Loughgall: In 10 violent minutes an entire IRA brigade command was wiped out

Hypocrisy of Sinn Fein, talking about moving on from the past when keeping alive events such as Loughgall, above. An aerial view of Loughgall RUC station after the IRA attack on it in 1987
Hypocrisy of Sinn Fein, talking about moving on from the past when keeping alive events such as Loughgall, above. An aerial view of Loughgall RUC station after the IRA attack on it in 1987

In his book ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA’ former Special Branch detective Dr William Matchett explains the significance of the SAS operation in Loughgall.

“Cross-border brigades contained the IRA’s top killers. It was the extreme that suppressed less radicalised views within the organisation.

Author William Matchett with his book Secret Victory.
Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Author William Matchett with his book Secret Victory. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

By the mid 1980s a successful cross-border IRA murder spree threatened to destabilise the entire state by plunging Northern Ireland into a full blown sectarian civil war, which was the aim of cross-border brigades. Any hope of achieving this, however, was extinguished on May 8, 1987 when the most ambitious brigade – East Tyrone/Monaghan IRA – suffered a humiliating setback at Loughgall. Not only did the Loughgall incident signal the decline of the IRA cross-border offensive, it also signalled the decline of the IRA terrorist campaign.

East Tyrone/Monaghan IRA contained irreconcilables like James Lynagh and Patrick McKearney. Both were on-the-runs, fugitives from the law in Northern Ireland who lived in border counties in the Republic of Ireland. Lynagh and McKearney were the driving force behind most IRA murders in Tyrone and many others in the neighbouring counties for at least a decade prior to the Loughgall incident.

For younger brigade members, Lynagh and McKearney were living legends, republican icons, someone they aspired to be. To Special Branch, they were streetwise homicidal maniacs and the main impediment to ending the conflict. Most law-abiding citizens believed people like Lynagh were unstoppable and beyond the reach of the law. Lynagh also believed this, which meant he had a false sense of his own operational value.

McKearney was similarly deluded. This is because Lynagh and McKearney confused murdering soft targets in surprise attacks with combat. They were criminals not combatants. Psychopaths not soldiers.

Cover of 'Secret Victory' by Dr William Matchett

Cover of 'Secret Victory' by Dr William Matchett

They were intoxicated by republican myths and had lost touch with reality. They did not appreciate that the first time they came up against soldiers trained in combat...would be their last.

In a violent 10 minutes the entire brigade command had been wiped out. All the assailants killed were known to SB and linked to previous murders.

When the attack occurred the only people in Loughgall police station were two constables of SB’s specialist firearms team – E4 HMSU (Headquarters Mobile Support Unit) – and six SAS. Also present was a uniform constable stationed there. All those who would normally have been in the station, with the exception of one, had been replaced by covert specialists.

The rest of the E4 HMSU performed an outer cordon. Twenty-six SAS were involved in total, with those outside hiding in fields and woodland close to the station.

Both E4 HMSU officers had to protect the local uniform officer when anyone called at the station, as there was concern that an insurgent pretending to be an innocent caller would trigger the attack by shooting the first officer he met.

For a beleaguered police force and a long-suffering public, what happened at Loughgall convinced many for the first time that the IRA was beatable. Loughgall was the beginning of the end.”