Statement from the families of those murdered at Donnelly’s Bar, Silverbridge, outside Kay’s Tavern, Dundalk and in the Reavey and O’Dowd homes

Our loved ones died in a series of co-ordinated attacks between 19 December 1975 and January 4 1976. We are shocked and angered at comments contained in the British Ministry of Defence document titled Operation Banner - An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland.

his document was written under the direction of the Chief of the General Staff of the British Army and purports to provide an analysis of British army operations here.

At paragraph 234 the following claim is made;

Sectarian killing had become common, but a particularly vicious feud erupted in County Armagh between South Armagh PIRA and North Armagh UVF. The two organisations probably numbered less than 30 terrorists each. Between 19 December 1975 and 12 January 1976 over 40 people were killed and 100 wounded. The main effect of this feud was to raise tension and the perception of the political need to be doing something. The last vestiges of the Sunningdale Agreement died quietly and the bulk of the population tacitly accepted Direct Rule from Whitehall, which lasted until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

We demand the immediate retraction of these comments which represent nothing less than a rewriting of history by an organisation whose members in fact instigated and participated in the incidents referred to. To refer to the murders which occurred during those weeks as resulting from a “particularly vicious feud … in County Armagh between South Armagh PIRA and North Armagh UVF” is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

It is vital to set the historical record straight. We have decided to reveal details about this period that we had hitherto withheld and which we believe explain the shock and anger that we feel as relatives.

On December 19 1975 a car bomb exploded outside Kay’s Tavern in Dundalk, Co Louth. Two people died and dozens were injured. On the same evening gunmen opened fire both outside and then inside Donnelly’s Bar, Silverbridge Co Armagh. A bomb was thrown into the bar. Three people died and again dozens were injured.

On January 4 1976 gunmen entered the home of the Reavey family in Whitecross, S. Armagh. Two brothers were shot dead while a third was seriously injured. He died later that month. The gunmen searched every room in the house looking for further victims. Less than thirty minutes later a second group of gunmen burst into the O’Dowd household, some 20 miles away, and entered the sitting room where a large group of family members were gathered listening to one brother who was playing the piano. The gunmen opened fire and three members of the O’Dowd family were killed and a number were injured. These four attacks over a 16 day period left 11 people dead and were all attributed to loyalist paramilitaries.

On January 5 a bus was stopped by gunmen near Whitecross Co Armagh and the sole Catholic passenger was told to leave the scene. The gunmen then opened fire on the remaining eleven passengers, all of whom were protestant workmen from Bessbrook. Ten died and one survived. This attack, the Kingsmill massacre, was attributed to republicans.

In all 21 innocent people were murdered between December 19 1975 and January 5 1976 in this series of linked incidents. The attacks in Silverbridge, in Dundalk and on the Reavey and O’Dowd households have been the subject of judicial inquiries by Justice Barron resulting in Dail scrutiny; a current focused investigation (in the case of the northern incidents) by the Historical Enquiries Team; and ongoing litigation in the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. These attacks were carried out and co-ordinated by a gang based at Glenanne in S. Armagh. We have met with members of the Glenanne gang including former RUC officers and with RUC officers who investigated the group. The above allows us to comment on this period with a degree of accuracy and certainty that was denied us in the immediate aftermath of these murders.

We totally reject the British Army description of these events as a “feud” between S. Armagh PIRA and N.Armagh UVF for the following reasons;

This gang was made up of members of the British Army, the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries run by Military Intelligence and/or RUC Special Branch. The ballistic histories of the weapons used in these incidents allows us to state with absolute certainty that these incidents were linked to other alleged ‘loyalist’ attacks carried out both before and after this period including the Miami Showband massacre and the RUC SPG gun and bomb attack on the Rock Bar, Keady. The main instigators of these attacks were serving RUC officers and UDR members. A number of the attacks were carried out while the individuals were ‘on duty’ and/or were using official RUC and UDR uniforms and RUC vehicles. Access to police and army radios facilitated escape while some of the murders carried out by this gang were on occasion ‘investigated’ by RUC officers linked to the very same gang. State agents such as Robin Jackson, aka The Jackal, carried out a number of the attacks including the murders at the O’Dowd home. A number of people in positions of authority within the criminal justice, intelligence and policing institutions were aware that Jackson and other state agents were involved in murders in collusion with members of the RUC and British Army.

