Kingsmill: Hatred, healing... and hope
The 42nd anniversary of the massacre, in which 10 Protestant workmen were murdered by the IRA, was overtaken by fury at Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff's now-notorious video mocking the victims. After a week of angry headlines, Donna Deeney visits the men's home village of Bessbrook and finds both communities refusing to let the row divide them.
The IRA massacre of 10 men travelling home after a hard day's work at Kingsmill on January 5, 1976 did not divide the people of Bessbrook ... and a mocking video posted by Sinn Fein's West Tyrone MP, Barry McElduff, on its 42nd anniversary last week did not divide the village.
Since the now-notorious video of McElduff with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head was posted on his Twitter page, the hurt and offence he caused has been etched on the face of the sole survivor of the atrocity, Alan Black.
Mr Black says the outrage from both communities at the video - and the tone of the conversation between Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd and the DUP's Edwin Poots on BBC Northern Ireland's The View - have given him hope after one of the darkest weeks he has endured since that black January day in 1976.
"This has been a rough week that has left me drained. First of all, I was very, very hurt by Barry McElduff. What he did was depraved. And, a week on, I see no reason to go back on that, because he meant to hurt as many people as he could," says Mr Black.
"It was so disrespectful. When I saw that video, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. On the anniversary, too - a time when I was feeling so low, anyway.
"The IRA tried to divide the people of Bessbrook 42 years ago and failed. And Barry McElduff tried to divide the people this week and he failed, too.
"At this time of year, I can see those men being murdered all over again, screaming in pain and then finished off. My 19-year-old apprentice, Robert Chambers, fell across my legs and he was crying for his mummy. And then I saw the gunman coming over and blowing his face away.
"To then see Barry McElduff mocking and taunting, celebrating their deaths and dancing on their graves, was an atrocious thing to do. Probably the worst thing I saw in my life time. It was depraved and I will never forgive him."
He adds: "This week, I have been forced into the public eye, which I don't like, because I am private. But I don't want us to be used as pawns for point-scoring. All Sinn Fein want to do is poke the DUP in the eye with a sharp stick and all the DUP want to do is poke Sinn Fein in the eye with a sharp stick. The ordinary people are being left behind.
"What has given me a bit of hope for us all is the response from the ordinary people from both communities from far and wide - the strength of the condemnation that rang out strengthens me. It really meant so much to me to hear and see how angry people have been at what Barry McElduff did.
"Then, on Thursday night, I listened to John O'Dowd and Edwin Poots on the BBC and what they were saying, the way they were saying it and the way they were listening to what the other was saying, filled me with hope."
January 5, the day 42 years ago that a gang widely accepted to be the IRA, using a cover-name, fired 136 bullets into 11 Protestant workers. One minute later, 10 of the men lay dead on the roadside, while the 11th, Alan Black, clung to life despite being shot 18 times. One other man who was on the minibus that day was spared by the murder-gang, because he was a Catholic.
Bessbrook, Co Armagh, is unlike so many villages and towns in Northern Ireland in that it isn't obvious which community the majority of residents identify with. There are no painted kerbstones, no flags and no sectarian graffiti. A visitor could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped back to a bygone era - the village green, the quaint mill worker's cottages laid out in neat rows and the local shops still hark back to the Quaker ethos instilled at the time of its formation.
Sam Cairns, who has lived in Bessbrook for more than 50 years, says it has been a sad week for everyone in the village, but echoing the words of Alan Black, says the sense of shock and pain has penetrated everyone.
"We are trying to get on with our lives. The people who lost relatives didn't need to be put through the added trauma this week. Somehow, we must get past this and I think the politicians need to stop what they are doing and get back into government."
Among the diners at the village's Millbrook Cafe, Andy Moffett says the level of shock felt at Barry McElduff's video could not be over-emphasised.
"I attended all the funerals 42 years ago and the disgraceful events of this week have brought it all back to everyone in the village in the most terrible manner," says Mr Moffett.
"Everybody here has been so badly shocked by the appearance of that video on the very day of the anniversary. It was hard to take it in. It has annoyed and upset everyone here from all sections of the community and we are all disgusted by it."
Another resident, James Revels, says: "This determination not to be defined by the events of these past seven days does not diminish in any way the very real and righteous pain inflicted on the relatives of the 10 men who were executed along the roadside."
John Bryans (46), Robert Chambers (19), Reginald Chapman (25), Walter Chapman (23), Robert Freeburn (50), Joseph Lemmon (46), John McConville (20), James McWhirter (58), Robert Walker (46) and Kenneth Worton (24) were gunned down in the most calculated, callous way, simply because they were Protestants.
Colin Worton, brother of Kenneth, believes the damage done by Mr McElduff’s actions and Sinn Fein’s decision not to sack him may have put the chance of political progress in Northern Ireland beyond reach.
“The way things are now politically can’t continue. This has to come to a head, you have to burst the boil,” he says.
“With Sinn Fein going on the way they were going on, I would almost like to see it going back to direct rule, because Sinn Fein/IRA are not apologetic — they are not sorry for what they did.
“Barry McElduff came out and said he was sorry. He was only sorry because of the backlash he received. He didn’t expect all the decent Catholics and Protestants to say ‘that’s sick’. It has help us a lot this week that the condemnation has been from across the board, definitely.
“My family would have been sickened no matter what innocent person was killed. What happened on the Ormeau Road (in Belfast) was totally despicable. We are condemning all innocent murders, but they go out and glorify past murders. All that has to stop.”
