The 1987 IRA attack on a village constabulary in Northern Ireland had all the elements of the violent sectarian clash—including innocent bystanders

Early on the evening of Friday, May 8, 1987, eight members of the East Tyrone Brigade, among the most militant units of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), steered two stolen vehicles toward the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) station in Loughgall, Northern Ireland. Five of the men, comprising the main assault team, occupied a Toyota van, while the other three rode a backhoe—what the Irish call a “digger”—toward the light perimeter fence. Rocking gently in the digger’s bucket sat an oil drum packed with more than 200 pounds of Semtex plastic explosive with two unlit 40-second fuses. The plan was for the bomb crew to plow through the fence and blow up the building, while the assault team opened fire with automatic weapons on any surviving constables within.

The attackers all wore coveralls, balaclavas and surgical gloves and had covered their shoes with heavy socks to foil any attempts at forensic identification. They needn’t have bothered. Unknown to the IRA unit, the British had gotten wind of their operation. Twenty-four commandos of the army’s Special Air Service (SAS) lay in wait—six inside the station with the three constables on duty, and 18 more concealed behind walls and trees around the station.

Over the millennia nations worldwide have eulogized their political dead as martyrs to various causes. Few have offered up their native sons for as long a stretch of time as has the Emerald Isle. For hundreds of years Ireland—in its perpetual quest for independent nation status—has sent forth and lost countless of its fervent young men, only to eulogize them in song and saga.

The bitter conflict that blighted Northern Ireland for three decades beginning in the late 1960s was only the latest in the centuries-long struggle. Fought between the mostly Catholic republicans and the largely Protestant Unionists—with the British army and RUC supporting the latter—the clash was notable for the use of guerrilla tactics, straying into overt terrorism, by both sides. From its outset “The Troubles,” as the conflict became euphemistically known, provided extremists on either side of the proverbial barricades with the excuse to commit murder and mayhem.

The 1980s were a particularly savage time, as bombings and firefights became regular occurrences, spreading beyond the streets of Northern Ireland and literally bleeding into the Irish Republic, England, Scotland and, occasionally, mainland Europe. To bolster their arsenals, republicans and Unionists alike illegally obtained weapons from various international supporters, including some in the United States.

The decade began with two hunger strikes in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, near Lisburn, leading to the deaths of 10 republican inmates, the most notable of whom was IRA member Robert G. “Bobby” Sands. At the time of his death 27-year-old Sands had the distinction of being both a member of the British Parliament and a convicted felon, serving a 14-year sentence for firearms possession.

Over the next few years the violence continued to escalate. On Aug. 27, 1979, the IRA had detonated a radio-controlled bomb aboard the private boat of Lord Louis Mountbatten—iconic statesman, World War II veteran, former First Sea Lord and cousin to Queen Elizabeth II—killing him and three others, including his 14-year-old grandson, Nicholas. The IRA had since launched a bombing campaign on British soil and in 1984 sought to up the score by assassinating Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In the early morning hours of October 12, a timer-delayed bomb composed of 20 pounds of high-explosive gelignite detonated on the sixth floor of England’s elegant Grand Brighton Hotel, where Thatcher and her cabinet were attending a Conservative Party conference. The explosion, which collapsed several floors, narrowly missed the prime minister but killed five conference attendees—including a member of Parliament—and injured more than 30 others.

The wreckage of the backhoe used to carry the bomb lies at the site of the fence breach. (Pacemaker Press International)

By the late 1980s both sides had girded themselves for what the IRA was calling the “Long War.” The 1987 Loughgall attack was not an isolated incident, nor was it the first time the IRA had employed such a strategy. When the East Tyrone Brigade resolved to attack the RUC station, it fell back on a plan that had proved successful. Brigade commander Patrick Kelly and members Jim Lynagh and Pádraig McKearney had earlier launched a campaign aimed at permanently destroying British army and RUC bases.

Kelly had led the first such attack against the RUC barracks in Ballygawley, County Tyrone, on Dec. 7, 1985, his team killing two officers and wounding three others. The brigade next targeted the RUC station at The Birches, near Portadown, County Armagh, on Aug. 11, 1986. There Kelly introduced the tactic of using a stolen, bomb-bearing digger to breach a perimeter fence and destroy the building while others in his team sprayed the structure with automatic weapons fire. That time the station, which was completely leveled, was empty, though three civilians were injured in the blast. The next RUC base on the brigade’s agenda was in the County Armagh village of Loughgall. It scheduled the attack for May 8, 1987.

Four vehicles—the digger, the van and two scout cars—arrived in Loughgall around 7 p.m. Three men rode in the scout cars, which would double as escape vehicles. The team timed its arrival to coincide with the three RUC policemen’s scheduled quitting time. The men in the scout cars later gave their accounts—two anonymously—of what transpired during the attack. “The point of the operation was to get in before they [the constables] left,” recalled one, “to take them out.”

