The mystery of the Miami murders

It was the night the music died: July 31, 1975. Exactly 30 years ago today. By 1975, the North might have imagined it had endured all possible horrors.

Bloody Sunday had given way to Bloody Friday. Other smaller-scale Bloody Mondays and Tuesdays took place almost every other week.

We all knew that sudden inexplicable death lurked behind hedges and under road culverts, and that streets could be reduced in a flash to a landscape of wrecked cars, collapsed buildings and chunks of human flesh. But somehow, lining up a showband in their platform shoes by the side of a country road and executing them with dum-dum bullets had been beyond most imaginings - until then.

Who would want to strafe the ballroom of romance with gunfire?

Thirty years later, it is still impossible to comprehend. What point on the scale of atrocities had a society reached when musicians had become legitimate targets? Wherever that point was, the North had reached it on July 31, 1975.

The night began, like so many others, for the Miami Showband in a small ballroom in the North - the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, Co Down. By the early 1970s, Ireland's showbands were at the height of their popularity.

Although they didn't realise it then, the new discos with their recorded music and bar extensions were only a few years away. That change came later, not just because the publicans were battling with the dancehalls for customers, but also because of the fate that befell the Miami Showband.

The showband business had always been a 32-county industry and, even in the worst of times in the North, when the dark winter roads were alive with armed men, both legal and illegal, the Northern dancehalls were full.

In contrast to the North's streets, which fell silent after teatime, the dancehalls were rare oases of light and sound, especially in the border counties. They were open Thursdays to Sundays and, it being the North, Sunday nights were hugely busy. The dancehalls were mostly popular with the Catholic population.

Despite intensive security force checkpoints, punters regularly criss-crossed the border from Tyrone to Monaghan and Donegal to Armagh to dance. The then part-time, locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment regularly manned checkpoints; tales of harassment and roadside beatings were rife.

For Northern Catholics, their determination to attend dances became a symbol of their refusal to be intimidated by the checkpoints and of their insistence of maintaining cultural links with the South.

That the majority of the showbands came from the South did little to enamour this social scene to their loyalist neighbours. Given the deepening sectarianisation of the Troubles, the dancehalls increasingly became Catholic places of entertainment where, as one loyalist newssheet put it: “They played nothing but rebel music.” Nor did the practice of playing Amhrán na bhFiann at the end of dances help to dispel this attitude.

But, 30 years ago in Banbridge, when three members of the Miami Showband played their last ever gig, there was little about the occasion that could be seen as “rebellious'‘. The crowd in the Castle Ballroom was small and mixed, and the Miami's repertoire was contemporary and transatlantic.

By 2.30am, they had packed up their gear and were finally leaving in two vehicles. The equipment van was driven by road manager Brian Maguire, and the band van was driven by band member Brian McCoy.

In the second van was the Miami's lead singer and Ireland's newest heart-throb, Fran O'Toole, along with Anthony Geraghty, Stephen Travers and Des McAlea. A sixth band member, drummer Ray Millar, left in his own car and drove northwards to spend the night with his parents in Antrim.

As they left Banbridge, with Maguire's equipment vehicle in the lead, they had to negotiate the opening of the town's security barriers with RUC members manning them. Maguire later recalled that, as he drove away, a few minutes ahead of the other vehicle, up the bypass towards Newry, he noticed a blue Triumph 2000 pulling out from a lay-by, slowing down and then accelerating while furiously flashing its lights. He drove on towards the border, not imagining what was about to happen to the van being driven by McCoy.

It was later obvious that this car was tracking the second van because, within moments of McCoy pulling into a lay-by (as directed by the purported security force checkpoint that they had just encountered), the car pulled in rapidly behind them.

To the band members, it was just another British Army checkpoint, a regular occurrence in the North.

Seemingly, the atmosphere was relaxed as the band got out while the “soldiers'‘ searched the van. In fact, one of the “soldiers'‘ - later identified in court by McAlea as James McDowell - became angry with his colleagues joking and chatting with the band. He promptly ordered the band to line up beside the hedge and give their names.

