“That bomb was definitely placed there with a view to killing all in that band.”
– James O’Neill
On July 31, 1975, in County Down, five people were killed, including three members of the popular Miami Showband, in an attack in by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group. Despite the story of the Miami Showband killings being well-known throughout Ireland, there are some quite peculiar aspects of the night that fly a little under the radar. In fact, when studied deeper, they become the most pivotal aspects of the whole story; none more so than the man with the ‘educated, English accent’ who appeared on the scene on the night in question. As testified by surviving members of the band, the mood and actions of the checkpoint soldiers immediately changed on the arrival of this man, who was clearly in charge.
The Miami Showband massacre was an attempt by the British Army and the UVF to kill all the members of the popular Irish showband by placing a bomb inside their van. The hope was that the optics of the night would represent a failed attempt by the Miami Showband to transport a bomb across the border to kill British Army personnel, when in fact it blew prematurely and killed the band themselves. This would then allow the British Army to lobby the government to tighten restrictions at borders from the republic into the North and, with that, give the British the upper hand. However, it did not go to plan.
There were six members in total in the Miami Showband – Tony Geraghty, Fran O’Toole, Ray Millar, Des McAlea (Des Lee), Brian McCoy and Stephen Travers. Five members of the band were travelling home after a performance at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, County Down on Thursday, July 31, 1975. Ray Millar, the band’s drummer, was not with them, as he had chosen to go to his home town of Antrim to spend the night with his parents. The band’s road manager, Brian Maguire, had already gone ahead a few minutes earlier in the equipment van. At about 2.30am, when the band was seven miles (11 km) north of Newry on the main A1 road, their Volkswagen minibus (driven by trumpeter Brian McCoy with Stephen Travers in the front seat beside him) reached the townland of Buskhill. Near the junction with Buskhill Road they were flagged down by armed men dressed in British Army uniforms waving a red torch in a circular motion. This was so common during the Troubles that the band assumed it was a legitimate checkpoint. The unsuspecting band members (still wearing their stage clothes) got out and were politely told to line up facing the ditch at the rear of the minibus with their hands on their heads. More uniformed men appeared from out of the darkness, their guns pointed at the minibus. After McCoy told them they were the Miami Showband, one gunman, Thomas Crozier (who had a notebook) asked the band members for their names and addresses, while the others bantered with them about the success of their performance that night. As Crozier took down the information, a car pulled up and another uniformed man appeared on the scene. He wore a uniform and beret noticeably different from the others. He spoke with an educated English accent and immediately took charge, ordering a man who appeared to have been the leader of the patrol, to tell Crozier to obtain their names and dates of birth instead of addresses.
The jocular mood of the gunmen abruptly ceased. At no time did this new soldier speak to any of the band members nor did he directly address Crozier. He relayed all his instructions to the gunman in command. Travers, the band’s new bass player, assumed he was a British Army officer; an opinion shared by McCoy. Just after the arrival of this mysterious soldier, McCoy nudged Travers, who was standing beside him, and reassured him by saying “Don’t worry Stephen, this is British Army”. He was almost right – there were roughly 10 soldiers at the checkpoint, four of which were members of the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment and branch of the British Army. However, all 10 in fact were members of the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Forces, a loyalist paramilitary organisaton.
Out of sight of the band members, two of the gunmen placed a ten-pound (4.5 kg) time bomb in the rear of the minibus. The UVF’s plan was that the bomb would explode once the minibus had reached Newry, killing all on board. Had it all gone according to plan, the loyalist extremists would have been able to clandestinely bomb the Republic of Ireland, yet claim that the band were Republican bomb smugglers carrying explosives on behalf of the IRA. They had hoped to embarrass the Government of Ireland, as well as to draw attention to its under-patrolled border. This would have resulted in the Irish authorities enforcing tighter controls over people crossing the border, thus greatly restricting IRA operations. Stephen Travers recalls being concerned about what was taking so long. “My guitar was in there. I had a very unusual guitar, a transparent Dan Armstrong Plexiglas bass, and I was very protective of it. I was damned if I was going to let some awkward soldier manhandle it. I loved my guitar.
When the device was tilted on its side, clumsy soldering on the clock used as a timer caused the bomb to explode prematurely, blowing the minibus apart and killing UVF men Harris Boyle (aged 22, a telephone wireman from Portadown) and Wesley Somerville (aged 34, a textile worker from Moygashel) instantly. Hurled in opposite directions, they were both decapitated and their bodies dismembered. What little that remained intact of their bodies was burnt beyond recognition.
The other assailants opened fire, killing the band’s frontman, Fran O’Toole, trumpet player, Brian McCoy, and lead guitarist, Tony Geraghty. Stephen had also been shot. Face down in the grass and motionless, he played dead, his only thoughts of survival. After some time had passed, Des McAlea, who also survived the attack, called out to Fran, Brian and Tony. He heard Stephen moaning and called out to him, saying he was going to try to get help. Des pleaded with a lorry driver who had stopped to take him to Newry police station, but he refused. Then a young couple in a car pulled up and agreed to take Des to Newry.
Stephen says that Des saved his life. “I had managed to roll on to my back. I slowly brought my hands across my chest and carefully counted my fingers,” he says. “It was suddenly very important to me, as a musician, that I had all my fingers. They were all there. I thanked God, as I heard my platform shoes click against each other; I still had both legs.” Stephen remained there for almost an hour before help arrived. To this day he is “still in that field” according to Stephen.
“When I discovered music I discovered Tír na nÓg, and I lived there for a while, but now I just get to visit it occasionally. Some day I might get to move back there permanently. Who knows… but I’ll have to get out of the field first,” Stephen says.
Stephen Travers has spent 47 years trying to prove that there was collusion between the British Government and paramilitary organisations in the North that ultimately led to the killings and the lifelong damage caused to the survivors’ lives. Last year he succeeded, Mr Travers was awarded £425,000 and Mr McAlea will receive £325,000 in damages. The court ruled the personal representatives of Fran O’Toole and Brian McCoy would receive £375,000 and £325,000 respectively.
The legal action followed a 2011 ‘Historical Enquiries Team’ report, which raised concerns about collusion around the involvement of an RUC Special Branch agent.
It found that Ulster UVF man Robin ‘The Jackal’ Jackson claimed in police interviews he had been tipped off by a senior RUC officer to lie low, after his fingerprints were found on a silencer attached to one of the weapons. Two Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers were convicted for their roles in the attack. However, it is the man with the ‘educated English accent’ that is of the utmost importance, because his involvement is proof of ongoing collusion between the organisations. He went unidentified, as he was protected by the British government. He is said to have organised the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, as well as the Miami Showband Massacre. He has now been named as being almost certainly the man in charge of the massacre and next month’s column will go into detail on his involvement and the fact that he has posthumously been awarded the George Cross by the British Government for his involvement in British Military procedures in the North of Ireland.