Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for The Advertiser
The Troubles spanned three decades but the single greatest loss of life for the IRA came in a small village in Armagh called Loughgall on May 8, 1987. This loss of life became known as the Loughgall Ambush. It was a massive coup for the RUC but it made heroes and martyrs of the eight men that lost their lives. The Ambush consisted of two parts. The first part of the plan was to drive a digger through the perimeter of the RUC base in Loughgall. In the bucket of the digger was a 400lb semtex bomb, packed into an oil drum. They aimed to park the digger within touching distance of the front doors of the building and light the fuse. The IRA knew that the base was being manned by three British Army officers. The second part of the plan was to shoot these men dead after lighting the fuse of the bomb. The attack of the RUC barracks was led by a prominent IRA member known as Jim ‘The Executioner’ Lynagh. Everything had gone perfectly to plan for the IRA except unknown to them they had an informant within the group. This resulted in eight IRA men being shot dead by high-powered rifles and one member of the public by mistaken identity.
Three of the IRA unit arrived at Loughgall at 7pm by stolen digger. The second part of the unit consisting of the other five men followed closely by in a blue Toyota HiAce van. All members of the IRA were armed, they were all wearing bullet proof vests underneath overalls with balaclavas and gloves on. They had socks pulled over their shoes in an effort to cover up footprints and not leave any forensic evidence. Jim Lynagh, Pádraig McKearney, Gerard O’Callaghan, Tony Gormley, Eugene Kelly, Patrick Kelly, Séamus Donnelly and Declan Arthurs set about their mission. The men parked the digger, lit the fuse and then all eight opened fire on the building. They had planned to exit the property and jump into the waiting van. However, due to an informant giving the British Army intelligence the RUC had made a D- Shaped trap and within seconds of the men exiting the digger, the RUC opened fire. More than one thousand rounds of ammunition were fired into their bodies. They had been caught in a deadly trap set by soldiers from the elite Special Air Service and the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s most secretive unit. When the shooting stopped, police, troops and civilian witnesses reported that the spent bullet cartridges were scattered across the killing ground like confetti at a wedding.
78 spent cartridges cases were recovered that were fired from IRA weapons. All eight IRA members were killed in the hail of gunfire. They all had multiple wounds to their bodies, including their heads. Declan Arthurs was shot in a lane-way opposite Loughgall Football Club premises, without a firearm in the direct vicinity, holding a cigarette lighter closed in his right hand. Two innocent civilians travelling in a car, which happened to drive into the scene of the ambush whilst it was underway, were also opened fire upon by the British forces. The two brothers, Anthony and Oliver Hughes, were driving home in a white Citroen GS Special car after repairing a lorry with Oliver wearing overalls similar in appearance to those being worn by the IRA unit.
About 130 yards from the police station, British soldiers opened fire on their car from behind, killing Anthony (driving) and badly wounding Oliver. The Citroen had approximately 34 bullet holes. The villagers had not been told of the operation and no attempt had been made to evacuate anyone or to seal off the ambush zone, as this might have alerted the IRA to the ambush’s presence. The security forces recovered eight IRA firearms from the scene: three H&K G3 rifles, one FN FAL rifle, two FN FNC rifles, a Franchi SPAS-12T shotgun and a Ruger Security-Six revolver. The Royal Ulster Constabulary subsequently linked the weapons to seven known murders and twelve attempted murders in the Mid-Ulster region. The Ruger had been stolen from Reserve RUC officer William Clement, killed two years earlier in the attack on Ballygawley police station by the IRA. It was found that another of the guns had been used in the murder of Harold Henry, a builder who was employed by the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary in facilities construction in Northern Ireland.
When the SAS, along with their RUC counterparts, returned to their base at the Mahon Road army barracks in Portadown, just a few miles away they celebrated with champagne. Some of the most wanted men in Europe, many of whom had killed police officers and civilians were dead. There was jubilation too within the unionist community. A few hours after the attack loyalists painted ‘SAS 8 – IRA 0’ on the roof of a derelict house in Portadown overlooking the main Dublin to Belfast railway line – the graffiti is still there today. In contrast the republican community was stunned by the IRA’s single biggest defeat of the Troubles.
The IRA unit destroyed in the ambush became known as the ‘Loughgall Martyrs’ among IRA supporters. The men’s relatives considered their deaths to be part of a deliberate shoot-to-kill policy by the security forces in the province. Thousands of people attended their funerals, the biggest republican funerals in Northern Ireland since those of the IRA hunger strikers of 1981. Gerry Adams, in his graveside oration, gave a speech stating the British Government understood that it could buy off the government of the Republic of Ireland, which he described as the ‘shoneen clan’ (pro-British), but added; “It does not understand the Jim Lynaghs, the Pádraig McKearneys or the Séamus McElwaines. It thinks it can defeat them. It never will.”
In 2001, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ten IRA men, including the eight killed at Loughgall, had their human rights violated by the failure of the British Government to conduct a proper investigation into their deaths. The court did not make any finding that these deaths amounted to unlawful killing. In December 2011, Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team found that not only did the IRA team fire first but that they could not have been safely arrested. They concluded that the British Army was justified in opening fire.