We no longer regard these incidents as ‘loyalist’ attacks but rather as part of a security force inspired ‘dirty war’ aimed at terrorising the Catholic/Nationalist community into isolating the IRA. At least 120 deaths can be attributed to the Glenanne Gang including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings yet their activities were allowed to continue for several years. Given the extent to which the security forces were aware of these activities, the degree to which members of the security forces were themselves central to these activities and the appalling response of the criminal justice system we are left in no doubt that these activities were officially tolerated. Equally we believe that there were individual RUC officers, not connected to Special Branch, who tried to uphold the law but were blocked from carrying out investigations.

There was no feud between the S Armagh PIRA and N Armagh UVF. 

These were not tit-for-tat sectarian killings. Indeed we are convinced that those who planned and instigated the attacks on December 19 and on January 4 intended to provoke a bloody and ever escalating response – the Kingsmill Massacre by republicans. In the climate of crisis which followed the Dec 19 – Jan 5 killings a series of security measures were announced which would have been politically unacceptable just weeks beforehand. The British army Spearhead battalion was transferred to the border area and it was announced that the SAS would be deployed to S. Armagh, the first official confirmation that the SAS was to be deployed on Irish soil. The then PM Harold Wilson declared all of Armagh a Special Emergency Area and the file of the same name remains closed at the National Archive in London. In the Republic the Cosgrave Government reacted to the crisis by promising extensive security cooperation with their Northern counterparts.

Our suspicions that there was a hidden hand behind these terrible events, that they were orchestrated and that the loss of innocent life in both communities was intended, have been reinforced by allegations made since by members of the Glenanne gang. In 2001 we met with a former member. Asked why no retaliation was undertaken following the Kingsmills massacre he replied that retaliation was planned but the plan was abandoned. According to this person the proposal was to attack the primary school in Belleek, Co Armagh and kill thirty odd children and their teacher. The plan was allegedly aborted because the UVF leadership believed that this response would lead to a civil war and was morally unacceptable. In addition the UVF leadership in Belfast suspected that the Glenanne gang member who suggested the attack, a UDR member who is dead, was working closely with military intelligence and that military intelligence was behind the plan and was seeking to provoke a civil war. We did not divulge these allegations at the time. On 25.5.2004 BBC Spotlight broadcast a programme on the Glenanne gang. Former RUC SPG officer and Glenanne gang member William Mc Caughey was interviewed. Mc Caughey was questioned about the proposed retaliation for Kingsmill. He admitted on air that the plan was to attack the primary school in Belleek or the convent in Newry. According to Mc Caughey the plan was aborted because of the fear of the potential IRA response. This was corroboration from a second member of the gang.

We are prepared to accept that this plan may have been regarded as morally unacceptable by the UVF. However the claim that the plan was instigated by military intelligence and was therefore part of a wider agenda has never been investigated. At a meeting with the PSNI Chief Constable and an Assistant Chief Constable in 18.8.2004 the Chief Constable was asked if Mc Caughey, a former RUC officer, had been questioned about these admissions. The ACC admitted that Mc Caughey had not been questioned.

It is an irrefutable fact that members of the security forces, including the British army, were involved in the attacks in which our loved ones died. It is alleged that military intelligence played a role in these attacks and sought to provoke an escalation that would have had unthinkable consequences. We acknowledge that the UVF did not follow through on this plan. The failure of the PSNI to interview Mc Caughey, who is now deceased, has added to our suspicions. This is the reason we are so angry and shocked at the claims made in this document of an alleged ‘feud’. We are demanding the retraction of these claims and a proper investigation of the Glenanne gang.

The families of Jack Rooney, Hugh Watters, Michael Donnelly, Patsy Donnelly, Trevor Brecknell, John Martin, Brian and Anthony Reavey, Barry, Joe and Declan O’Dowd.

For further information contact Alan Brecknell at the Newry PFC office
Alan’s father Trevor was killed in the gun and bomb attack on Donnelly’s Bar.