The Pat Kenny Show
11 January 2018
Pat Kenny speaks to Alan Black via telephone from his home in Co. Armagh. Alan is the sole survivor of the Kingsmill Massacre.
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Pat: Last week we spoke with Stephen Travers, a survivor of the Miami Showband Massacre. You’ll remember there were fresh allegations of British security forces being involved in the attack. It was yet another in the growing list of questions around collusion between security forces and paramilitary groups during The Troubles. Well another atrocity which has similar questions surrounding it is the Kingsmill Massacre. This time the perpetrators were not the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) but the Provisional IRA and the shadow of collusion sits heavily over the memory of that awful event.
Kingsmill, as you know, has returned to the headlines this week in its own right after the Sinn Féin MP, Barry McElduff, posted a video on the anniversary of the attack showing him in a shop with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head. Now following that a former Sinn Féin Councillor, a Michael McIvor, has posted on Facebook: We tried to break bread with Unionists but they were not interested but here is a loaf they are interested in.
The atrocity of Kingsmill left a permanent mark on this island. On January the 5th in 1976 a group of armed men pulled over a minibus of workers returning home after their shift in a nearby textile factory. The workers were taken from the van, the solitary Catholic was told to run and the Protestant workers were shot – ten people were killed. And speaking to me now from his home is Alan Black, the sole survivor of that massacre. Alan, Good Morning.
AB: Good Morning, Pat.
Pat: Now, can you tell us first of all a bit about the factory where you and the others worked?
Yes. It was situated out in the countryside – just outside Glenanne. It was a mixed workforce which got on really well with each other, We, in the minibus, we all came from Bessbrook which was totally integrated. It was a Quaker village and we lived, even though it was mostly Catholic and Protestant, we mostly lived by the Quaker ethos of respect and tolerance which meant that Protestant and Catholic lived side-by-side, next door to each other, we played together, we worked together, we went to dances together. Bessbrook was totally integrated.
Pat: Now, so therefore, you had Catholic friends and there was no issue at all – religion wasn’t anything that came between members of the community. So, do you remember what the chatter was like on the minibus as you made your way home?
Alan: Well, it was very subdued, Pat, because the night before the three Reavey Brothers were shot, three Catholic lads, and the minibus would have passed by their door. And the O’Dowd’s, further down the county, they were shot just the day before, twenty-four hours earlier, and so it was very subdued round the factory that day.
Pat: Because everyone was grieving for this family?
Alan: That’s right, yeah.
Pat: Now, the minibus then approached a checkpoint, having discharged some of the people on board.
Alan: That’s right. We went through Whitecross, there was probably seventeen on board and by the time that we came across the checkpoint there was eleven; there was ten Protestants and one Catholic – there was eleven Protestants and one Catholic – sorry.
Pat: Did anything appear amiss about the checkpoint?
Alan: Absolutely nothing. It was what we would have expected, because of what happened the night before to the Reavey Brothers, we would have expected to come across a checkpoint.
Pat: When you saw the checkpoint and the minibus stopped at what point did it become apparent this was not a regular checkpoint?
Alan: Well, what happened was there’s Bob Walker, who was driving the minibus, he rolled down his window and reached for his driving licence to show it like identification. But this guy at the window wasn’t interested in his driving licence. He just seemed very cross and very agitated and just: Everybody out! Everybody out! And he spoke with an English accent so we naturally took it: It was the British Army. It was only when we got out – and this same guy, there was only one fella that ever spoke, this same fella, he made us put our hands on top of the minibus, and we thought we were going to be searched but then he asked who the Catholic was – now, there was only one Catholic on board the bus at that time and that was Richard Hughes, and thought it very, very strange – the British Army didn’t normally ask that question – but he kept shouting: Who’s the Catholic? And Richard told me afterwards that (Kingsmill victims) Reggie and Walter Chapman – they had put their hands on top of his, where his was on the minibus, to hold him in – not to say anything because – well, we all started to get a bit uneasy.
Alan: …But they knew who he was.
Pat: So the impression was that they were looking for – these were ne’er-do-wells, these were people who were going to do you harm but they were looking for the Catholic to do him harm…
Alan: …That’s right…
Pat: …And the lads were trying to protect him saying: Don’t! Don’t identify yourself.
Alan: That’s right. That’s exactly right. But then, they obviously knew who Richard was, so one of the gunmen came forward and grabbed him by the shoulder and told him to run down the road and he said: Which direction? And this gunman said: Just run down the f’ing road. And Richard started to run down towards the Bessbrook side of the minibus and the gunman – he ran after him and we didn’t – we didn’t really know what was happening we were sort of in shock. But then, the same gunman, the only gunman that ever spoke, he said: Close up! So that’s, in the gap that Richard had left, so we closed up but we started to get very uneasy but then he just said: Right!
And the sound of the gunfire was, it was – I’ll never, ever forget it. It was deafening. And we were all hit multiple times. (I don’t know how many times I was hit at that stage.) But there was fellows still living and I was still alive and there was other people – they were moaning in pain, groaning. My nineteen year old apprentice had fallen across my legs and he was calling for his mammy: Mammy! Mammy! Mammy! And the next thing I see these boots, tips of the rifle and they blew his face away. And that has lived with me all these years and probably will until the day I die. I’ll never, ever forget him calling for his mammy and getting his face blown away. Then, the next thing the gunman said was: Finish them off. And I thought: Oh, my God!
