The East Tyrone Brigade & the Loughgall Ambush
The East Tyrone Brigade & the Loughgall Ambush

Next Tuesday, May 8th, marks the 20th anniversary of the Loughgall ambush, in which 8 IRA Volunteers and a civilian were killed in an SAS attack.

The following is adapted from ‘Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair’ by Padraig O’Malley.

The East Tyrone Brigade members killed in 1987 consisted of:

  • Commander Patrick Kelly (aged 30)
  • Jim Lynagh (aged 31)
  • Padraig McKearney (aged 32)
  • Declan Arthurs (aged 21)
  • Seamus Donnelly (aged 19)
  • Eugene Kelly (aged 25)
  • Gerry O’Callaghan (aged 29)
  • Tony Gormley (aged 25)

They died in Loughgall, a village no bigger than Galbally, in County Armagh when they were gunned down by the RUC and British army undercover security personnel, who were lying in wait for them, as they launched what was supposed to be a surprise attack on the local RUC police station.

An innocent civilian, Anthony Hughes, who was shot dead by the SAS had been travelling in a car with his brother, Oliver, unaware of the ambush.

It was a devastating setback for the IRA, practically decimating the East Tyrone brigade to which the eight had belonged, the largest number of casualties it had suffered since the Anglo-Irish war of 1920, and, given the movement’s new “lean” look and its reliance on a small number of active service units, an incapacitating dilution of its manpower and seasoned leadership. The British government pronounced itself well satisfied; the operation proved that the war against terrorism was being won. There was also an element of benign triumphalism in official circles, not too subtle hints that, for once, the IRA had received some of its own medicine, that the security forces were, in a sense, only evening the score. (The Times set the tone: “Occasions on which the security forces strike back and seem to do so,” its editorial declared, “help boost the confidence which must have been eroded in many law abiding minds in Northern Ireland.”)

Nationalists were wary. At first the Dublin government put the blame for the deaths on the IRA leadership, whom they accused of putting “young lives at risk” (the IRA rather ruefully pointed out that a number of its more seasoned veterans had died in the incident), but some days later, as more details of the killings emerged and it became clear that the security forces had ample foreknowledge of the IRA’s operation, old ambivalences began to assert themselves, and Dublin drew back, voicing its reservations

Father Faul was the first to articulate what many Catholics, North and South, were feeling. “If the RUC, “ he said, “had prior information they should have prevented the gun battle. They should have arrested the people. It smacks of revenge and retaliation.” Moreover -- and he stated what was for many a truth they could not acknowledge -- “as much as you condemn the Provisional IRA, the sight of an English soldier shooting an Irishman in Ireland produces a gut reaction.”

The gut reaction began to make itself felt, though it expressed itself in the usual ambiguous way. For though it was clear that the IRA had planned to blow up the police station and to kill whomever was in it, it was also clear that the decision to kill them had been made prior to the stake-out itself.

As always, constitutional nationalists put the matter in the context of their own interests: their fears that Loughgall would redound to the advantage of the IRA, that it would somehow undermine the Anglo-Irish Agreement, show that the agreement was a lot less than it had been hyped up to be, that it had not made a difference. (In the first four months of 1987, forty-seven persons had died violently, fifteen of them at the hands of the IRA in the five weeks prior to Loughgall.) Leading members of the SDLP, disquieted that the shootings had taken place on the eve of a British general election in which its main opposition would once again be Sinn Féin and the results taken as a barometer of the success of the agreement, called for a public inquiry into the killings.

Nationalist condemnation of the IRA’s intentions quickly became tempered with a largely unarticulated anger at the British government for what appeared to be a cold-blooded decision simply to get the IRA operatives, and with the IRA for once again forcing constitutional nationalism to face the demons of its own contradictions. And in the subconscious there were the old beliefs: that the British had no regard for Irish lives, that their abhorrence of the IRA masked a larger disdain for the Irish at large, that the continuous vilification of the IRA as terrorists and murderers and evil men and somehow subhuman sanctioned a shoot-to-kill policy; in short, that Irish lives were cheap and good riddance. For many it seemed that the British were treating the IRA as an armed enemy to be ambushed and shot on sight rather than as a criminal organization whose members would be arrested, charged, tried, and convicted. Were the police and army abrogating to themselves the right to act as judge, jury, and executioner? Was the British government acceding to the IRA’s view that what was happening in the North was war? These questions went unanswered, as they could not be addressed in the sanitized communiques that invariably followed meetings of the Intergovernmental Conference.

It was, of course, the issue of war that raised the most discomfort. For if the British government by its actions began to treat the IRA as an army, and to behave as though it were in a war situation, it would vindicate the IRA’s unswerving contention -- a contention for which the ten hunger strikers had given their lives -- that Northern Ireland was a war situation in which the legitimate army of the Irish Republic was engaged in an armed conflict with the army of the United Kingdom. In fact, the government’s actions would validate the Republican movement’s interpretation of the conflict and once again confer on the IRA the legitimacy it had fought so tenaciously to achieve. “We cannot treat persons convicted of criminal offenses as prisoners of war,” Margaret Thatcher coldly informed Cardinal O’Fiaich in May 1981, when O’Fiaich pleaded with her following Sands’s death to do something to end the prison crisis; the question now was whether the British government was shooting those not convicted of criminal offenses as soldiers of war.

