An IRA group which was killed during an ambush by the SAS in the Co Armagh village of Loughgall in 1987 was responsible for up to 50 murders, secret government documents have revealed.
The eight provisional IRA, (PIRA), members shot dead by the SAS on May 8, 1987, at Loughgall Police Station in Co Armagh. Top row, from left: Jim Lynagh; Eugene Kelly; Patrick Kelly; Gerard O’Callaghan. Bottom row, from left: Padraig McKearney; Seamus Donnelly; Tony Gormley; Declan Arthurs.
State papers released under the 30-year rule, show that ballistic tests on weapons used by the eight-man IRA unit during the attempted bombing of the RUC station in Loughgall on May 8, 1987, linked them to every single murder and attempted murder in Tyrone and Fermanagh that year.
It was the IRA’s largest loss of life in a single incident during the Troubles. A civilian, Anthony Hughes, who inadvertently drove into the middle of the crossfire, was also killed.
In a letter written 12 days after the Loughgall killings, the Northern Ireland secretary, Tom King, promised the minister for foreign affairs, Brian Lenihan, that he would keep him fully informed of any significant developments into the deaths both through personal contact and official diplomatic channels.
“My advice is that the group had at least 40-50 murders to their score over the years,” Mr King said.
He added: “It was very fortunate that they did not add to it at Loughgall when they launched their attack.”
Mr Lenihan had written to the secretary on May 11, 1987, asking the British government “to avoid any sense of triumphalism”.
The Irish government had expressed concern in private that the relative silence of Whitehall about Loughgall was leading to public disquiet. Irish diplomats who asked if any attempt had been made to prevent the attack at Loughgall were informed that the RUC was unlikely to have had sufficient intelligence to have made pre-emptive arrests.
Documents show Mr King was persuaded not to make a public statement that the IRA had fired the first shots because of possible legal ramifications.
The Northern Ireland Office said the security personnel involved in Loughgall had prepared for the attack by making themselves aware of the pattern of movements by local people and they regretted the death of Mr Hughes.
It also confirmed that none of the British soldiers or RUC officers who took part in the operation had been removed from operational duty.
The archives show Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiach, the Catholic Primate of All-Ireland, told a senior diplomatic official, that he was relieved to have been away from Northern Ireland at the time of the Loughgall shooting.
Cardinal Ó Fiach said he was sure that if he had been in Armagh the Provisional IRA would have been “camping on [his] lawn” demanding statements.
The Bishop of Derry, Cathal Daly, said he did not believe Loughgall would enter Republican mythology as there was a definite lack of sympathy among nationalists about what had happened.
“This will not become an epic,” he remarked.
Séamus Mallon, the deputy SDLP leader, said Loughgall bore no resemblance to other “shoot to kill” attacks as the IRA group were heavily armed and were clearly intent on killing RUC officers and soldiers.
He expressed puzzlement at the size and seniority of the IRA people involved.
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