Trades Hall bombing tragedy still an unsolved mystery

02:01, Mar 30 2013
Trades Hall bombing Phil Mansor
FORTUNATE: In 1984, Phil Mansor was Storeman and Packers secretary. He was in Trades Hall when the bomb exploded.

With a blast like an "almighty cannon", a car and a dog were flung across Vivian St.

Inside the building, caretaker Ernie Abbott was killed while, on the street, his dog Patches was burnt but alive.

To this day, no one has been arrested for the Trades Hall bombing in Wellington 29 years ago.

Trades Hall bombing - file pic
CRIME SCENE: Uniformed and plainclothes police officers gather outside the Trades Hall building. Shattered remnants of the building's front door lie in the gutter.

Despite tantalising clues - a banana sticker on the bomb, and talk of a suspected killer who was already on the run from the IRA - the case remains open. Even the motive for the bombing, on March 27, 1984, remains a mystery.

Early suspicions that the union building was targeted because of a bus strike the day before, were ruled out because building a bomb in that timeframe would have been a massive task.

Wellingtonian Peter Dijkstra was a leading suspect because, he believes, of his military background in his native Netherlands and because police wrongly thought he held grudges against the Carpenters Union, based in the Trades Hall building. He was not officially ruled out until 2001.


Storeman and Packers Union secretary Phil Mansor was one of a handful of people in the building that afternoon.

Mr Abbott, who lived with Patches in a flat upstairs, dropped into Mr Mansor's first-floor office dressed in his suit and was about to address a union meeting around the corner about the cost of a shopping bag. The pair shared a scotch and parted ways.

A female staff member and her colleague ran into Mr Abbott on their way out of the door.

"He was saying some bastard had left his suitcase and it had been there all day. She just said to put it in the office," Mr Mansor says.

At 5.19pm, Mr Abbott picked up the green, ragged suitcase - loaded with about a kilogram of an unknown explosive - triggering the explosion.

The blast, Mr Mansor recalled later that day, was like an "almighty cannon going off outside my first-floor office door".

These days, now hard of hearing, he remembers standing to the side of his desk as the blast blew out his window and office door.

"Instead of being frightened, I went tearing out to catch the bastard."

Smoke was pouring out of the lift shaft and filling the stairwell. All he could see was the flickering of the fire as he eased his way down the stairs.

"When I got to the bottom it was just a shambles."

Mr Abbott's body was on the ground. "I was wondering why his clothes were so flat but apparently [the blast] would have turned his body to pulp."

Dominion Post reporter Tim Donoghue, then The Dominion's industrial reporter, was among the first on the scene.

"Wellington Trades Council boss Pat Kelly was completely distraught," he says. "He and Ernie had had their moments over the years but beneath it all they were pretty close." Unionists like Paddy Flanagan, John Maynard and Bert Parker were stunned.

"We stood over the road outside the Knigges Ave police station and the word quickly got out from sources inside the hall that the victim was Ernie."

Back at The Dominion office, the priority quickly became getting a photograph of Mr Abbott.

"Ernie was not officially named as the victim until the following day but the editor made the decision to name him in the caption beneath a picture provided by a helpful relative.

"The decision to name Ernie and run the photograph was a gutsy call."

Ken Douglas, now a Porirua councillor but then Federation of Labour secretary, remembers finishing an executive meeting in Chews Lane when union leader Pat Kelly rang. "Somebody was badly injured . . . and they thought it was Ernie."

The divide between the Left and the Right at the time was wide.

Threats were being made against Labour leader David Lange and there were tensions between trade unions and the Rob Muldoon-led National government.

Despite this, there was little finger- pointing in the wake of the bomb. "There was a sort of nationwide shock about the whole thing," Mr Douglas says.

The unions did mount their own investigation, however, discovering who they believe planted the bomb.

They found a British military bomb expert who had suffered trauma in Ireland and faced the possibility of repercussions from the IRA.

The man, suffering a breakdown, was secretly shifted to New Zealand under an assumed name, Mr Douglas says.

He moved to Perth the day after the bombing. Mr Douglas says the man was one of just two people in New Zealand with the know-how to make that bomb - and he says he has received a reluctant acknowledgment of this from police.

But Detective Inspector Mike Arnerich, then a young detective in Wellington, has no memory of any such person being involved in the investigation.

He remembers details such as Mr Abbott's body being identified by tattoos in a pre-DNA era, and the chaos in Vivian St in the wake of the bomb.

Homicide investigations remain open until solved, and this one remains a source of frustration.

Every year or two, more information comes to light, he says. Nothing yet has led to the killer. As it has since 1985, $50,000 still sits on the table for information leading to the capture of those responsible.

The Dominion Post