Photo: Simple memorial plaque at location of the Miami Showband killings. The Miami Showband: (L–R) Tony Geraghty, Fran O’Toole, Ray Millar, Des McAlea, Brian McCoy, and Stephen Travers. (colorized)
Originally published at CounterPunch
“It’s always there in minute detail,” Stephen told me, “I can see that night in my head as clearly as I can see you now. I can see the ditch on fire. I can hear the murderers saying they’d killed us with dumdums. I’d never heard of these bullets before – they explode inside upon impact causing horrendous injury, you know. I was told later. I can even see how the moon was that night, bright in the summer air.”
“They all died…I spent about forty-five minutes crawling around reassuring them that everything would be alright…we’d get back to the music…I remember whispering into Fran’s ear…But you don’t accept that type of – it’s… the horror.”
It is January 2020 and I am travelling northwards from Cork to Armagh in Northern Ireland by train to meet Eugene Reavey, a friend of Stephen’s, and where I am going there are ghostly traces everywhere; everywhere, violence has left its mark. Everywhere, if you know where to look, there is a sense of loss that feels tangible-the resonance of violence, clinging on like an invisible and malevolent spirit.
It was the second time I’d met Stephen and he exuded a sense of profound loss and hurt-a man with all the grief of the universe in his eyes. A man, it seemed to me, seeking redemption for a crime he did not commit; searching for a way back home again; for some kind of consolation.
Stephen told me that he feels as if he has been in that field ever since, as if he left part of his soul there that night. Last year Netflix aired a documentary about the Miami Showband massacre in which Stephen talks candidly of his desire to escape that field-a psychological need no doubt to rinse himself of the imprint of politicised sectarian violence and the stain it has left on his soul.
In a nondescript suburban pub in the south side of Cork just before Christmas last year we talked and he told me how he sometimes feels like the character of the boy in M Night Shyamalan’s 1999 movie The Sixth Sense, who sees and talks to the dead-so vivid and stark are the images seared in his memory, and that its “always there in minute detail”. Stephen’s eyes moisten up as he tells me of how he has on occasion driven back up north to that by-lane at Buskhill, off the main Belfast to Dublin road where it happened.
“There are times Mark when there is no place that I can get any peace, nowhere, except at the scene of the incident. All the things that happened to me after, even the great things were contaminated by what happened [there].”
Maybe traces of the dead are everywhere I thought as I drove home in the cold midwinter night after talking to Stephen, sparse Christmas lights illuminating the pitch-black countryside around me. Maybe only the best of us can see them. War had visited Stephen and it killed three of his band mates. They were known as the Irish Beatles such was their fame. It left one of them, Fran O’ Toole, who looked like an innocent, 1970s Irish version of David Cassidy, with his head blown off. It left Stephen like a man submerged in a memory frozen in time.
A friend of mine who lost his father many years ago once told me that he still sees him most nights in his dreams, and they talk in a way they couldn’t do when he was alive. In some ways he said it’s like his subconscious had never really fully accepted his death. Maybe that is only way most of us can deal with death. I thought of my friend as Stephen told me it was only many years after the massacre, when he was shown photographs of his dead band mates by a retired police man in a hotel bar near Dublin could he finally accept they were dead.
The Fog of War
In “The Ministry of Fear,” Seamus Heaney wrote:
‘And heading back for home, the summer’s
Freedom dwindling night by night, the air
All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye’
‘What’s your name, driver?’
Heaneys’ poem was written in 1975 the year the band were attacked. The year when their innocent summer freedom was violently snuffed out- their freedom dwindling by the minutes and seconds as they stood lined up by the road, seconds away from the bomb going off. Their 1970s hippy Volkswagen van surrounded and by a hostile void of blackness, just like the black cattle of Heaney’s poem, snuffing and pointing with guns and murderous hate.
Since then, Stephen has suffered from an inability to recognise faces. It is a condition linked to damage in the part of the brain that coordinates the neural systems that control facial perception and memory. He was also later diagnosed with enduring personality change, a condition that develops after the impact of an exceptionally stressful and traumatic event. Stephen before the attack on the Miami showband in 1975 had his whole life in front of him. Afterwards, everything changed. As I drove home in the dark- and for many days and weeks afterwards-I couldn’t help but think of the dreadful fucking unfairness of it all.
