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The Loughgall ambush took place on 8 May 1987 in the village of Loughgall, Northern Ireland. An eight-man unit of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched an attack on the village's Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) base. Three IRA members drove a digger with a bomb in its bucket through the base's perimeter fence, while the rest of the unit arrived in a van and fired on the building. As the bomb exploded, the IRA unit was ambushed and killed by a 36-man unit of the British Army's Special Air Service (SAS). The British Army and RUC had received detailed intelligence about the IRA's plans and had been waiting in hidden positions. A civilian was also killed by the SAS after unwittingly driving into the ambush zone. The joint SAS and RUC operation was codenamed Operation Judy.[4][5] It was the IRA's greatest loss of life in a single incident during the Troubles.[6]

Background and preparations

The IRA's East Tyrone Brigade was active mainly in eastern County Tyrone and neighbouring parts of County Armagh. By the mid-1980s it had become one of the IRA's most professional and effective units. Members of the unit, such as Jim Lynagh and Pádraig McKearney, advocated a strategy of destroying bases and preventing them being rebuilt or repaired, thus "denying ground" to British forces.[3][7] In 1985, Patrick Joseph Kelly became its commander and began implementing the strategy. In 1985 and 1986, it carried out two major attacks on RUC bases described by author Mark Urban as "spectaculars".[8] The first was an attack on the RUC barracks in Ballygawley on 7 December 1985. The second was an attack on an RUC base at The Birches on 11 August 1986. In both attacks, the bases were raked with gunfire and then destroyed with a bomb. In the attack at The Birches, they had breached the base's perimeter fence with a digger that had a bomb in its bucket.[7] It planned to use the same tactic in an attack on the lightly-manned Loughgall base.[7][9]

The British security forces, however, had received detailed and accurate intelligence about the IRA's plans.[4] It is believed that this was obtained by RUC Special Branch and the British Army's Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU).[7] It has been alleged that the security forces had a double agent inside the IRA unit, and that he was killed by the SAS in the ambush.[10] Other sources claim that the security forces had instead learned of the ambush through other surveillance methods.[11]

On 7 May, the RUC base was secretly evacuated and about 36 SAS soldiers, as well as officers from the RUC's Mobile Support Unit (MSU), were deployed.[3] The MSU was the RUC's equivalent of the SAS. Most of the soldiers and officers were hidden around the base, with one team inside the base, and other teams hidden along the IRA’s anticipated route.[4]

The IRA's attack involved two teams. One team would drive a digger with a bomb in its bucket through the base's perimeter fence and light the fuse. At the same time, the other would arrive in a van and open fire on the base. Both teams would then leave the area in the van.[2] The van and digger that would be used were hijacked in the hours leading up to the attack.[2] The van, a blue Toyota HiAce, was taken from a business in Dungannon. The digger (a backhoe loader) was taken from a farm at Lislasly Road, about two miles west of Loughgall. Two IRA members stayed at the farm to stop the owners raising the alarm. IRA member Declan Arthurs drove the digger, while two others drove ahead of him in a 'scout car'. The rest of the unit travelled in the van from another location, presumably also with a 'scout car'.[2]


The two IRA teams arrived in Loughgall from the northeast shortly after 7PM.[2] All were armed and wearing bulletproof vests, boilersuits, gloves and balaclavas.[2] the IRA men drove past the RUC base a number of times for reconnaissance.[2][4] At about 7:15, Declan Arthurs drove the digger towards the base, with Gerard O'Callaghan and Tony Gormley riding alongside.[2] In the front bucket was 200 lb (90 kg) of semtex inside an oil drum, wired to two 40-second fuses. The other five followed in the van: unit commander Patrick Kelly, Jim Lynagh, Pádraig McKearney, Eugene Kelly and Seamus Donnelly. The digger crashed through the fence and the fuses were lit. The van stopped a short distance ahead and—according to the British security forces—three of the team jumped out and fired on the building.[4] Author Raymond Murray, however, disputes this.[2] Within seconds, the SAS opened fire from a number of hidden positions with M16 and H&K G3 rifles and L7A2 general-purpose machine guns. The bomb detonated, destroying the digger along with much of the building, and injuring three members of the security forces.[12]

The SAS fired about 1,200 rounds at the IRA unit, riddling the van with bullets.[13] The eight IRA members were killed in the hail of gunfire; all had multiple wounds and were shot in the head.[2][14] Seamus Donnelly managed to escape into the football field beside the road, but was shot dead there.[2] It has been alleged that three of the wounded IRA members were shot dead as they lay on the ground after surrendering.[15] According to author Raymond Murray, citing Jim Cusack's article in The Irish Times of 5 June 1987, the IRA members in the scout cars escaped.[2]

Two civilians travelling in a car were also shot by the SAS. The two brothers, Anthony and Oliver Hughes, were driving back from work and were wearing blue overalls like the IRA unit.[2] About 130 yards from the base, SAS members opened fire on them from behind, killing Anthony (the driver) and badly wounding Oliver.[2] The SAS fired about 50 rounds at them from a garden.[2] The villagers had not been told of the operation and no attempt had been made to evacuate anyone or to seal-off the ambush zone, as this may have alerted the IRA.[5] Anthony's widow was later compensated by the British Government for the death of her husband.[2][16]