At this point, Travers said later, a man in a different uniform and beret arrived and he spoke with a discernible English accent. Travers's description of the man's beret was later dismissed in court as mistaken. But he remembers that this man suddenly seemed to be in charge, demanding that names and dates of birth be taken. At this point, Travers noticed two men at the back of the open van and, fearing that they might damage his guitar, he broke from the line-up to warn them. He was unceremoniously shoved back into position.

Suddenly, there was a loud explosion from the back of the van, and everyone in its vicinity was blown in all directions. According to the two survivors, McAlea (who was blown over a ditch) and Travers, the surviving members of the patrol were then determined to kill all of the band members to destroy evidence.

O'Toole, who was lying on the ground, was machine-gunned 22 times in the face. Geraghty was shot four times in the back. McCoy was shot nine times in the back, with the same pistol that was used to kill Long Kesh escapee John Francis Green in Co Monaghan six months earlier.

Remarkably, Travers and McAlea survived. Travers pretended he was dead, while McAlea managed to flee across the fields. Travers later recalled someone saying: “Come on, those bastards are dead. I got them with dum-dums.”

The survivors left an unimaginable scene. Body parts were strewn over a hundred feet from the wrecked van, including an arm with “UVF'‘ tattooed on it. The RUC later recovered a total of two guns and three magazines, plus the berets, at the scene. The forensic tests on these weapons revealed the links of the gang to a series of sectarian killings right across the so-called ‘murder triangle'.

More significantly, the two dead attackers, Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville, were not only UVF members but also serving soldiers in the Ulster Defence Regiment and in uniform at the time.

They were later given a UVF paramilitary funeral - complete with a volley of shots and a service conducted by the Rev William McCrea (now the DUP MP for South Antrim).

Even worse was to follow for the UDR. Three more members of the regiment were eventually convicted for their part in the attack. James Somerville, Thomas Crozier and McDowell were all to receive life sentences, and remained in jail until the releases under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Somerville, whose brother died in the attack, is now an evangelical minister in Belfast. McDowell lives in Lurgan, while Crozier lives in Magheralin, near Craigavon.

Thirty years on, the significance of the incident is the extent to which it served to open up the wider vista of the entire ‘murder triangle' and other killings.

The Miami outrage was also significant in that serving members of a British army regiment were involved, and the forensic evidence and the identities of those who escaped linked its operatives with a series of other killings, including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Whether its UVF operatives were acting on behalf of British undercover forces remains the burning question.

In the first instance, the mere fact that serving UDR members could publicly set up an illegal checkpoint in an area intensely patrolled by regular security forces raises many questions. And who was the English-accented “soldier'‘ seen by Travers?

For years, it has been claimed that the killings were organised by Captain Robert Nairac, the ill-fated British intelligence operative killed by the IRA in 1977.

The claim has been made by, among others, the former intelligence operator Fred Holyroyd.

There was evidential linkage to Nairac's presence at the killing of John Francis Green.

Furthermore, of the suspected five to six gang members involved in the Miami ambush who escaped, all were subsequently convicted for other offences or have since died.

In the latter category are Robin Jackson (the so-called ‘Jackal' who, it is claimed, carried out some 22 killings) and Samuel Fulton Neill, who was shot by the UVF for informing.

Three other convicted loyalist paramilitaries had suspected links.

Some of these people were also on the Garda Siochána's list of suspects for the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

The continued refusal of the British authorities to assist the Barron Report into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings with any intelligence investigation has deepened the suspicion that unravelling the mystery would inevitably lead to links with a series of killings across the ‘murder triangle', including that of the Miami Showband.

Indeed, forensic and weapon linkages from the Miami killings - and through a long list of convicted loyalist paramilitaries - creates an inter-linking series of ‘murder triangle' killings, many of which involved former members of the mid-Ulster UDR regiment, the RUC and members of the UVF.

Whether these activities were unilateral or a wider part of British intelligence undercover activity remains the most significant question.

That central question has continued to dominate the silence since the night the music died in July 1975.