So the gunfire became more – oh! it was singular rather than salvos of gunfire – and I lay as quietly as I could. I was determined not to flinch and they just went methodically went round shooting everybody and it was my turn then and they shot at me. Now, they hit me in the head but the bullet didn’t penetrate my skull and I didn’t flinch; I didn’t move. When then they kind of walked away then – not rushed away, not marched away – just casually walked away. And I could smell the gun smoke, I could smell blood and I could smell death – I didn’t know you could ever smell death – but you can.
Pat: So you lay there after they had departed – you couldn’t move anyway, you were hit multiple times – how long before any help arrived and how long before you knew that nobody had survived?
Alan: Well, I never lost consciousness so I knew once all the screaming and the moaning had stopped I knew they were dead.
And I could see blood spurting out of my chest and I was trying to get my fingers into the, to stop the blood from spurting out. And the next thing was this man, he was in shock, he’s a fellow called Gerry McKeown (I since found that out) and he was in an awful state – you could hear it in his voice – and he was walking round the boys praying – he had been on his way out to Whitecross and had come up on the scene – and he was praying and I thought: Please come to me! Please come to me! But I couldn’t speak at that stage so I moaned to let him know that I was still alive and he came round to me and the next thing his wife appeared – his wife, they had parked down at the bottom of a small hill leading up to the ambush point – and his wife came up and they put me in the recovery position and they stayed with me until the ambulance came. I’ll never forget his kindness.
Pat: When you ended up in the hospital there was a Catholic priest there.
Alan: That’s right. And I’ll never forget his humanity as well because he came across – when they took me out of the ambulance to put me on a trolley to take me into the theatre and they were cutting the clothes off me and he came over and he said to me: Are you a Catholic? And I was just glad to see a man of the cloth there – I didn’t care who he was or what he was and I said: No, Father, I’m not but don’t leave me. And he didn’t. And as they wheeled me to the theatre, the last thing I remember before I was put under the anaesthetic, was him walking along, holding my hand and praying. I’ve met him since then, quite a few times – we became quite friendly – and Father Devlin, Henry Devlin – I’ll never forget his humanity.
Pat: What you said at the very beginning, Alan, about the nature of the community in Bessbrook and how everyone got on with everybody else…
Pat: And yet, at the time and subsequently, there were rumours that what had happened to you and to your colleagues was as a revenge for the tragedy of the Reavey Family and you know…
Alan: …Well, what we’ve found out and just pretty recently found out – it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. They had this planned but they were just looking for an excuse to put it into operation and this was their excuse for doing it. But I got very friendly with Mr. and Mrs. Reavey, Sadie Reavey, and it’s the last thing they wanted – she said it added to their grief. And I’ll never forget her kindness either because I was really, really bad. I was shot to pieces. I was on all sorts of prescription drugs and I couldn’t get my head round what had happened. I just couldn’t get my head round it. And I would go up to the primary school to collect my two boys from school, they were primary school age, and I’d meet all the widows, I’d meet all the orphans and it was heartbreaking. Really, really heartbreaking!
And I just couldn’t take it anymore and I said to my wife: Look, let’s go off somewhere to get my head sorted. I can’t hack this at all. So we went to Scotland and it probably did a good job with me, getting away from it all, but the pull of home was too strong and after two years we came back and we sort of settled into a routine but this is something, Pat, that has lived with me all my life and it’s still living with me. And the events of this past few days has made it a hundred times worse. To hear a man mocking their deaths – what I seen that night on the road and Robert Chamber, the apprentice, calling for his mammy and getting shot and then to see a man mocking their deaths, actually nearly celebrating their deaths – that was awful hard to take.
Pat: And this Sinn Féin MP, Barry McElduff, who did this thing, who made that video and posted it using the Kingsmill loaf of bread on his head…
Pat: …he was suspended for three months from party activities by Sinn Féin. What do you think of that particular decision by that party?
Alan: Well, it’s not for me to tell Sinn Féin what to do but I know by talking to people when I’m walking out up the street there’s working fellas – they say: I wish somebody would give me three months holiday with pay – so that’s the attitude that round here that people have but like I say, I keep well-away from politics because I’m not political in any way. I don’t – I just have no faith in the politics in this country.
Pat: And there was a political moment when the Reverend Ian Paisley falsely accused Eugene Reavey, who had lost his three brothers in an attack by the UVF…
Alan: …Yes, I remember that.
Pat: I mean, he accused him of being involved in the Kingsmill massacre and I mean, you were deeply offended by that contention.
Alan: Of course I was! And right-minded person would have been offended by it. This is one of the reasons why I don’t take any part in politics – well it’s not just the only reasons, there’s quite a few of them – but the thing I keep having to remind myself is: These bigots, they are in a very tiny minority in this country and I just steer clear of all bigots and I steer clear of politics. So my way of dealing with bigots is not to face them, not to attack them, not to do anything – it’s just to steer clear of them.
