By Margaret Fraser
LAST MONTH MARKED THE 45th ANNIVERSARY of the ambush of the Miami Showband, in which three band members and two of their attackers were killed. Flourishing from the 1960s to the 1980s, Showbands were an Irish cultural phenomenon, performing in village and parish halls, offering a way for young people to meet each other and have a night out. Dublin-based, the Miami Showband was one of the most successful.
On July 31, 1975 the band was returning home to Dublin after performing north of the border in Banbridge, Co. Down. Halfway between Banbridge and the border near Newry they were stopped at a checkpoint by men in British Army uniforms, ordered off their minibus and told to line up along the roadside. The attackers were actually members of a cell of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group. However, at least four of them were, in fact, British soldiers who were also part of the paramilitary group. While the showband members were lined up at the side of the A1, the main road between Belfast and Dublin, two of the soldiers climbed into the minibus and installed a time bomb. The bomb went off instantly, killing them both. The gunmen reacted by shooting the musicians, killing three and wounding the other two.
Plenty has been written about the event, about the cell that carried out the attack, and the possible role of British intelligence, and it is not my purpose to pursue that. If you google ‘Glenanne Gang’ you will see detailed lists of atrocities carried out by the group. When I read it, it feels overwhelming. And yet the Ulster Volunteer Force was responsible for only 11% of the killings during the Troubles.
Why, this year, is this anniversary particularly vivid for me? I think maybe the older I get, the less numb I become. In the nineteen seventies I could not bear to read, or watch news reports about this violence. It was absolutely overwhelming. I didn’t choose numbness; it chose me. It took maybe twenty years for me to put a toe in the water; getting to know places that had previously been names on the TV news. Perhaps every year I shed another layer of the skin of disassociation.
I have driven along that stretch of the old A1 and have wondered where, exactly, the band members were lined up and shot. I have also taken the back road from Markethill to Bessbrook, and wondered where, just six months later, the eleven workers at the Kingsmill bakery were ordered out of their minibus, lined up and shot, this time by a nationalist paramilitary group wearing British army uniforms. Only one survived that massacre.
Most of the victims in these tit-for-tat killings were identifiably part of a particular religious and cultural background. The bakery workers, for instance, were all Protestant. But what was distinctive about the Miami Showband was that it was ‘mixed.’ They didn’t set out to break down barriers, they just loved to play good music. By joining together, regardless of the schools they had attended and their faith backgrounds, they signaled a different way of being. They took their exuberance into a province where the curriculum and even the organized sports differed, depending on the community identity of the school. They offered a unifying experience for young people — whose lives were otherwise strictly segregated. This was the threat. And this was why they were murdered, as a deterrent to others who might dare to imagine a future where barriers came down and a border melted away.
This August marked the death of John Hume, the former teacher who was active in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and served as a member of the European Parliament, the UK Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. A fervent nationalist, he offered powerful leadership during and after the Troubles and, with his Ulster Unionist counterpart, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Let me leave you with his words:
“All conflict is about the same thing. It’s about difference. Whether difference is your religion, or your race, or your nationality. And the message that we have to get across, and that we have learned in our part of the world, is that difference is an accident of birth. None of us chose to be born; and we certainly didn’t choose to be born into any particular community. There’s not two people in this hall who are the same. There’s not two people in the whole world who are the same. Difference is of the essence of humanity, and therefore respect for difference should be very, very normal and very common. But it is the first and deepest principle of real peace.”
Margaret Fraser is a Good News Associate who has experienced the calling to be part of reconciliation processes as communities that face the challenges of sharing the same space find positive ways to affirm their own, and each other’s identities. Before the recent pandemic, she took small groups to Ireland several times each year to explore some of these issues.