Comment: Forty years on, Kingsmills families just want justice

The bullet-riddled minibus in which the murdered workers were travelling
The bullet-riddled minibus in which the murdered workers were travelling

Next Tuesday, January 5, is the 40th anniversary of the Kingsmills massacre. In a Province well used to dark days, this was one of the worst.

The slaughter of 10 entirely innocent Protestant workmen on a roadside just outside the village of Whitecross in south Armagh.

Men returning home from their work with only lunchboxes to protect them from cold hearted and cruel IRA murderers.

There were 12 workers on the final stage of the journey home that evening, 11 of them Protestant and one sole Roman Catholic.

Their minibus was stopped on the crest of a hill, a short distance from Kingsmills crossroads. They thought it was a security checkpoint, common enough in south Armagh in those days, particularly with events in the preceding days, and they were ordered out and lined up on the roadside.

It soon became clear it was not a security operation. The sole Roman Catholic – a decent and entirely innocent man whose life was utterly changed by the events he witnessed – was identified and told to make himself scarce. Then the shooting started.

When it was over, 10 lay dead and one – Alan Black – miraculously survived, though with grievous injuries and memories to haunt him for the rest of his life.

There was widespread condemnation of the atrocity, claimed initially by a cover name for PIRA, so great was the revulsion.

It took an HET Report over 30 years later to lay the blame where it belonged – south Armagh PIRA.

The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, ordered the SAS to be deployed in south Armagh, forever to be described as “bandit country”.

In the village of Bessbrook, where eight of the victims and the two survivors lived, people were devastated. It was a deeply traumatic experience, particularly for the families of the victims.

The world’s media descended on Bessbrook to cover the aftermath.

Politicians and senior churchmen issued statements.

“Those responsible,” we were told, “would be hunted down and caught – justice would prevail.”

Despite the valiant efforts of local representatives such as the late Harold McCusker MP and others, nobody wanted to know. The dark, dirty secrets of republicans in south Armagh were protected.

Forty years on, justice is no closer. In the intervening years the families of Kingsmills and the beleaguered Protestant community in south Armagh have had to deal with the situation, almost alone.

Anniversaries have come and gone, memorials have been erected in the village of Bessbrook and more latterly at the scene of the massacre.

Following the Belfast Agreement, relatives with the help of Assembly politicians such as myself and colleagues have attempted to raise the case for truth and justice, along with victims’ groups such as FAIR.

Meetings with senior NIO officials and politicians have followed.

Representations to the Irish government led to meetings with the Taoiseach in both Dublin and Bessbrook.

The publication of the HET report confirmed details mostly already known, but refused to name those responsible, despite that information being known to the authorities.

And so we reach the milestone of 40 years with the hope that a fresh coroner’s inquest will take place in the early part of 2016, perhaps offering a glimmer of hope to the sole survivor and remaining relatives and campaigners who have yearned for the truth to finally emerge.

And through it all, the quiet dignity of the families – seeking justice, not revenge – but determined to honour the memory of those cruelly taken from them and asking their fellow citizens to afford them the respect and support they so deserve.

Whatever you are doing this weekend, and the early part of next week, I ask you – please remember Kingsmills.

• A memorial service to mark the 40th anniversary of Kingsmills is planned to take place on Sunday January 24 at Bessbrook Town Hall at 3pm. Everyone is welcome to attend.