The security forces recovered one firearm from each dead IRA member at the scene: three H&K G3 rifles, one FN FAL rifle, two FN FNC rifles, a Franchi SPAS-12T shotgun and a Ruger Security Six revolver. The RUC linked the guns to seven killings and twelve attempted killings in the Mid-Ulster area.[1] The Ruger had been stolen from Reserve RUC officer William Clement, killed two years earlier in the attack on Ballygawley RUC base by the same IRA unit.[17] It was found that another of the guns had been used in the killing of Harold Henry, a key contractor to the British Army and RUC in Ireland.[18]

The re-built Loughgall PSNI base in 2010


The East Tyrone Brigade continued to be active until the last IRA ceasefire ten years later. SAS operations against the IRA also continued. The IRA searched to find the informer it believed to be among them, although it has been suggested that the informer, if there ever was one, had been killed in the ambush.[10] The RUC station was attacked again on 5 September 1990, when a van bomb caused widespread damage and wounded seven constables.[19][19][20]

The IRA members became known as the "Loughgall Martyrs" among republicans.[21] The men's relatives considered their killings to be part of a deliberate shoot-to-kill policy by the security forces. Thousands of people attended their funerals; the biggest republican funerals in Northern Ireland since those of the IRA hunger strikers of 1981.[22] Gerry Adams, in his graveside oration, gave a speech stating the British Government understood that it could buy-off the government of the Republic of Ireland, which he described as the "shoneen clan" (pro-British), but added "it does not understand the Jim Lynaghs, the Pádraig McKearneys or the Séamus McElwaines. It thinks it can defeat them. It never will."[23]

Shortly after the ambush the Provisional IRA released a statement saying: "volunteers who shot their way out of the ambush and escaped saw other volunteers being shot on the ground after being captured".[24]

In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ten IRA members, including the eight killed at Loughgall, had their human rights violated by the failure of the British Government to conduct a proper investigation into their deaths.[14] The court did not make any finding that these deaths amounted to unlawful killing.[25] In December 2011, Northern Ireland's Historical Enquiries Team found that not only did the IRA team fire first but that they could not have been safely arrested. They concluded that the SAS were justified in opening fire.[26]

Loughgall RUC station was re-built, transferred to the PSNI in 2001, and shut in August 2009.[27] In April 2011 it was sold for private development.[28]


The ambush is alluded to in The Pogues' 1988 song "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six".[29] "Loughgall Ambush" is also the name of a republican ballad specifically about this attack as recorded by Charlie and The Bhoys amongst others.[30]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 O'Brien, Brendan (1995). The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin. p. 141. ISBN 0-8156-0319-3. 
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 Murray, Raymond (1990). The SAS in Ireland. Mercier Press, pp. 380-383. ISBN 0-85342-938-3.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 McDonald, Henry (29 September 2002). "True tale of IRA 'martyrs' revealed". London: The Guardian.,2763,801151,00.html. Retrieved 19 September 2007. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Brown, Andrew. The Difficult War: Perspectives on Insurgency and Special Operations Forces. Dundurn, 2009. pp.132-133
  5. 5.0 5.1 MacKenzie, Alastair. Special Force: The Untold Story of 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). p.319
  6. "Ten cases of special forces in action". BBC News, 5 May 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Taylor, Peter. "Loughgall: playing it rough". Daily Mail, 8 May 2001.
  8. Big Boys' Rules, Mark Urban, Faber and Faber (1992), p. 224, ISBN 0-571-16112-X.
  9. Big Boys' Rules, p. 227.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Taylor, Peter (1997). Provos – The IRA & Sinn Féin. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 276. ISBN 0-7475-3818-2. 
  11. Holland, Jack (1999). Hope against History. Henry Holt. p. 143. ISBN 0-8050-6087-1. 
  12. Ellison, Graham and Smyth, Jim (2000). The Crowned Harp: Policing in Ireland. Contemporary Irish Studies. Pluto Press, p. 122. ISBN 0-7453-1393-0.
  13. Ted Oliver (5 May 2001). "Infamous IRA gang wiped out by heavily armed SAS". Irish Examiner. Retrieved 26 March 2007. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 "IRA deaths: The four shootings". BBC. 4 May 2001. Retrieved 11 March 2007. 
  15. Coogan, Tim Pat (1995). The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1995 and the Search for Peace. Hutchinson. p. 290. ISBN 0-09-179146-4. 
  16. Taylor, Peter (1997). Provos: The IRA and Sinn Féin. p. 274.
  17. Urban, Mark (1992). Big Boys' Rules. Faber and Faber. p. 229. ISBN 0-571-16809-4. 
  18. Toolis, Kevin (1995). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA's soul. Picador, p. 65. ISBN 0-330-34243-6.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Reuters, 5 September 1990
  20. CAIN – Listing of Programmes for the Year: 1990-BBC news, 5 September 1990
  21. Bean, Kevin (2008). The New Politics of Sinn Féin. Liverpool University Press, p. 1. ISBN 1-84631-144-6.
  22. Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney, 2002, p. 324.
  23. Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney, 2002, p. 325.
  24. PIRA Propaganda:The Construction of Legitimacy, by Joanne Wright
  25. "UK condemned over IRA deaths". BBC. 4 May 2001. Retrieved 28 October 2008. 
  26. "Shot IRA unit 'fired first at SAS'". Belfast Telegraph. 2 December 2011. 
  27. Property Sold by the PSNI in the Last Ten Years
  28. Provo Massacre PSNI Station Sold; Scene of 11 killings set to be used for housing The Mirror, 27 April 2011.
  29. "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six". "May the whores of the empire lie awake in their beds, And sweat as they count out the sins on their heads. While over in Ireland eight more men lie dead, Kicked down and shot in the back of the head" 
  30. Song details

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