For constitutional nationalists, North and South, anything that suggested that the conflict was, in fact, a war undermined yet again their ever-so-careful distinction between “good” violence and “bad” violence. Actions of the British government which implied that it acceded to the IRA’s view of the conflict made it increasingly difficult to maintain that the IRA violence was bad. In the circumstances of what could be construed as a shoot-to-kill policy, the violence of the British government became the “bad” violence; the insinuations, widely believed, that the security forces had not just killed the IRA men in a shoot-out but had mercilessly massacred them with firepower ferociously excessive for the occasion invoked folk memories of the Black and Tan war, stirred in the dim recesses of many minds stories of reprisal killings in the old days, once again collapsing time, compressing the historical moment, impelling comparisons with the past. The more British violence could be seen as “bad,” the more difficult it became to see the IRA’s violence as bad; the gut reaction was in danger of becoming the prevailing reaction.

There was, of course, the inevitable historical analogue that would give Loughgall its rightful place in the hierarchy of atrocities committed against Republicans: Clonmult in County Cork, 20 February 1920. On that occasion, Black and Tan auxiliaries, acting in line with what the Republican writing of history had deemed to be an officially sanctioned shoot-to-kill policy, opened fire on a party of fifteen IRA volunteers after they had surrendered following an armed encounter. “The Auxiliaries,” Republicans were reminded in An Phoblacht/Republican News, “fell on them ‘like wild beasts,’ killing twelve and tearing from the dead and wounded watches, pens, religious medals, shouting and cursing the whole time.” The Clonmult ambush was a setback for the IRA in Cork, but the following month it rebounded: “far from being defeated [it] demonstrated that [the IRA] could carry out devastating attacks on the British occupation forces.”

There was an absolute order to history and absolute order demanded absolute acts. The volunteers, An Phoblact/Republican News said, had gone to Loughgall “with courage and skill and above all with comradeship and a firm belief in the correctness of their action. They went as Republican soldiers who had carefully planned and hoped to successfully inflict a major blow against the British war machine.” They “were greatly outnumbered and outarmed by an occupying army with a vast array of military equipment and surveillance technology at its disposal.” They could have been arrested “but the SAS planned to take no prisoners and they took none.” They had been murdered -- “murder planned at the very highest level of the British government’s administration.” Loughgall happened “because the British needed revenge,” because the British “had been defeated and demoralized by the IRA.” “The young men who were there [at Loughgall] with guns in their hands had every right and every justification to be there. They were there for the Irish people. The people who laid in wait, the people who murdered them, they were the terrorists. . . . Margaret Thatcher and Tom King and all the other rich and powerful people would be sorry in their time.”

What happened at Loughgall “would forever be remembered by those thousands and thousands of Irish people shocked and angered at the wanton murders of nine young Irishmen by the soldiers of a foreign army holding no legal or moral right to bear arms on Irish soil.” The Loughgall martyrs would “never die”; they would “forever be remembered.” They were “legends.” The legends “would never die.” They were “heroes, freedom fighters, peace soldiers.” They had “sacrificed their lives,” and out of the sacrifice would come “a greater number of IRA recruits.” They were historical people.

In the small villages of Armagh and Tyrone they understood. The talk from Dublin that the IRA leadership was “trapping people into violence” could have been the propaganda of a foreign government, the talk from London of taking the fight to the terrorists nothing more than the triumphalist importunings of the old enemy. In Dungannon, black flags fluttered in every window, thousands lined the funeral routes: country people, respectable people who believed that the volunteers -- the sons of their neighbors, hard-working decent members of their communities, husbands and fathers -- had been needlessly shot in a show of premeditated vengeance. The priest presiding over the requiem mass for the funeral of Paddy Kelly, the commander of the East Tyrone Brigade (the brigade was reputedly responsible for killing sixty UDR members, fifty RUC personnel, and at least five civilians since it began operations in 1971), told the mourners packed into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dungannon that Kelly was “an upright and truthful man who loved his family, his Irish culture and his country.” (“That sermon,” Ken Maginnis, Official Unionist M.P. for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, told me, “did more harm than the eleven people who were killed at Enniskillen to the Unionist understanding of what Irish Nationalism and the Catholic community was really about.” The Catholic Church seemed to be holding up to emulate “a man who was out to commit cruel cold murder.”)

To Kelly’s wife, Kathleen, who was expecting their fourth child when he died, he was a dedicated soldier. “He was a brilliant fighter and he was cool,” was Padraig McKearney’s nine-year-old niece’s appraisal of her uncle. McKearney was buried thirteen years to the day that his brother Sean was killed on active service in 1974; another brother, Tommy, had been in the H-blocks for eleven years. Tom Gormley, Eugene Kelly, Sean Donnelly, and Declan Arthurs had come to age when Martin Hurson died. Hurson was the hero to whom they looked, the one who had set the example, provided the inspiration. Theirs was a closed world with an unchangeable, unambivalent internal code of its own, of people shaped since childhood by the same common experiences and struggle, who maintained a system of mutual support and an assiduous sense of ideological and personal commitment to each other. It was a world in which the Anglo-Irish Agreement played no part, in which the promise of two governments to consult and the right of the Irish government to put forward views and proposals were abstractions, irrelevancies, in which the Irish government was still the Free State government, a partition government that collaborated with the British to destroy Republicanism. In Galbally, Aughnaskea, Cappagh, and Moy they knew their responsibilities to the dead.

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