One of the most horrific incidents of the Troubles is the subject of an inquest that reopened this week at Laganside Courts building in Belfast. The details being revisited there serve to remind us, lest we forget, how depraved the conflict became at times.
On January 5th, 1976, a minibus was transporting 16 workers from a textile factory in Glennane to their homes in south Armagh. Shortly after 5.30pm, four of the five Catholic workers on board had been dropped off at Whitecross. The bus then made its way through the Kingsmill crossroads towards Bessbrook when a man in combat uniform standing on the road waved it down with a flashing red light.
Those on board thought they had come on a British army checkpoint but 11 gunmen with blackened faces emerged and ordered them off. A man with what was described as “a pronounced English accent” instructed the passengers to face the bus with their hands on the roof. He then asked: “Who is the Catholic?”
One of the workers, Richard Hughes, moved to identify himself. Two of his workmates, now fearing they had been stopped by a loyalist gang intent on killing Hughes, put their hands on his hand in an attempt to dissuade him. When he stepped forward, however, he was told: "Get out of the way"; "Get down the road and don't look back."
The gunmen then immediately opened fire on the 11 remaining workers; 138 rounds were fired at them from various automatic weapons in less than a minute. The men were shot from very close range at waist height. The order was then given to “finish them off”, and another burst of gunfire was fired. After that one of the gunmen walked among the dying men and shot each of them in the head with a pistol as they lay on the ground. Ten of them were killed but, miraculously, one of them,
survived even though he had been shot 18 times. One of the bullets grazed his head.
The attack on the minibus was one of a series of tit-for-tat sectarian killings in south Armagh in 1975 and 1976. Six Catholic men, two sets of brothers, the Reaveys in Whitecross and the O’Dowds in Ballydougan, were killed by the UVF in sectarian attacks on two family homes in the area the previous night.
At the time, a group calling itself the South Armagh Republican Action Force claimed responsibility for the Kingsmill massacre. However, in 2011 a report by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) found that members of the Provisional IRA carried out the attack.
Link to 110 attacks
The HET inquiry concluded that the men were targeted because they were Protestants and that, although it was a response to the killings the night before, it had been planned some time in advance. The weapons used were linked to 110 other attacks.
The Kingsmill massacre became part of the intense politicisation of the history of the Troubles. In 1999, for example, Ian Paisley made a scandalous and entirely unfounded allegation under parliamentary privilege at Westminster that one of the surviving brothers of the Reaveys had been involved in the attack on the minibus.
Nobody has been brought to justice for the Kingsmill killings, and the families of the dead have run a long campaign to have the inquest reopened.
The hearings in Belfast this week have added small, poignant, detail to what is known about events that night. The workers had discussed varying the routes before heading off but ultimately decided not to.
Unable to cry
The mother of one of those killed,
, told the inquest she “could not cry when he was killed and I’ve not cried since; I have bottled it all up. I could not shed a tear until I read my statement on an iPad. That was a few days ago. I was crying my head off and I got it all out then.”
A statement from the survivor Alan Black, who is due to give evidence, was read to the inquest at the opening on Monday. He spoke of his 19-year-old apprentice Robert Chambers, who was also on the minibus.
“Robert was a lovely lad, he had fallen in love with this girl Wendy. He asked me to teach him to drive; I finally agreed, but said only at the weekends. He gave me a big hug. That’s my memory of him. Then he was lying calling for his mother and a gunman came over and shot him.”
The politicians of Northern Ireland have been unable to agree on a comprehensive process of inquiry into the events and human legacy of the Troubles. We are left with sporadic events like this inquest to remind those of us of later generations how dark that truth may be and why the need for reconciliation endures.