The red torch moving in a circular motion like a bloodshot eye in the middle of the dark Ulster road didn’t cause alarm for trumpet player Brian McCoy. A veteran member of the popular cabaret group, the Miami Showband, he calmly announced “UDR checkpoint ahead” to his fellow band members inside the minibus he was driving home to Dublin, following their successful gig in Banbridge only several hours before. It was 2.30 am on 31 July 1975 and the place was Buskhill, just outside Newry. McCoy, a native of Caledon, County Tyrone was used to military checkpoints at all hours of the day and night. He pulled the van over to the layby and handed his driving license to the fully uniformed UDR soldiers who appeared friendly and nonchalant.
“The Night the Music Cried.” Unanswered questions surrounding the Miami Showband massacre. (Jeanne Griffin)
“Goodnight fellas. How are things? Can you just step out of the van for a few minutes and we’ll just do a check?” These seemingly innocuous words were the opening lines for what is probably the most baffling and inexplicable episode in the whole twisted nightmarish course that the Troubles took as paramilitaries waged violence, death and bloody mayhem for three decades. We know the horror story that quickly unfolded after five of the six Miami band members were made to line up facing a ditch as two of the soldiers planted a bomb inside the minibus. Even then Brian McCoy nudged bassist Stephen Travers telling him not to worry as this was “British Army”. It was not. The armed uniformed men who numbered about 10 in all were actually members of the UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade led by the notorious Robin Jackson who had masterminded the entire bogus military checkpoint. After the bomb exploded prematurely killing two of the gunmen and blowing the van in half, the remaining “soldiers” opened fire on the dazed Miami Showband who had been blown into the field by the force of the blast. Brian McCoy was the first to die having received nine bullets in the back fired from a Luger pistol which would be later found containing Robin Jackson’s fingerprints. Singer Fran O’Toole and guitarist Tony Geraghty tried vainly to run away but were pursued by the gunmen and shot dead. Only Travers and saxophonist Des McAlea survived.
There was a trial but only three of the gunmen were convicted and imprisoned: two serving UDR soldiers Lance-Corporal Thomas Crozier and Sergeant James McDowell (who had actually issued the orders to fire on the band members); and James Somerville who was a former member of the UDR. There have been documentaries, books written and even a HET Report into the atrocity, however the more light that is shed on this drama the larger the shadows that loom to only obscure the entire truth from being revealed. Why was the band targeted by Robin and his not-so-merry men? And who was the officer with the “crisp English accent” who appeared on the scene just before the explosion and only issued instructions to Sgt McDowell? He drove up in a car but was this car damaged in the blast? Can we honestly buy the explanation that the UVF wanted the bomb to go off just after the van had crossed the border in order to portray the band as “bomb-smugglers for the IRA”? And if this was their motive wouldn’t it have been safer for the UVF to plant the bomb under the van during their Banbridge gig rather than risk detection by an actual military patrol after setting up their bogus checkpoint on a busy dual carriageway? Why don’t journalists pose these questions to Travers and McAlea rather than ask them to speculate whether or not the English officer was Captain Nairac?
Let’s look at the facts. The Miami Showband was a Dublin-based band with both Catholic and Protestant members. The trumpeter Brian McCoy was the son of the Orange Order Grand Master for Tyrone and his brother-in-law was a former B Special who served in the UDR. He had been driving the van that night and was the first to be hit by gunfire. The Luger which was used to murder him was later discovered containing Robin Jackson’s prints. Jackson was also a former UDR soldier as well as a suspect in the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Could he have approached McCoy at some earlier stage and asked him to help the UVF as a loyal Protestant and when he refused decide to carry out an act of vengeance against McCoy and the entire band? Jackson had been arrested as a suspect in the ambush but released without being charged shortly afterwards. Travers alleges that as soon as they were blown into the field the gunmen started firing under Sgt. McDowell’s orders Didn’t the bomb also take them by surprise? And how far were they standing from the van when it exploded? These are questions that should be asked – yet they are not. All their collective concentration centres on the elusive English officer with the cut-glass accent. Why?