The week leading up to the anniversary is always difficult for May Quinn, sister of Bobby Walker, but her anxiety and pain has been magnified ten-fold by the actions of Barry McElduff and the lack of sanctions imposed against him by Sinn Fein.
She says: “The whole week leading up to the anniversary is difficult; it is always on your mind, thinking about when it all happened and you are worrying about the service and making sure there are flowers bought for the memorial in Bessbrook and the one at Kingsmill.
“This has been an horrendous week — the worst, I think, in the 42 years since all those poor men were murdered. We didn’t need this on top of everything else we have to cope with.
“If Barry McElduff had one ounce of human decency, he would resign right now. He should take himself away out of the public eye. He isn’t fit to hold public office, because, no matter who that man meets, that’s all he will be known for, for evermore. But when he hadn’t the decency to do it at the time, he’ll hardly do it now.
“To make things even worse, Sinn Fein then gave him a three-month paid holiday. It’s like they sent him on a cruise. He came out of that meeting and all he was interested in was getting back home.
“If they cared one bit about us, they would have sacked him, but they rewarded him instead.”
Ed Moloney: The real significance of Barry McElduff's Kingsmill video
Like nearly everyone else, I cannot say for sure what motivated Sinn Fein West Tyrone MP Barry McElduff when he placed a loaf of Kingsmill bread atop his head during a trip to a supermarket, got a friend to video it and posted it on Facebook, or wherever.
But given the date the video appeared, on the 42nd anniversary of the massacre, it is difficult not to believe that the IRA killing of 10 uninvolved Protestants at a bogus vehicle checkpoint near Bessbrook, Co Armagh was not, as they say, uppermost in his mind when he strolled through the supermarket.
But what has been striking about the reaction and media response to McElduff's stunt, at least to my mind, has been the complete absence of context alongside a failure to understand its deeper meaning.
And it is that context and meaning, at a time when hostility between Sinn Fein and the DUP is at its sharpest for a decade, which add significance to McElduff's behaviour.
The Kingsmill massacre did not happen in a vacuum, but was a response - a classic Provo response, I would argue - to a burst of loyalist killing, which had claimed the lives of six uninvolved Catholics from two families - three in each family - killed by the UVF in south Armagh and south Down a day before Kingsmill happened.
The killings of the Catholics - members of the Reavey and O'Dowd families - was claimed by the UVF, but the IRA hid its role in the Kingsmill massacre behind a bogus nom de guerre, the Republican Action Force.
That, of course, fooled no one, least of all the Provo base, who, truth be told, welcomed the IRA's over-reaction and saw it as an effective way of stopping, or at least curbing, loyalist killings.
Less an eye for an eye and more two of your eyes for every one of ours. And this, in 1975-76, during the worst years of loyalist violence against Catholics.
The Kingsmill approach became the favoured grassroots Provo answer to escalations in loyalist violence. So, when, five years later almost to the day, UDA gunmen riddled Bernadette McAliskey and her husband, Michael, with bullets at their isolated cottage near Coalisland, Co Tyrone, the IRA's response was immediate.
Three days after the McAliskey shooting, IRA gunmen drove to the Middletown, Co Armagh home of the former unionist Speaker of the Stormont House of Commons, shot dead 86-year-old Norman Stronge and his 48-year son, James, and burned their mansion, Tynan Abbey, to the ground.
A bloody and brutal message was sent: "Try to kill our leaders and we will kill more of yours and, what's more, we will make sure the job is done."
As my long-term readers will know, I have long argued that the Provisionals were more rooted in the Irish Defenderist tradition of 1798 than the republican one; the Kingsmill and Stronge incidents were classic examples of that in action.
The IRA's national leadership's decision to endorse and even encourage such local responses was, of course, full of significance; it went to the circumstances of the Provos' birth, when Belfast republicans broke away from the mainstream in protest at the failure to protect Catholic Belfast from loyalist mobs in August 1969.
Equally, it was therefore of even greater significance when, during the peace process, that approval was withdrawn and local units of the IRA forbidden from engaging loyalists in such retaliation.
That was the story in Tyrone during the late-1980s and early-1990s as the peace process gathered steam.
As loyalist killings and near-killings of republican activists intensified, as UVF squads seemed to roam the county at will, local IRA units demanded proper action from their leaders.
But their warning, that if the IRA failed to nip these killings in the bud, with a Kingsmill, or Stronge-type, response, then republicans risked being overwhelmed, was rejected.
Tyrone IRA activists were told they had to target the UVF killers involved and no one else and, of course, that proved to be next to impossible. And UVF killings increased.
The deeper message to places beyond Tyrone was unmistakable. The Provos, at least at leadership level, were changing; old ways were being left behind, new ways, viz the peace process, were being embraced.
Arguably, we are seeing in Barry McElduff's suspension by his Sinn Fein leaders a sort of re-run of that episode in Tyrone's troubled history.
Is it stretching things too far to see McElduff's video in the context of the current stalemate in talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP, a deadlock marked by rising sectarian acrimony?
If not, then McElduff's loaf of bread carries a subtle, deeper meaning: a political version of Kingsmill is the only way to deal with obdurate loyalism.
And his suspension from Sinn Fein, then, is equivalent to the rebuff delivered by the IRA leadership to Tyrone republicans in the 1980s.
It will be interesting to see how this all works out. I would be especially interested in knowing how McElduff's stunt has gone down in places like east Tyrone.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if the answer was "well".
Ed Moloney is an Irish journalist and author who now lives and works in New York. His books include A Secret History of the IRA and Voices from the Grave. This article first appeared on his website, The Broken Elbow (https://thebrokenelbow.com/)