Netflix fails to make sense of the Miami Showband Massacre

In the absence of transparent answers, intricate theories become very seductive

The latest from Netflix's ReMastered series focusses on the Miami Showband massacre, which took place at Banbridge, Co. Down on July 31, 1975. Video: Netflix

 

The new documentary ReMastered: The Miami Showband Massacre has been tagged on Netflix under two uneasy, seemingly unrelated categories.

The first is “Music documentary”, which, although music does feature, seems almost incidental to a disturbing story with little harmony. The second, “Conspiracy theory”, is a glowering category to which the survivors, particularly the bass player Stephen Travers, would rather not belong.

But behind the bomb that tore the Miami Showband’s minibus apart, and the hail of explosive dum dum bullets on a dark stretch of the Buskhill Road in 1975, are a number of unresolved details that, over the course of 40 years, have formed a disturbing pattern.

These won’t come as news to anyone familiar with the stranger folds of the Troubles (and thick exposition within director Stuart Sender’s documentary suggests this is aimed at a more removed audience).

But the documentary repeats the contention that the Miami Showband massacre was a carefully planned attack, for political purposes, in a collusion between British Intelligence Services, the British Army, Northern Irish police and the UVF.

The murder of singer Fran O’Toole, trumpet player Brian McCoy and guitarist Tony Geraghty seems like a particularly ghoulish act of terrorism otherwise. “To go to a showband was like therapy”, recalls one fan, who remembers O’Toole’s death as the day the music died. What kind of cowards would assassinate it?

Travers, who survived life-threatening wounds, and bandleader Des Lee, were able to identify two of their assailants – both of them UVF members also serving in the UDR, and subsequently given life sentences – but their reports of an attending British soldier were never fully explored.

Suspicion fell on the UVF’s Robin Jackson, also known as The Jackal, one of the most prolific killers of the Troubles, to whom few things ever seemed to stick. Former British Intelligence officers Colin Wallace and Fred Holroyd, both of them eventually dismissed and their reputations unfairly tarred, are introduced to intimate why. Paranoia is a quicksand, and you understand Travers’ desire not to sink into it: “I refused to accept any notion of collusion between the terrorists, the army and the police,” he recalls.

But gathering details make that hard. Captain Robert Nairac is named as the likely British Army officer Travers remembers from the attack, by Labour’s Ken Livingstone in Parliament in 1987. The 2003 Barron Tribunal raises further questions about the co-ordination of the massacre. The Historical Enquiries Team address it soon after.

Finally, the impetus for the attack is suggested to originate with MI5 or MI6, as a bungled attempt to frame the Showband as IRA members, in an effort to seal the Northern Irish border thus impeding easy passage for the actual IRA.

Even with the apparent confirmation of the UVF, in a recently dislodged letter sent to the Irish Government 30 years ago – on ornate headed notepaper, no less – this is so elaborately sinister as to beggar belief. (The letter outlines how the UVF refused MI5’s entreaty to assassinate Charles Haughey and further complains of being given faulty detonators “as in the case of the Miami Showband”.)

What is far less controversial, at a time when Bloody Sunday has been freshly examined to little satisfaction, and when the future of the Border is again an unresolved question, is how seductive such intricate theories becomes in the absence of more transparent answers.

Travers, a much-changed man by his own admission, is now pursuing a court case against the Ministry of Defence: “I don’t think I have a purpose to live other than this,” he says. The truth is a noble pursuit, but he also recognises, sitting down with a UVF member, that even truth can be relative.

The documentary stirs dark imaginings, but it won’t bring clarity. How could it? Whatever we believe about the Miami Showband Massacre, nothing will ever make sense of it.

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