When the IRA vehicles made two passes to assess the situation, the station appeared abandoned. Minutes ticked by as some team members argued in favor of aborting the mission, while others favored going ahead. Finally, unit commander Kelly made the decision to “go in and blow the barracks up and fire a few rounds.”

As the scouts waited down the road, their cars out of sight, one of its occupants spotted an SAS helicopter in the distance. “There’s something badly wrong here,” he said, turning to a comrade.

By then the IRA assault team—armed with a variety of weapons, including stolen Heckler & Koch G3 rifles—had commenced the operation. At around 7:15 p.m. 21-year-old Declan Arthurs, lighter in hand, drove the digger through the perimeter fence. Riding along with him were two armed attackers. The van followed, and as Arthurs lit the fuses, Kelly and his team leaped from the van and raked the station with automatic rifle fire.

Meanwhile, the SAS troopers—armed with M16 and Heckler & Koch G3 rifles, as well as two L7A2 general-purpose machine guns—had waited patiently, allowing the van and digger to breach the perimeter. They had established a kill zone in a three-point configuration—minimizing the possibility of friendly fire incidents while facilitating the elimination of everyone within the triangle.

“They let the bomb through,” an IRA scout recalled, “and they waited 10 minutes, because they wanted them in the kill zone. There was ample time for arrests to be made.” Once the SAS commandos did open fire, their fusillade was devastating. According to a report issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), some 600 spent British cartridge casings were recovered from the scene, while the body of the van alone bore 125 bullet holes.

In the midst of the heavy exchange the bomb exploded, severely damaging the station and injuring three of the men inside. As Arthurs bolted down a nearby alley, he was shot several times, falling dead with the lighter still clenched in his hand.

The SAS firing continued unabated. “It went on and on and on for what seemed like three or four minutes,” a scout remembered. “It was fierce firing.” By the time the shooting ceased, all eight members of the IRA assault team were down. In his 1995 book The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace, broadcaster and newspaper columnist Tim Pat Coogan alleges SAS soldiers shot three of the wounded IRA men on the ground after they had surrendered. The bodies of all eight bore multiple gunshot wounds, and all had been shot in the head. Among the slain were Kelly, Lynagh and McKearney, the authors of the plan to attack RUC stations.

PA Images (Alamy Stock Photo)

The ECHR report revealed the IRA attackers had collectively fired 78 rounds, while the blast had injured three SAS men and the three constables inside the station. According to the RUC’s own subsequent ballistics tests, the IRA weapons seized at Loughgall were linked to several previous killings and attempted killings in the region.

Incredibly, the three IRA members riding in the scout cars managed to pass through SAS and RUC checkpoints with only a cursory inspection. During the shooting the driver of one of the cars had headed back toward the station in hopes of picking up any surviving IRA comrades. Stopped briefly by an SAS trooper, the scout driver had a clear view of the kill zone. “I knew they were wiped out at the time,” he recalled. “I could see the carnage down at the van.…I have no doubt it was a shoot-to-kill operation; it was a turkey shoot.”

In the interest of maintaining secrecy, the SAS had not informed village residents of their presence, let alone the pending action, which the British army had dubbed Operation Judy. Thus they had not set up roadblocks or otherwise sealed off the ambush zone. Locals were wholly unaware. Amid the firefight brothers Anthony and Oliver Hughes approached the station in a white Citroën sedan. The two were auto repairmen on their way home from a call, and one was wearing coveralls like those worn by the IRA members. The SAS men, mistakenly assuming the brothers were part of the attack team, opened fire on the car, killing Anthony and badly wounding Oliver. On later inspection the car was reported to have taken some 34 rounds. The British government later compensated Anthony’s widow for her husband’s death.

In the three decades since the ambush many have speculated as to how the SAS learned of the planned IRA operation. The most common theory is that an IRA operative or well-placed mole gave or sold the information to the British. Such informers have long plagued the Irish resistance to British rule. After the ambush the IRA devoted considerable time and attention to rooting out the supposed informant, though some accounts claim he was slain in the very mission he had betrayed.

In 2017 a member of British army intelligence published a book in which he claimed there had been no informer, that the plot was discovered when the army observed a known IRA man casing construction sites in search of a digger to steal. It is likely the truth behind the betrayal of the IRA operation will never be known.

Pundits have glibly referred to Ireland as the land of sad songs and happy wars. Indeed, the country’s poets and songwriters have maintained a centuries-long tradition of commemorating its fallen heroes in ballads. Immediately following Loughgall, Gerry O’Glacain, a prominent composer and singer of Irish republican ballads, presented his version of the fight in his song “Loughgall Ambush.” O’Glacain, who had written such republican protest ballads as “Roll of Honor,” commemorating those who died during the 1981 hunger strikes, included the following defiant chorus:

Oh, England, do you really think it’s over?

