Category: Archive

A View North Sectarian murders a North Armagh staple

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson near her home in Lurgan has once again drawn attention to an area of Northern Ireland — North Armagh — that became notorious in the 1970s. It earned its reputation as the right-hand corner of what became known in the 1970s as the Murder Triangle after a spate of brutal killings, many of which were surrounded by allegations of collusion between the loyalist gangs responsible for them and members of the security forces. It is not surprising then that similar accusations have surfaced again in connection with Nelson’s death.

Almost from the start of the terror campaign in North Armagh there were suspicions that elements in the local security forces, especially the now defunct Ulster Defense Regiment, were sympathetic to loyalist paramilitary groups. On Oct. 10, 1972, the Ulster Volunteer Force raided the headquarters of the UDR’s 11th battalion in Lurgan and got away with 83 rifles, 21 Stirling submachine guns, and 1,300 assorted rounds of ammunition.

Until then there had been relatively little sectarian activity in the area. In the summer of 1972, there had been six sectarian killings, all of them in Portadown. Of the five carried out by loyalists (including one Protestant murdered in an attack on a Catholic bar), three seem to have been the work of the Ulster Defense Association. But from about 1974 onward, most of the loyalist sectarian activity in North Armagh was the work of the UVF. In many of the sectarian murders carried put in the Murder Triangle, the killers employed the weapons stolen from the UDR, including the bungled attack on the Miami Showband in late July 1975 in which three members of the band died alongside two UVF men.

Suspicions that the UVF had inside help in the 1972 arms raid grew as it became clear that the organization contained quite a few off-duty UDR men. Two of the UVF gang responsible for the Miami massacre, Raymond Crozier and James McDowell, were serving members of the regiment. The two who died in the attack, when their bomb went off prematurely, also had UDR links. They were Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville. Notices of sympathy appeared in the UVF magazine Combat from the "colleagues" of Boyle and Somerville in the UDR centers in Dungannon, Portadown and Lurgan. Indeed, the UVF was keen to boast of its links to the security forces. Around the same time, the group claimed that it had sympathizers in the police as well as the UDR.

Though loyalists have tended to exaggerate the extent of their support within the security forces, this was obviously no idle boast, especially in connection with their activities in North Armagh. On Jan. 10, 1975, John Green, the officer commanding the Provisionals in North Armagh, was hiding out in farm just across the border in County Monaghan. Green had escaped from prison in 1973 and had been on the run ever since. However, loyalist gunmen were able to find him and shoot him dead. Clearly, they were acting on very precise information, not typical of the kind of hit-or-miss random murders associated with loyalist operations. It is speculated that UDR members were involved in the killing, which was claimed by the Protestant Action Force — a cover-name for the UVF. To this day, Green remains one of the few IRA members to fall victim to loyalist gunmen.

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The year before, another UDR man, Thomas Leonard, was charged with the machine gun murders of James and Gertrude Devlin in Cong, Co. Tyrone. Leonard belonged to the UDR’s 8th battalion, which covered part of North Armagh. The couple’s daughter, who survived the attack, claimed that the gunman had been dressed in a British army uniform.

In fact, the UVF would frequently wear UDR uniforms in the Murder Triangle area, setting up phony checkpoints, which allowed them to flag down cars and select their victims. On Aug. 24, 1975, two Catholics, Colum McCartney and Sean Farmer, on their way home from a sports event in Dublin, were stopped at a "UDR" checkpoint on the Newtownhamilton-Castleblaney Road. They were abducted and shot. The Protestant Action Force claimed responsibility. It emerged that shortly before the two men were stopped, an RUC patrol car had gone through the same checkpoint without finding anything suspicious about it. By 1975, in the eyes of many Catholics, both in North Armagh and elsewhere, the UDR was simply the hated B-Specials (which it had been set up to replace) in another uniform. In the first five years of the regiment’s existence (1970-’75) about 80 members or ex-members had been charged with terrorist offenses, including murder and attempted murder. The majority of UDR soldiers involved in terrorism appear to have been linked to the UVF. In the Belfast region, there was some overlap with the UDA.

Among other prominent republicans who fell victim to loyalist hit squads in North Armagh in the 1970s was Thomas Trainor, commanding officer of the Irish National Liberation Army in the area. Gunmen shot him dead, along with a companion, as they left the welfare office in Portadown. In 1975, Trainor’s mother and younger brother had been murdered in separate attacks. The Red Hand Commandos, the smallest of the loyalist groups, claimed responsibility for the killing of Tommy Trainor, which occurred in March 1978.

Rosemary Nelson’s murder was claimed by the Red Hand Defenders, which emerged last year to claim responsibility for a series of bombs attacks on Catholic homes, mainly in south Antrim. Some suggest that the Defenders are in fact an amalgamation of former Red Hand Commando activists and ex-UDA men who reject the cease-fires those organizations called in October 1994. But it is doubtful if it actually exists as an organization or is anything more than a loosely coordinated gang who use the name whenever it suits them.

In many of the deaths of republicans and prominent nationalists, including that of Tommy Trainor, there were allegations of collusion, and criticism of the police for failing to conduct a proper inquiry. The announcement by the chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, that outside police officers, including a member of the FBI, will be involved in searching for the killer or killers of Rosemary Nelson, should go some ways to meeting nationalist demands. However, it is certain that given the history of North Armagh, the old suspicions will remain.

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