Kingsmills was “sectarian savagery”

The 31st anniversary of the Kingsmill atrocity took place near Whitecross yesterday.'Pic Gavan Caldwell
The 31st anniversary of the Kingsmill atrocity took place near Whitecross yesterday.'Pic Gavan Caldwell

The murders of ten Protestant workmen in 1976 at Kingsmills was a “purely sectarian” premeditated attack carried out by the Provisional IRA, a police review has found.

The PSNI Historical Enquiries Team handed over its long awaited report to relatives of the dead yesterday at the offices of victims group FAIR in Markethill.

The report recounted the full details of the widely condemned atrocity; The ten Protestants, aged from 18 to 63, were travelling home from work when they were stopped by up to a dozen armed men with blackened faces and combat jackets on the Kingsmills Road in Co Armagh on 5 January 1976. One of the armed men called for the catholic amongst the passengers, Richard Hughes, to identify himself. The Protestants on the minibus bravely tried to shield his identity, fearing he was to be the victim.

The gunman got all the men out of the bus and lined them up, facing the vehicle. Mr Hughes to run down the road. The armed men them “mercilessly” shot the group using eleven firearms and an order was give to finish them of which was followed by a second burst of gunfire into the helpless and wounded victims. One Protestant, Alan Black survived to tell what happened, despite being hit with 18 bullets.

The PSNI Historical Enquiries Team report concluded that “the motive was purely sectarian with each man being murdered solely because he was a Protestant”.

They were described as “honest, ordinary working men, they were harmless and utterly defenceless” HET said.

And it formally ended all debate as to who carried out the shooting, which had been claimed under the name of a fictional group.

“These dreadful murders were carried out by the Provisional IRA and none other,” the report said. “This was appalling savagery on a gross scale which brings utter shame on those responsible and disgrace on any cause they professed to support.”

HET said the murders occurred during a period of spiralling sectarian violence in the south Armagh area. Two of the same weapons were used to murder five men at Tullyvallen Orange Hall five months before. The day before the Kingsmills attack the three Reavey brothers were gunned down by the UVF in Whitecross and three members of the O’Dowd family were murdered in Lurgan, again by the UVF.

HET has concluded that the ambush of the minibus at Kingsmills required “intimate knowledge substantial firepower and the organisation of considerable resources to contain the scene, commit the murders and facilitate the escape of a large number of attackers”.

The report said: “It was clearly a pre-planned attack on a target that had been pre-selected and researched some time before. The murderous attacks on the Reavey and O’Dowd families [by the UVF the day before] were simply the catalyst for the pre-meditated and calculated slaughter of these innocent and defenceless men.

“The fact that the only Catholic worker within the group, who was obviously known to at least one of the gunmen, was physically removed form the group and allowed to get away underlines both the specific intent and motivation of the attackers.

“After the initial burst of heavy gunfire, it became apparent to the gunmen that some of the workmen may still be alive. The intention to murder everyone was absolute. No one was to survive. Survivor Alan Black said a further command was given - ‘Finish them off’ and another burst of concentrated gunfire was fired into the heaped bodies of the workmen as they lay on the roadway.”

The attack was claimed by the South Armagh Republican Action Force in which they stated the murders were in retaliation for the murders of the Reaveys and O’Dowds. But intelligence clearly indicated that several members of the Provisional IRA were directly responsible for the murders, HET found. “The level of public revulsion and scale of outrage saw PIRA use a cover name, a common tactic for paramilitaries on both sides to distance themselves from responsibility.”

The public supplied 63 names of those thought to have been responsible but although it was clear to investigators that those responsible were among the overall list but there was no direct evidence to connect them.

The police wanted to make arrests but the suspects stayed in the Republic and there were no grounds for extradition. The Garda arrested and interviewed a number of suspects but no evidence was found linking them to the atrocity. The RUC circulated the names of seven suspects and one person remains wanted but nobody was ever charged or convicted.

HET found that some lines of inquiry were not fully completed and the arrest of potential suspects does not appear to have taken place. Many police documents are incomplete and some missing, and HET was unable to reach a conclusion about many related ambiguities.

The failure to trace and interview a number of potential witnesses was a very significant missed opportunity, HET concluded.

“Some of these people were contacted by HET but investigative opportunities cannot be recreated after this length of time,” the report said. However HET recognised the “extraordinary” pressure the RUC CID was under at that time and that investigative procedures are very different today.