I was going up on the train to Armagh from Cork to meet a friend of Stephen’s, Eugene Reavey, whose three brothers had been shot dead in 1976 murdered by the same notorious Ulster loyalist group, the Glenanne gang, who’d attacked Stephen and his friends a few months previously during one of the worst periods of Ireland’s recent war.
It was a war, like all wars, where much has been hidden, and where there is much to reveal. A war where the received wisdom and the received narrative of what happened-mediated to us by official sources, whether by government or by much of the media-is only a first draft of history, constructed not necessarily to enlighten but also, often, to obfuscate and conceal.
To know Stephen and Eugene’s extraordinary intertwined stories it is important to know who the Glenanne gang were. The gang can be best described as a covert Ulster loyalist counter-insurgency gang with links to the British army and MI5, the Uk’s domestic security and counter-intelligence agency, whose members were made up of local soldiers, policemen and known terrorists who took part in extra judicial killings, “irregular warfare” in the jargon, in and around county Armagh in the 1970s.
The Glenanne gang can be best described as a covert Ulster loyalist counter-insurgency gang with links to the British army and MI5, the UK’s domestic security and counter-intelligence agency, whose members were made up of local soldiers, policemen and known terrorists who took part in extra judicial killings in and around county Armagh in the 1970s.
They carried out shooting and bombing attacks directed against Catholics, and some protestants too, (killing at least 120 people) as retaliation, as they saw it, for the IRA’s terror campaign at the time.
The evidence now strongly implies that the gang’s activities were known and supported by members of the police and by different factions of British intelligence, including the army, and MI5-many of who were ultra-right-wing British nationalists in the mid-70s, with strong sympathies to Ulster unionism. They were given technical and material support and operated with the knowledge, tolerance and on occasion the direction of the security forces and intelligence services.
The gang were in effect a friendly guerrilla force made up of members of the local loyalist community who saw themselves as operating against the same common enemy as the British, the IRA. The “enemy” though were mostly innocent catholic civilians.
The truth of who and what they were was already known by local people in Armagh, or highly suspected, even when the killings were ongoing. Many years later the full truth of collusion in Northern Ireland between loyalist terrorists and members of the British security services is now slowly and painfully coming to light with documentaries like Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned and Sean Murrays’ Unquiet Graves, and Anne Cadwallader’s book, Lethal Allies, all revealing and demonstrating in horrifying detail to the shameful goings-on at the time.
Academic Mark McGovern describes this collusion as “expedient coercive state practice, premised on a ‘doctrine of necessity’, designed to remove ‘enemies’ and induce fear in a target population via a strategy of assassination.” In practise on the ground in Armagh in the 1970s, many innocents died for the greater “political good,” at least the political good as perceived by elements within the British security state at the time. It was an ugly and cynical practice of counter-insurgency realpolitik, played out under a very ugly fog of war.
British counter-insurgency expert at the time General Frank Kitson was candidly honest when he said of Britain’s counter-insurgency doctrine that:
“The law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, and in this case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal for unwanted members of the public.”
What he meant by “disposal for unwanted members of the public,” can only be guessed at. In his 1971 book Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping, in chapter 3, borrowing from Mao Tse Tung, he wrote frankly of “polluting the waters” when and if a fish cannot be attacked directly by the rod. The “fish” of course being the terrorist, and the “waters” the political, social and geographical context in which the insurgents sprang from.
Kitson made good on his theories and was instrumental in setting up what he called “Pseudo gangs” in Northern Ireland. In essence counter-insurgency militias, made up of local combatants loyal to Britain, set up to take the fight to insurgent fighters against British colonial rule, in Kenya, Cyprus and Malaysia. An ingenious if deeply cynical tactic to “pollute” the local waters of rural Ulster at the time. Writing in 2005, Harvard academic Caroline Elkins wrote that, in Kenya in the 1950s, “British forces sought to intimidate civilians, separate them from insurgents, and collect the intelligence necessary to infiltrate terrorist networks,” and that, “The British adopted similar policies in Cyprus at about the same time, creating “Q patrols” to help suppress Greek Cypriot insurgents who demanded unification with Greece. The Q patrols worked alongside security forces, snatch squads, and interrogation teams and due to their ferociousness earned the nickname “HMTs or Her Majesty’s Torturers.”
