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'The other car was an inferno and I could vaguely see two shadows in the front seats'

A border bomb attack which killed a judge and his wife in1987 is remembered in a new book, with eyewitness testimony from three Ulster rugby stars who survived the blast. By Ivan Little

Published 09/09/2015

Utter carnage: the bomb aftermath
Utter carnage: the bomb aftermath
Survivor David Irwin in action
Blast victims: Lord Justice Gibson and his wife Cecily
No Borders - Playing rugby for Ireland
Nigel Carr playing for Ireland
Philip Rainey in action for Ulster
Former rugby players Philip Rainey, David Irwin and Nigel Carr

It was the day that the two worlds of Irish sport and Irish terror collided, with tragic and far-reaching consequences for rugby and for security along the border.

For on that Monday, April l, 1987, three of the stars of a game that had unified a bitterly divided Ireland almost lost their lives in a terrifying bomb attack which cost a controversial Northern Irish judge and his wife theirs.

And now, the story of how Irish international rugby players Nigel Carr, Philip Rainey and David Irwin came within inches of death has been told in a new book No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland by Tom English, an award-winning journalist from Scotland.

He charts the sometimes turbulent and always intriguing history of rugby here, mainly from the perspective of players who have pulled on the famous green jersey.

In one chapter, Irwin and Carr talk candidly and emotionally about their experiences on the fateful day of the bombing, and about how the security situation on the border was so bad that RUC officers watched the horrifying aftermath of the attack from a distance, fearing that the Provos had a second device waiting for them.

Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife, Lady Cecily, were identified by their dental records.

They were killed instantly as they travelled north from the Republic, after a holiday in Britain.

The 73-year-old judge had long been a hate figure for the IRA, but they marked him down for assassination after he acquitted three RUC officers of the murders of three unarmed IRA men in Craigavon in what became known as a "shoot to kill ambush" in 1982.

I covered the case at Belfast Crown Court in 1984, and the judge's commendation of the RUC team as blameless, and his comments that the Provos had been brought to justice "in this case the final court of justice" were greeted with shock.

It did not come as a surprise to me that I was reporting on the judge's murder just three years later on a road out of Newry, past Jonesborough, which is a route rarely taken by motorists nowadays because the motorway to and from Dublin nearby is the high speed alternative.

But, back in the Eighties, it was the main cross-border link - the only major road for drivers on the then long and arduous journey between Belfast and Dublin.

And, as such, it was a Godsend for the bombers.

They knew high profile targets would be using the road. All they had to do was find out when. Which they seemed to do with alarming ease.

Even the name of the crossing - at Killeen - became a grotesque byword for barbarity.

In May 1985, four RUC officers were killed by a massive bomb as they escorted a Brinks Mat cash delivery van.

But as Ulster rugby aces and friends Carr, Rainey and Irwin set off on the 100-mile trek for training to Dublin 28 years ago, their thoughts were focused on the World Cup in New Zealand just a few weeks away. Irwin was driving his own car and said that Carr's slightly late arrival at his house, because of a succession of red lights, delayed their trip south and maybe saved their lives.

The journey was full of excited chat about the forthcoming World Cup, but in an instant the sportsmen's world was turned upside down.

Irwin recalls: "There was a massive noise, and what seemed like a thousand light bulbs going off in my face."

He quickly realised that his car had been caught up in a bombing, but couldn't understand why he had been targeted.

He says he saw a huge crater in the north-bound section of the road which had been caused by a 400-pound bomb in an abandoned Ford Cortina, triggered by an IRA man on a hillside.

The judge's car was hurled into Irwin's car at what was reckoned to be a speed of over 120 miles an hour, but incredibly the rugby stars survived - though only just.

Irwin was a doctor and his medical training and cool head in a crisis kicked in.

He initially thought Rainey, who was in the back seat, was dead and Carr's legs were trapped under the dashboard.

"I pulled him so hard I pulled him out of his shoes," says Irwin, who carried his friend, who also had head injuries, away from the twisted wreckage, fearing another explosion.

Irwin says Rainey was starting to come round, but he adds: "The other car was an inferno and I could vaguely see two shadows in the two front seats."

In the immediate seconds after the blast, cars which had been behind the rugby players' vehicle drove on without stopping.

Irwin was at first stunned, but says in the book he now believed that the drivers were just trying to get out of the way to safety.

He was more taken aback at the lack of response from RUC officers, who were there to offer the judge protection, and later discovered they were concerned that they could be lured into another booby trap.

But Irwin says: "There was a surreal period of maybe five or 10 minutes where I was running around trying to sort everything out and nobody was coming near us."

Carr says his first recollection after the blast was hearing the hushed tones of the ambulance driver taking him to hospital in Newry, and realising that somebody had been killed.

"At that stage I thought the person they were talking about was one of the boys," he says.

It later emerged that a number of other rugby players from Ulster had been just five minutes away from the blast.

Fellow player Trevor Ringland, who would later become a Unionist politician, was among the group who were diverted away from the scene, but they didn't find out about their colleagues' lucky escape until they arrived in Dublin.

Another player, Jimmy McCoy, who was an RUC officer, recalls that he had travelled to Dublin by train for the training session, but wondered if the IRA thought he was in Irwin's car, too - even though he knew the Gibsons were the targets.

"I always thought that if they wanted to get me, they could have got me," he says.

Irwin says that he understood that one of the bombers had been killed by his own device shortly afterwards, but he couldn't remember his name. That man was, in fact, Brendan Burns, who police also suspected of involvement in the bombing which killed 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint in 1979.

Irwin said there was widespread condemnation of the bombing which almost killed him and his team-mates, but nothing from the Republican movement.

He adds that the Irish rugby authorities had offered to help him with any expenses he incurred, but he got nothing, even though his car was wrecked.

"Everybody was sympathetic, but there certainly wasn't any help. Now, in fairness, I didn't ask for it. I suppose I was just glad I was alive."

Carr echoes that feeling, adding that he resolved not to allow bitterness and resentment to eat him up, especially, as he says, thousands of others suffered more than he did during the Troubles.

I interviewed Carr in his hospital bed days after the blast and his quiet dignity earned him widespread respect. And although his career was effectively over, he carved a new niche for himself as a pundit and sports presenter with UTV.

The close call for innocent rugby players didn't stop the IRA using similar bombs in the area, though.

In July 1988, three members of the Hanna family from Hillsborough, including a six-year-old child, were killed by a blast which ripped their 4x4 apart at Killeen. They were on their way home from a dream holiday in America.

It's thought the IRA mistook the vehicle for a similar one owned by another judge.

In No Borders, Ringland says the IRA man who exploded the Gibson bomb knew other cars would be hit by the blast, but didn't care.

In 2003, a report by retired Canadian judge Peter Cory discounted intelligence that there'd been Garda collusion in the Gibson bomb attack.

But the subsequent Smithwick tribunal in the Republic into the murders of two RUC detectives on the border said Cory was mistaken.

Last year, former First Minister Lord Trimble demanded an inquiry into the 1987 bombing

The Gibson family and the three now-retired rugby stars are still awaiting a response.

  • No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland, by Tom English, Arena Sport, £19.99

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