I took my daughter back to County Tyrone at the end of June to see my parents, and to spend some time with my sister and her children, who were also visiting. We did the usual: gorged on apple pancakes, spent a long time in Poundland, and trekked through Drum Manor Forest Park in the rain, dispensing bread to our children to feed the ducks, just like our parents used to do with us. And we watched the news and read the papers, which was the usual depressing experience.

The two main stories in June were the handing over to relatives of the dead of the report by the Northern Ireland police’s Historical Enquiries Team into the 1976 Kingsmill massacre, in which ten Protestant workmen were killed; and the furore over the appointment of Mary McArdle, a convicted IRA killer, as a special government adviser to the new Sinn Fein culture minister, Carál Ní Chuilín. Though the Kingsmill Report hasn’t been made public, its main findings have been printed in the local papers. According to the Irish Times the report concludes that the attack was ‘purely sectarian, with each man being murdered solely because he was a Protestant’. It was carried out by the Provisional IRA, though they have never admitted responsibility.

On 5 January 1976 a bus travelling from a textile factory in the village of Glenanne in County Armagh to Bessbrook, was stopped on the Kingsmill Road and surrounded by a dozen armed men in combat jackets and with blackened faces. The workers thought they’d been stopped by the British army. They were ordered out onto the road and a gunman with a pronounced English accent demanded that the Catholics among them identify themselves. Fearing now that they’d been stopped by loyalist terrorists, one of the workers, Walter Chapman, whispered to the sole Catholic, Richard Hughes, that he should stay silent. But one of the gunmen recognised Hughes and ordered him to ‘clear off down the road’. He did so and the gunmen opened fire, with armalites, SLRs, a 9mm pistol and an M1 carbine, on the remaining men. In less than a minute more than 130 rounds were fired. Ten men were killed, including Walter Chapman and his brother; one, Alan Black, survived despite having being shot 18 times.

The Kingsmill massacre took place the day after five Catholic men were shot dead by a loyalist gang that included at least one RUC officer. At about 6 p.m. three masked men went into a house in Whitecross (near where the bus would be stopped the next day) and shot the three brothers who lived there: John, Brian and Anthony Reavey. (John and Brian died immediately; Anthony died a month later.) Twenty minutes later gunmen entered a house in Ballydougan and shot and killed Joseph O’Dowd and his nephews Barry and Declan, all of them members of the SDLP. In 1999 Ian Paisley, under parliamentary privilege, claimed that Eugene Reavey, another brother, had ‘set up the Kingsmill massacre’, but the HET report explicitly rejects this allegation. The night before the Reavey brothers were killed, they’d been playing darts with the Chapman brothers.

Nobody has ever been charged with the Kingsmill massacre. Several of the weapons used, according to the HET, were also used in at least 59 other murders or attempted murders, and in dozens of attacks that the IRA did claim responsibility for. The report names six men linked to these weapons, and describes various other suspects in the case without naming them. Top of the list is Suspect A. In the early 1980s, he spent two years in prison in the US. On his release he returned to the Republic of Ireland, where he still lives. According to the Belfast Telegraph, the report adds that he was subsequently ‘found liable in a civil case for damages brought by families’ of the victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998. Any reader with an internet connection can identify Suspect A as Colm Murphy, who was found liable for the Omagh bombing and was convicted in the US for trying to buy a consignment of M60 machine guns for the INLA. A half-way house between truth and allegation, the report also describes nine other suspects and assigns them code letters, as required by legal process. The police can name the six suspects who are linked to the weapons since they’ve been convicted of crimes in which these weapons were used, but they have to be careful to state that it can’t be assumed these men were involved in the Kingsmill killings.

The second story in the papers was about Mary McArdle, the new government adviser. In 1984, a magistrate called Tom Travers was leaving mass on the Malone Road in Belfast with his wife and 22-year-old daughter, Mary, when he was shot six times. He survived, but another gunman shot Mary dead before pointing his gun at her mother’s head and misfiring twice. The gunmen were never caught, but Mary McArdle, who was 19, was arrested further up the road, ostensibly walking her dog, with the two guns used in the killing hidden under her skirt. Ní Chuilín says it’s ‘a privilege’ for her to work with McArdle.