“Special Force Teams” (pseudo gangs) were also set up in Kenya working under the directions of intelligence officers and Special Branch officers with the aim of eliminating terrorists by also, presumably, “polluting the waters” of the local civilian population.
According to Elkins this included breaking, “civilian support by systematizing torture, inflicting heavy civilian casualties, and detaining nearly 1.5 million Africans thought to be sympathetic to the Mau Mau [cause].”
Kitson was the army’s principal strategist in Northern Ireland in 1972 and was the instigator of the Military Reaction Force (MRF) – a clandestine, plain clothes murder gang within the British army which was the subject of a BBC Panorama investigation in 2013. The investigation revealed that its members (off-duty soldiers and turned “insurgents” in unmarked cars) admitted to drive-by shootings and murder and attempted murders of innocent Catholic civilians in Belfast in the early 1970s. A former member told the BBC in 2013 that, “We were not there to act like an Army unit; we were there to act like a terror group”. The moral distinction between acting like a terror group and as a terror group wasn’t drawn out by the BBC.
If at least one of the aims of counter-terrorism is to uphold the rule of law and maintain democracy (at least that is the theory anyway) the theory was upturned in a grotesque way by elements of the British security services in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. An attempt by the state to impose order on the chaos of low intensity war by creating murderous chaos became, in itself, deeply subversive, brutal and downright immoral. Covert war became an extension of cold, cynical realpolitik. Kitson may have been the abstract military strategist, war-gaming it out away from the battle field, but the application of his ideas, and the subsequent killing, was carried out by the Glenanne gang “in the field”.
On the ground McGovern argues that this counter insurgency doctrine was played out in the context of “a social order shaped by long-term sectarianised social divisions and violence, embedded in localised power structures, which framed the very institutions and agencies of the state, not least the police and other state forces.” In Armagh, the Glenanne gang bore all the hallmarks of a counter insurgency pseudo gang adapted to Ulster’s unique context as both a kind of colony and an administrative outpost of the British state itself.
In official circles the truth of collusion has been known for years and often ignored for expedient diplomatic reasons. A report initiated by the Irish government in the early 2000s on the 1974 Dublin & Monaghan bombings, in which 33 people were killed, stated that the suspects (almost all members of the Glenanne gang) had “relationships” with British intelligence and elements within the RUC-the police force in Northern Ireland at the time.
The Glenanne gang’s leader, Robin ‘The Jackal’ Jackson, (a protected assassin working for the British security services, and ex-British soldier who died in 1998) was suspected in the killing of at least 50 people-a man who journalists said at the time was infamous from Belfast to the border for “the intensity and fury of his instinct to kill” such was his pathological need to erase those he saw as the enemy. In a later report in 2011 by an historical inquiries’ investigations unit set up by the British government itself, Jackson was identified as a special branch agent of the RUC, the police in Ulster at the time.
Robin Jackson was an agent of the British State, a protected species in the Ulster conflict who was involved in all kinds of political crimes, including murder; protected that is by the police and intelligence services. He was cruel, clever, and deeply sectarian with a visceral hatred of Catholics. A Former Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland, Nuala O’Loan, told the BBC: “My understanding would be that he was a murderer, a prolific murderer, a very, very dangerous and ruthless man. They never investigated him.”
Colin Wallace, a British army whistle-blower in the mid-1970s, and one of the primary “Deception Planners” employed in the Information Policy Unit (Psyops in effect, fabricating smears and feeding propaganda stories to the media) at the Army’s base near Belfast during the mid-1970s said:
Everything people have whispered about Robin Jackson for years was perfectly true. He was a hired gun. A professional assassin. He was responsible for more deaths in the North than any other person I knew. The Jackal killed people for a living. The State not only knew that he was doing it. Its servants encouraged him to kill its political opponents and protected him.’