If you do you’re going to have to kill us all,

For until you take your murderers out of Ireland,

Then we will make them rue the blood spill at Loughgall.

Thousands of republican mourners attended the funerals of the men they soon took to calling the “Loughgall Martyrs.” Gerry Adams, the highly visible leader of Sinn Féin, the powerful Irish republican political party, delivered the graveside eulogy at Lynagh’s funeral. The British government, Adams intoned, “does not understand the Jim Lynaghs, the Pádraig McKearneys.…It thinks it can defeat them. It never will.”

Though the Loughgall attack represented the IRA’s greatest loss of life in a single incident during The Troubles, it was far from the worst disaster to befall the citizens of Northern Ireland. Nor was it the last attack on Loughgall itself. Three years later a van bomb demolished much of the structure, injuring seven police officers.

According to one of the three IRA scouts who survived the 1987 ambush, the hard-stricken East Tyrone Brigade regrouped and on Aug. 20, 1988, detonated a roadside bomb between Ballygawley and Omagh, disabling a British army bus and killing eight soldiers. Recalling that attack in the context of the three-decade clash, the former scout suggested the score had been settled. “It was eight for eight,” he said.

The violence continued unabated for more than a decade. In Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, on Nov. 8, 1987, six months to the day after the Loughgall fight, an IRA bomb exploded during a Remembrance Day parade commemorating the sacrifice of British and Commonwealth service members. Although it was meant for the British soldiers marching in the parade, the bomb instead killed a constable and 10 civilians, including a pregnant woman. The IRA subsequently issued an apology, but the incident badly damaged its credibility, Sinn Féin deeming it a “monumental error.”

A few months later the British colony of Gibraltar was the scene of Operation Flavius, in which the SAS targeted three IRA members—two men and a woman—suspected of planning a car bomb attack. On March 6, 1988, plainclothes SAS soldiers approached the suspected bombers on the street and shot them dead. None of the trio was armed. The soldiers testified they had opened fire when the three appeared to reach for either detonators or weapons, but other witnesses claimed two had had their hands in the air when killed. Forensic experts called to examine the bodies determined they had been shot while on the ground, each at least once in the back, strengthening the widespread republican belief British troops had been issued general shoot-to-kill orders. At a subsequent inquest in Gibraltar, despite the conflicting accounts and the fact the trio was unarmed, a civilian jury rendered a verdict of “lawful killing.” Seven years later the ECHR, while castigating the SAS soldiers for excessive use of force, rejected the claim they’d been on an execution mission and dismissed claims for damages from the relatives of the IRA members.

During the joint funeral for the trio killed at Gibraltar, held at Milltown Cemetery in Belfast, a renegade member of the Unionist paramilitary Ulster Defense Association threw grenades and opened fire on the mourners, killing three and injuring more than 60. Days later two undercover British army corporals drove into the path of a funeral procession for one of those slain at Milltown, whereupon the angry mourners surrounded the car. After one of the soldiers fired his pistol to disperse the crowd, IRA members dragged both men from the car, spirited them away, beat them and executed them. Margaret Thatcher called their murders the “single most horrifying event in Northern Ireland” during her term of office. Many of those touched by the violence disagreed.

In 2001 the ECHR determined the British government had violated the human rights of the IRA members slain at Loughgall by failing to conduct a proper investigation into the incident, though the court stopped short of calling their deaths “unlawful.” A decade later the Historical Enqui-
ries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland determined the IRA men had fired first, and as they could not be safely arrested, the SAS commandos were justified in their actions.

Although the conflict finally wound down with the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, sporadic instances of violence continued to occur. Ultimately, the casualty list for the three decades of conflict approached 50,000, with 3,532 dead. Of these, more than half were civilians, like Anthony Hughes, who had had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 2005 the IRA finally announced an end to its armed campaign, affirming it was committed to seeking its objectives—an end to British rule in Northern Ireland and the reunification of Ireland as an independent socialist republic—by strictly peaceful means. Still, violence occasionally breaks out. In July 2018, after hosting a traditional annual Ulster Protestant event, the city of Derry experienced nearly a week of rioting and fire bombings. A paramilitary group styling itself the Real IRA, or New IRA, claimed responsibility for attacks on police. That same week, in presumed retaliation, the west Belfast home of long-retired Sinn Féin leader Adams was bombed. Fortunately, no one sustained any serious injuries in the attacks.

It is reasonable to hope an end is in sight to the days of indiscriminate mayhem and slaughter at either end of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. As one popular twist on the Old Testament injunction goes, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” Surely Ireland—north and south—has sung about enough martyrs. MH

Ron Soodalter has written for Smithsonian, Civil War Times, America’s Civil War and Wild West. For further reading he recommends The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace, by Tim Pat Coogan, and Big Boys’ Rules: The SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA, by Mark Urban.