Pat: Now, the upshot of all of this was that the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) said that the IRA had perpetrated the outrage. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt, given the forensics on the weapons, that this was so.
Alan: That’s right. You see, the thing that bothers me – and all this is coming out slowly at the inquest – Gerry McKeown, who was first at the scene with his wife, was never spoken to by the police. An off-duty policeman, a man that came along, he was never spoken to by the police – never gave a statement. There was a local farmer and his wife had come up, they had lived about two hundred yards from where the ambush happened, they came up with blankets and all but it has come out at the inquest they went round collecting the empty shells – now, they were never spoken to by the police. The minibus driver was never spoken to by the police.
Pat: And what about you? I mean, were you interviewed by the police in connection with it?
Alan: Yes, they came into the hospital and they wanted to take a statement and I was giving them a statement but the doctor was, the hospital doctor, was horrified and he tried to chase them but I was convinced I was going to die and no one would know what happened so I wanted to give the statement. And I did. And that statement was read out in the Coroner’s Court and that was taken forty-two years ago and do you know: Everything that I remember was in that statement and I could make the same statement at any time during the past forty-two years because every bit of it was as I remember it.
Pat: Now, the presence of this English accent in the attack…
Pat: What’s the theory about that English accent because, certainly, the IRA would not have been known for having people with English accents in their membership.
Alan: Well, that’s true. That’s true. No, it was – that (inaudible) was they had a suspect number for him. He was an ex-Para that joined the Provos and he was based in Dundalk. He has since died and is buried in Dundalk. He died of cancer. So we do know that he served with the Paras and then went rogue and started running, he was based in Dundalk. So we do know who he was.
Pat: Why do you think that the investigation wasn’t as rigourous as it should have been at the time?
Alan: Well, it’s a very, very strange thing: Because of all the murders with the Reavey Brothers and the O’Dowds and now Kingsmill there was a team of ten detectives sent up from Belfast to help out. They were sent home. There was two detectives working all them cases but the ten detectives were sent home and there was no will to go after them. Now, my reasoning is: They were told not to go after anyone to protect someone – to protect an informer. And that was reinforced at the inquest by learning that there was two On-the-Run letters given to the gunmen at Kingsmill – so that reinforces my belief that they had an informer, maybe even in the gun gang, and this is why they didn’t go after anyone. There was one suspect in, I think, I just forget the exact date, but he was on a wanted list and he was stopped at Heathrow, he was carrying on to America, he was connecting up at Heathrow and he was stopped and held. And he was let go. He was let go to continue his journey. So it all fits in with – it’s dirty! It’s a dirty game played by dirty people. And I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the bottom of it.
Pat: Now, the inquest has adjourned since Christmas – I mean, it’s a helluva long time to wait for some sort of resolution. Is there any documentation? We’ve seen in recent days, of course, information that has come to light about the UVF and an invitation by MI5, allegedly, to kill Charlie Haughey and so on, information coming out, do you think there is information there that will inform the inquest in some way and that more might be known, ultimately?
Alan: There’s so many things, Pat, yes – there’s a lot of information but the authorities are very, very loathe to hand it over. They just don’t want to hand anything over. Like I, we had a – John McConville’s (Kingsmill victim) sisters, three sisters, Karen, Tanya and Mandy, came to me in I think it was 2012 or 13 and asked me would I help them in getting the inquest open. So I said I would and I made a statement to their solicitor and then Karen Armstrong took it to the Attorney General and there was a bit of correspondence between them two and then the Attorney General ordered the inquest to be re-opened. But from that day on, the inquest was ordered to be re-opened in 2013, it’s just been obstacle after obstacle after obstacle put in our way. And we sought a meeting with a very senior policeman and he was lawyered-up – he had a QC, junior barrister and three solicitors. And every time – Karen, Tanya and Mandy are very intelligent girls and they were asking genuine questions – but he couldn’t answer at any because the QC said: You can’t answer that. You can’t answer that. And I thought to myself: What are we doing in here? So I said: Is all this done to protect an informer? And I said: And was he in the gun gang? I just put it bluntly to him. And he got very, very upset with me and he said: Do you think we would do that? And he got all indignant. And I said: Didn’t you have Stakeknife running about and murdered fifty people! So what’s ten more to you?! And then they called a halt to the meeting. So they don’t like the truth being thrown at them.
Pat: Even forty years on – even forty years on! Alan, you’re living still in Bessbrook today?
Alan: Yes, I am.
Pat: And how would you characterise Bessbrook today? I mean, obviously one of the ambitions of the people who perpetrate this kind of crime is to poison the atmosphere to make sure that communities don’t get on with each other.
Alan: Well, that’s one thing that they haven’t succeeded in. Bessbrook is still a mixed village where people get on. And I’m delighted – I’m proud to be from Bessbrook because of that – people didn’t let it poison them. So they failed in that respect.
Pat: Well, Alan, thank you very much for talking to me this morning. Alan, of course, the sole survivor of the Kingsmill Massacre – really appreciate you giving us your time.
Alan: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. (ends)