divide." I was waiting for the inevitable "why can't it all be like Corrymeela" line but thankfully it never emerges.

His theory (which links his brother's murder with the death of Pat Finucaine) isn't very convincing, and he even prefaces the theory by admitting that he can't say beyond any doubt that he is correct. I'm not sure if it is something he genuinely believes, or whether it was concocted for the book in order to help lift it beyond the realm of "misery lit."

Finally, his description of the Troubles as "grubby, sectarian" is odd considering his discovery that a well known IRA member involved with the planning of the murder became an informer because of this. Surely, that would be more than enough to make him realise that the conflict was a lot more than "Catholics vs. Protestants and British as piggy in the middle?"

And, along similar lines, he recounts the tale of an Australian film crew confronting Donna Maguire (one of the people involved in the Holland attacks), and the last line of it is him describing the film crew asking Maguire if she thought her past would catch up with her.

The general feeling after reading this particular section is that there are people out there who are aghast that such people involved in conflict are not walking about in sackcloth and ashes, cutting themselves ritually every night before bed. It's a tired stereotype, based on people's rigid perspectives on a person's actions. 

Nonetheless, as a testimonial to the steely determination of a man who wants answers, and for showing that the victims issue isn't going to be going away (or resolved) any time soon, it's an uneven but moving and thought provoking read.

George Larmour, 2016, They Killed the Ice Cream Man: My Search for the Truth Behind My Brother John's Murder, Colourpoint Books, ISBN-13: 978-1780731049

Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212


DaithiD said...

Isnt what links them Brian Nelsons targeting? The Provo guy was rescued by the Army from the same UFF death squad that got to Finnucane? Incidentally, the 'tout payments disguised as compensation payouts' theory is also fulfilled by this guy due to rough treatment supposedly meted out on an arrest.

Niall said...

G Lamour was in the Telegraph recently describing how he held a well known dying one armed footballer who was a taig and shot by the UVF and how years later his brother was shot by the IRA for selling ice cream after hours....oh wait...sorry no it wasn't that, it was because he was a member ofthe RUC .....Lamour portrayed the footballer. himself and his family as being caught in the middle....really George...the footballer and your brother were most likely murdered with the full knowledge of the British security forces your brother belonged too and how can you be caught in the middle when your brother chose sides!
I never read anything written about the North for it always tends to follow the line...if only the IRA blah blah it would have been lovely growing up here...

DaithiD said...

Correction : according to the Adair book Mad Dog, it was the RUC unit E4A that did the interception to protect BG.

Christopher Owens said...


the theory is that Special Branch were concerned that Finucaine was a little too close to unwittingly discovering Mr.Provo was an informer, and had him set up. While not beyond the realm of possibility, I suspect that Ed Moloney is closer to the truth when he said that he believed that Seamus Finucaine was the real target (as he had dinner at the Finucaine household on a regular basis), and Pat being there was more of a "bonus." Interestingly, the payout you refer to was reported to have referred to an incident in 1987 (the year before John Larmour's death). Had he been landed in 1987, sooner than suspected?


that article you're referring to is taken verbatim from the book.

DaithiD said...

Christopher, I doubt that book theory too, it exonerates the felon setting in Parliament by the likes of Hogg too easily too. It’s not easy to decipher when it seems the different arms of the British State all had competing ‘solutions’ to the North.

Emmett Grogan said...

Having read the book I found it to be a rather dull read. The most interesting aspect is, of course, the allegation that a senior provo was an informer, made more prominent in that most informed media observers could identify him, rather easily, from the various pieces of info provided. If true, that indeed he was working for MI5, then surely the Provo army council - of which he was said to be a member - would not stand by him even to avoid embarrassment. He is still very much a prominent fixture at military funerals and commemorative events. Its easy to label anyone a tout; this book fails to provide convincing evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, to nail that label to his historical footnote.

Christopher Owens said...


it certainly is easy to label anyone, living or dead, as an informer these days. However, DaithiD correctly points out that it's noted in other books that the security forces prevented attacks on Mr.Provo (who was a favoured target for Johnny Adair). Bear in mind Mr.Provo had been outed by Martin McGartland in John Ware's 'Panorama' piece as "a bad man", (so he was well known in public circles) and you have to as yourself: "if he wasn't an informer, why the major effort to save him (especially if he was seen as a hawk)?"

Emmett Grogan said...

If true, that he was a tout, surely the leadership would distance themselves from him if not in a public capacity - arguably to save face - then certainly in a private capacity given the intolerance towards informers within the republican community. I can assure you this has yet to happen. McGartland is hardly a reliable source nor Adair. It would be interesting to hear Mackers' take on this so far has remained silent.

DaithiD said...

Emmett, In the book, Adair wasnt alleging the Provo was a tout. He remarked that the unit he sent out felt they were being set up for a 'Loughgall' type ambush, and exited their car just before it was peppered with bullets by E4A.