Jackson and others worked according to academic Mark McGovern, in ‘a grey zone of official deniability and ‘institutionalised collusion’–a blind eye was turned in other words regarding their murderous actions as covert state agents. There was in Armagh a clandestine, symbiotic relationship between local state forces (the police, and local British army unit: the UDR or Ulster Defence Regiment) and local loyalist terrorist gangs. Counter insurgency was an historical necessity going back generations right back in fact to the plantation of loyal Protestants three hundred years previously. In effect, a community reflex against catholic insurgency.
Essentially the Glenanne gang were in the 1970s a colonial style militia, an ad hoc group loyal to the state, who as McGovern states, “Provided an official, locally-based conduit for grassroots loyalism and, through two decades, “operated a system of low-level state terror that was tolerated by the authorities because it fitted the overall goals of the security apparatus.” They carried out a proxy war against innocent civilians by “polluting the waters” that was sponsored by the state, who then could, and have ever since, disavowed responsibility by denying it ever happened. Plausible deniability it is cynically called in the service of amoral state craft.
Robin Jackson’s place in the grotesque litany of Northern Ireland’s terrorist killers is a strange one. He died in 1998 of lung cancer. Almost no official records of him exist, at least not for public consumption. He remains almost as elusive in death as he was in life. Was he really a trained state killer – it is alleged he was taken abroad to South Africa in the 1980s and given specialist training there by the SAS – or a fanatical ideologue for his side who hated catholic nationalists? He was both. In the Northern Ireland Troubles, MI5 in the 1970s, and later, used terrorist methods (extrajudicial killings) to defeat terrorism, they had no ethical or moral scruples about it either. It was standard operating procedure. The political ends would always justify the violent, brutal and amoral means. Any notion of the rule of law as upheld and represented by the state was subverted-an inconvenience to be ignored.
They were trained in the early 1970s to be a “precise cutting tool” for political and security policy by “NITATs” (Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Teams) whose “Liaison officers”-SAS personnel in reality, placed by MI5 in areas like Armagh-directed operations on the ground (planning and executing attacks for example). The British state, or at least large elements of its security and intelligences services allayed with right wing elements in the political establishment sympathetic to the Ulster Unionist cause, had a strategy of institutionalised collusion in place, from close to the beginning of the conflict. A strategy honed and perfected in many dirty, low intensity colonial wars, from Afghanistan in the 19th century to Malaysia to Kenya in the mid-20thcentury.
One of these liaison officers, Robert Nairac, was the undercover operative (one of MI5’s SAS guys on the Armagh ground, along with Julian “Tony” Ball) who was centrally involved in the Miami Showband attack and killings of the 31st of July, 1975.
Nairac was part of an undercover unit of the British army known as the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU), also known as the 14thIntelligence Company set up in 1972, based outside Armagh city. This unit became the cutting edge of a highly sophisticated application of state violence in Ulster’s Murder Triangle. Frank Kitson’s counter insurgency doctrine was in other words put into murderous action in Armagh and collusion between the state and known terrorists became entrenched as standard operating practice.
Civil proceedings are being brought against the British Ministry of Defence and the current Police Service of Northern Ireland by Stephen and Des McAlea (who also survived the Miami Showband attack), and the widows of Fran O’Toole and Brian McCoy, who were killed in the attack. Because of this case the British government was recently forced to release long withheld documentation related to the massacre. A high court judge criticised the PSNI (Northern Ireland’s current police force) for not disclosing documents about the case.
In 2017 in the High Court in Belfast, a Judge ruled that there should be an overarching investigation into State collusion with the Glenanne Gang. More recently, a secret military intelligence file obtained by a lawyer working on behalf of the survivors contains an allegation by another British soldier which accuses Robert Nairac of being responsible for the planning and execution of the Miami Showband attack. Damages are now being sought in writs against the British Military of Defence and the PSNI Chief Constable for assault, trespass, conspiracy to injure, negligence and misfeasance in public office-and the survivors are now suing the British government and the police for direct complicity in the attack.