At the same time as blame is being apportioned – or suspected truths officially confirmed, at least – there’s an overwhelming belief among members of Sinn Fein that Northern Ireland should forgive and forget. The party has a democratic mandate now, partly because the IRA’s racketeering has given Sinn Fein a massive electoral war chest and made it possible for them to squeeze out the SDLP – including its leader, John Hume. Of course, many ex-prisoners involved in the Troubles have government jobs, and McArdle’s appointment has raised familiar questions. Do the power structures in Northern Ireland offer any real possibility of dealing with the past? Should the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners mean rewarding them for their crimes? Northern Ireland is one of the last places in the developed world where democracy is subsumed by identity politics. It’s also the site of the world’s longest-running, albeit intermittent, civil war. These peculiarities have meant that politics are run along the lines of power blocs and fiefdoms, politicians often being religious or civic leaders.

The rows about the past are replicated at local level: Councillor Sean McGlinchey, who served 18 years for his role in a car bombing in Coleraine in 1973 that killed six people, is now the Sinn Fein mayor of Limavady. In Cookstown, my town, a large wooden sign was nailed to a lamppost in Monrush, a Protestant housing estate: ‘In Oklahoma,’ the sign proclaims, ‘Mass Murderers Get the Electric Chair. In Limavady Mass Murderers Get the Mayor’s Chair.’ The sign addresses the question that many Protestants – and Catholics who suffered at the hands of the IRA – find themselves asking: how many of these men and women who killed our families and friends are going to be rewarded for their actions with power and money? There was never a meaningful division between Sinn Fein and the IRA. When Gerry Adams was in prison in the mid-1970s, he began formulating a fusion of military and political strategy, and organised a series of lectures for prisoners on political theory, anti-imperialist struggles, Irish history, and weapons and explosives. These were eventually collected in the Green Book, the IRA manual. IRA volunteers, especially those who were known to the security forces, were channelled into Sinn Fein, where they could promote street politics and build community structures as an alternative to those of the British-run state.

There is no equivalent history of loyalist paramilitaries gaining political influence, and no loyalist killers have been appointed DUP special advisers or ministers. However, it’s true that the DUP have usually had the British army and the RUC acting in concert with their interests, and the DUP has not been afraid to flirt with paramilitaries for its own ends: in 1996, when it was being squeezed by pro-Agreement loyalist parties and by the Ulster Unionists, one of its MPs, William McCrea, stood on a platform with the Loyalist Volunteer Force killer Billy Wright. The DUP seemed to want to use the LVF to bring down the Good Friday Agreement, just as Paisley had used the UDA to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973. There was also the sinister fiasco of Ulster Resistance, a paramilitary movement established by unionists in 1986 after the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Peter Robinson, now first minister of Northern Ireland, was photographed wearing the loyalist paramilitary regalia of red beret and military fatigues, and at a rally in Enniskillen announced that ‘thousands have already joined the movement and the task of shaping them into an effective force is continuing.’ Paisley said that a ‘third force’ was needed to fight against republicanism, and put a red beret on his head and saluted. Arms were procured, but the Ulster Resistance doesn’t seem to have carried out any attacks, and the DUP claims it severed all links with them in 1987. Ian Paisley’s invective has fuelled many loyalist acts of terrorism, but in general the DUP has kept men with guns at arm’s length. The recent riots in East Belfast were, according to the police, incited by the UVF; the hundreds of young men on the streets of Short Strand were sent out by leaders of groups that the peace process has in effect excluded. While the warlords and murderers on one side have risen to prominence and power, loyalist gangsters have only a much diminished status to show for putting down their weapons. At a recent conference of ex-prisoners, Jackie McDonald, a prominent UDA leader, argued that Sinn Fein had been right to appoint McArdle: she had earned the job, he said, by doing what she was told.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences