If ever the phrase ‘cycle of sectarian violence’ had deadly meaning it was during Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, especially in the Republican heartland of South Armagh during the mid 1970s. On December 31 1975 the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) killed three protestants in a bomb attack on a pub in Gilford. On January 6 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) murdered six Catholics from the Reavey and O’Dowd families. Retaliation took place the following day and represented one of the worst targeted killings of the entire Troubles.
A minibus carrying home 15 textile workers and a driver dropped four Catholics in Whitecross before proceeding along Kingsmill Road towards Bessbrook. It was stopped at what the occupants assumed to be a police or army checkpoint and they got out in anticipation of a search. They were immediately surrounded by 12 armed men, but when Catholics were ordered to step forward assumed it was a UVF ambush and tried to persuade the one remaining Catholic not to reveal himself. When he did, he was told to run and not look back. The gunmen were Republicans, later claiming to represent the South Armagh Republican Action Force.
In the next minute 11 protestants were shot down in a hail of gunfire. Amazingly, one survived what was later described as ‘a horrifying scene of carnage’ despite having 18 gunshot wounds.
Notwithstanding much speculation and the naming of names by the Reverend Ian Paisley under the protection of British parliamentary privilege, neither members of the murder squad nor the Republican faction they represented were ever identified beyond doubt and no charges were brought in relation to the killings. Most thought the South Armagh Republican Action Force was a cover name for members of the South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA).
When: January 5 1976
Where: Near Bessbrook, South Armagh, Northern Ireland, UK
Death toll: Ten died at the scene.
You should know: It has been calculated that Northern Ireland’s Troubles between 1969 and 2001 cost nearly 3,300 lives in the province. Republican groups or individuals were responsible for over 2,000 of those deaths. But the Kingsmill atrocity was the last in the series of mass tit-for-tat murders that took place in South Armagh during the 1970s, supposedly because a deal to end such killings was agreed between the Irish Republican Army and ulster Volunteer Force.