A separate review, led by former Bedfordshire police chief Jon Boutcher, is also now ongoing into the Glenanne gang’s killings. He has said that the victim’s families have a “legal and moral right to the truth”. It remains to be seen whether they do or not.
But Northern Ireland can be a very small place and at times a disconcertingly incestuous place, full of haunting and often bizarre coincidences. As I drove around the back lanes of Armagh with Eugene Reavey we talked about much of this. As if to prove the point, he brought me to a small, nondescript catholic chapel by the name of Barr in the townland of Lurganare (in Irish, ‘tract of the slaughter’) perched on the side of a hill overlooking South Armagh, a few miles north of Newry, and south of Banbridge, and roughly equidistant between the two massacres holding Stephen and Eugene together. You won’t believe this when you see it Mark, he told me. We walked over to a gravesite which had fresh flowers laid on it. The name on the gravestone was Jackson. I looked at him and said you’re fucking joking Eugene. It was the gravestone of Robin ‘The Jackal’ Jackson’s mother, the same Jackson now notoriously infamous as a serial killer. What this means is that the mother of one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious loyalist killers, a fanatical bloodthirsty anti-Catholic sociopath, the killer of at least fifty people, was a catholic. Her name was Clancy, possibly from Tipperary in the far south of Ireland.
Only a few short miles away in the tiny hamlet of Donaghmore at St Bartholomew’s Church of Ireland grave, Jackson lies buried in a neat unmarked grave; a cold, ignominious end for a man with a killer’s instinct for blood and a man with many, many secrets. Most of which we might never know or find out.
Eugene told me that a few nights before his father died he asked him a question: ‘Eugene, do you know who shot our boys?’ Eugene told him he didn’t. He had heard rumours but never given them much credence. His father then told him the five names of the people who had committed the killing and then told him never to give the names out to any paramilitary gangs because he didn’t want any more killings:
“So, I carried that with me from 1981 until 2006 until I met Dave Cox from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), and I asked him at the very first meeting did he know who shot my brothers and he said: ‘Yes, I do.’ And I said well, would you tell me? I said it’ll help build a wee bit of confidence before we start and he said, No, it’s too soon in the investigation. So I said to him: well I’ll write down my names and you write down yours and this young lady can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And she said: The names are exactly the same”.
Robin “The Jackal” Jackson was the main gunman and leader of the Glenanne gang in the attack on Stephen Travers and the rest of the Miami Showband in 1975. He was in all probability the killer who, in cold, twisted, homicidal rage, shot dum dum bullets into the face of the innocent David Cassidy lookalike, Fran O’ Toole. The evidence now also strongly suggests that SAS/MI5 “liaison officer” Robert Nairac, was also there directing operations.
In a further twist, Nairac was also the “source handler” for another notorious Glenanne gang member, Robert McConnell–the killer who entered Eugene Reavey’s parent’s house a in Whitecross, Armagh, few months later in January 1976 with a sub machine gun looking for blood. He too met an ignominious end, shot dead by the IRA at his farm a few months later in April of that year. A week after that the IRA man who killed McConnell was also shot dead by the SAS, and so it went on and on and on. Armagh’s agrarian code of revenge and counter-revenge honed down to a fine, merciless, sharp point-with help from right wing members of the British state at the time. Never was the maxim if you seek revenge dig two graves more appropriate than for the political vendettas that plagued Armagh in the 1970s.
Legalised death squads were run by the British state in the 1970s in Northern Ireland. One of them, the Glenanne gang, killed over 120 people; almost all innocent people-both Catholics and Protestants. It was an appalling and unconscionable crime against innocent humanity. Most of those responsible are now dead.
The Long Shadow of Trauma on the Living
It is said that psychic trauma reverberates down through generations and the impact of violent trauma on second and third generations has been extensively researched in recent years. Symptoms of anxiety, clinical depression and even addiction have been observed. Trauma can, it is said, leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes which can then be transmitted not just culturally but also onto our DNA. Descendants talk of a strong sense of loss, “of ghosts from the past”.
Over forty years after the events in Armagh this could mean that not only are the direct victims traumatised but also their descendants. The study of behavioural epigenetics suggests that “signals from the environment” can trigger biological changes that can affect what goes in the brain cells. But what if genes that have been influenced by negative environmental factors like conflict, genocide, slavery or even alcohol abuse could retain some stressful memories that leave molecular scars on children and grandchildren? Maybe experiences, particularly stressful experiences, are never forgotten-they live on in some form in the limbic systems of those that come after. Just as we inherit physical characteristics we also inherit behavioural and psychological tendencies from our ancestors. What this could mean is that the nervous system of someone who has suffered severe emotional distress might in some way “pass on” that emotional memory onto the nervous system of a descendant. In some way, it is thought, the descendant’s nervous system “remembers”.Trauma and melancholy may, it seems, be passed down through generations.
The secretive, subterranean war in Armagh and the wider murder triangle in the 1970s and 80s devoured many people and the events of those days have left immense social and psychic wreckage; it is in the crushed hearts and psychic trauma of the people you meet there. Below the natural good humour and decency, the psychic trauma has impacted those who lived and suffered through it.
Over a quiet drink and as I waited for my train to go back down to the south of Ireland where I now live, a friend of Eugene Reavey’s, Michael, told me of how his twelve-year-old sister Majella O’ Hare was shot in the back and killed by a member of the parachute regiment in Armagh in the hot summer of 1976 on a leafy rural country road. Michael’s friendly and open face bore the traces of one who has lived with too much sadness and grief. The soldier was charged with manslaughter but was later acquitted in court. Her family, with the help of Amnesty International, are now seeking an independent investigation. The long shadow of trauma continues.
Later that evening as my train went back across the border I thought of this man’s gentle and compassionate stoicism as he talked of this horrendous crime against humanity committed against his family, and I cried as I the thought of all the quiet, hidden suffering which goes on in people’s hearts in the wake of such violence. Mostly, the victim-makers move on oblivious and uncaring to the pain they’ve caused; whilst the victims struggle on looking for peace of mind and maybe, one day, just maybe, justice also.
That night as the train left Dublin and onwards home to Cork I thought again of Stephen and Eugene. Talking to them and thinking of their extraordinary entwined stories left me emotionally drained. I felt that I was lucky to have met them as they are two of the bravest, generous and most honourable people I’ve ever met. Both now work for and promote peace and reconciliation; it is a testimony to their decency and humanity. I’m not so sure I could carry the weight that they do with such grace, magnanimity and good humour. One day, it says in the bible, death will no longer haunt the living but the older, wiser, and sadder I get, the more I realise this cannot be true. Death will always haunt the living, and the living will always be haunted by the dead.
Seamus Heaney wrote in The Cure at Troy that “Human beings suffer, they torture one another, they get hurt and get hard.” Despite their suffering and hurt, Stephen and Eugene never got hard, nor bitter, and neither has ever sought revenge. Yet neither have they received justice. They, like all the victims of the Glenanne gang, must now finally receive what they are owed.
The writer Julian Barnes says that history is not what happened; history is just what historians tell us has happened. There is much truth in this. Much of what we thought was the truth about many of the seminal events of the Troubles in Ulster, or an approximation of them, have turned out not to be the truth at all, often not even close to it. The so-called ‘fog of war’, which supposedly describes how the truth is concealed in war and conflict, is by now a cliched and tired truism. Yet like all aphorisms it can be both true and not true at the same time depending on how you choose to interpret it. It is of course a fiction and a convenient fiction at that for those whose job it is to hide the reality of what is going on and conceal the truth. Instead, we should understand it as the ‘fog’ in war and as a strategy, deliberately designed that way or opportunistically seized upon, to cover up the violence of the powerful, by the powerful.
On December 13th of last year Stephen and the other survivors and relatives of the members of the band who were murdered (singer Fran O’Toole, guitarist Tony Geraghty and trumpeter Brian McCoy) received £1.5m in damages to settle claims over ‘suspected’ collusion in a Belfast High Court against the British ministry of defence and the Northern Ireland police service. Neither the police nor the ministry of defence made any admission of liability.
Mark Kernan is a freelance writer and independent researcher.