Stephen Travers knows about borders. He has been to the frontier between life and death. He was shot with a dumdum bullet that exploded inside his body and then lay in terror as his friends who had tried to save him were murdered around him.
All because of a border.
The Irish border.
Travers is living testament to the danger that still stalks the fields and streets of Northern Ireland (see panel). The words “Brexit” and “backstop” make him wince.
“There’s so much bravado and gung-ho coming from Westminster,” Travers told me in the incongruous setting of an upmarket Cork hotel last week. “You hear Jacob Rees-Mogg saying there’s no problem with the border: let’s go back and monitor things as we did during the Troubles. It’s convenient not to remember. There is a lot of wilful ignorance and it’s dangerous. They are playing fast and loose with people’s lives.”
A Netflix documentary, The Miami Showband Massacre, will air next month, telling the story of Travers and his colleagues. It is part of the ReMastered series, which explores the wider social impact of popular music. Other artists featured include Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and Sam Cooke, esteemed company for the Irish bassist. “When you start out in music you want to be a star, like the Beatles,” he said. “You never think you’ll be famous for getting shot.”
The band’s attackers wanted, in modern parlance, a hard border. The motives and hatreds that drove them have not gone away. They have remained in the body politic of Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement (see panel) brought an end to the conflict 21 years ago. On the mainland, people were relieved that the low-level war known as the Troubles was over. They could go back to ignoring the province. Until, that is, Brexit put this problematic corner of the British Isles back on the national agenda.
In July 1975, Travers was having the time of his life. The 24-year-old had joined the group earlier in the year. Showbands were a particularly Irish phenomenon that began to develop in the mid-1950s. They usually had six or seven members who wore matching suits and performed cover versions and the hits of the day. They packed out ballrooms in the towns, and in more rural areas promoters erected huge marquees to cope with the demand. “There was no sectarianism at these dances,” Travers said. “People left their religion at the door.” At the height of the showband scene, the Musicians’ Federation of Ireland said that there were 650 fully professional groups operating across the island.
By the time Travers joined, the showband tradition was changing. The Miamis had even dropped “Showband” from their title – it never caught on. They dressed like rock musicians and performed their own material as well as pop standards. Nevertheless, the band were Ireland’s biggest attraction. They performed six times a week during the summer and frequently drew crowds of more than 3,000. They were in the north perhaps twice a week, crossing the border so often that army patrols often recognised them and waved them on past their roadblocks.
On the last day of the month a group of soldiers had a different plan for the musicians.
The band finished a gig in Banbridge, Co Down, and the night had ended on a high note, a barnstorming version of Clap Your Hands and Stomp Your Feet, a song that had given them a Top-Ten hit in Ireland the previous year. The mixed bunch of Catholics and Protestants from both north and south were in good heart as they began the drive back to Dublin. Five members were in their Volkswagen minibus: Travers; Fran O’Toole, the heartthrob singer; Tony Geraghty, a guitarist; Brian McCoy, a trumpeter; and Des McAlea, known as Des Lee, who played saxophone. Ray Millar, the drummer, had gone to visit his parents in Antrim.
The vehicle was stopped by a man waving a red torch at about 2.30am. He led a squad of about ten troopers from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR – see panel), a mostly part-time unit recruited in Ulster and containing a number of men who would be associated with loyalist terrorism. They ordered the passengers to line up facing a field with their hands on their heads. The bassist was in the middle of the five. “There was no sense of menace,” Travers recalled. “There was a bit of banter. ‘I’ll bet you’d rather be in bed than standing here on the road,’ one said.” O’Toole joshed back, suggesting the soldier would rather be tucked up than crouching in a ditch.
The mood changed when an officer arrived. “A car had pulled into the layby behind us when we stopped and I don’t know whether he was in it,” Travers told me. “He was wearing a different type of uniform – it was lighter – and a fawn beret, light brown. He had a very professional demeanour and an English upper-class accent. He took charge immediately.” The banter stopped.
Two of the soldiers were rummaging in the back of the Volkswagen and Travers heard the click of a guitar case opening. He had a Perspex, transparent bass and was worried it would be damaged. Advancing towards the vehicle, he had his outstretched arm slapped down by a soldier and was forced back into line with a blow to the back that winded him. He stumbled to a different position in line, second closest to the rear of the van. It saved his life.
“I still wasn’t worried,” he said. “I thought he was just a rough character. I was the youngest and Fran and Brian told me everything would be OK. They said: ‘The British Army are here’. That was reassuring. The UDR had a reputation for being unprofessional.”
What the band could not see were two soldiers planting a ten-pound gelignite bomb under the driver’s seat. The timer was set to detonate about 15 minutes later. Instead, it exploded immediately and ripped the men handling it – and the van – to pieces.
In the chaos that followed, the other soldiers began shooting. “I don’t remember being shot but the bullet entered my right hip and travelled up through my body,” Travers said. “It exploded in 16 pieces and continued into my left lung and left arm.”
Band members were blown into the field three metres below the road. Someone tried to drag the bassist away but a gunman clambered down the ditch and resumed shooting. “I think it was Brian pulling me,” he said. “Can you imagine the son of a member of the Orange Order (see panel), a Protestant lad, pulling a Catholic from south Tipperary out of the way and getting murdered for his trouble? They shot him in the back of the head. He died there and then beside me. Within a few feet they caught Fran and Tony. I can still hear the obscenities of the soldiers swearing and shouting and the cries of our lads asking not to be killed.
“They were particularly horrible with Fran. He was the pin-up boy for all the girls. A good looking lad, a lovely fella. They shot him 20 times, seven times in the face. They did such a job that the police didn’t know whether he was a boy or a girl because he had long hair. Can you imagine the savagery?” For once Travers’s soft voice faltered, and during the long pause only the clinking of glasses from the bar filled the silence. Then he composed himself and continued.
McAlea had been thrown into the air in a different direction unnoticed by the killers. He feared for his life as flames swept down the ditch. One of the gunmen roamed the field, kicking bodies to check for signs of life. As he approached Travers, one of his comrades called from the roadside for him to leave. “They’re dead,” he shouted. “I got them with dumdums.” After they left, McAlea emerged and flagged down a car – a lorry initially refused to take him – and raised the alarm at the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) station in Newry.
The gunmen were members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF – see panel), one of the most violent loyalist terrorist groups, as well as the UDR. Their aim was to make it look as if the band were transporting explosives and weapons to the south. The porous border often provided an easy escape route for Republican terrorists after attacks in the north. If such a well-known band were involved in terrorist activity, the Irish government would have been forced to impose tighter security on the border and effectively seal off the republic from the north. It would have worked but for a badly-soldered connection on the explosive device. The presence of the English officer has never been explained.
“It was a brilliant plan,” Travers said. “To plant a bomb on the most popular and beloved commuters in Ireland, who were from the north and south and were mixed Catholics and Protestants. If the most popular band in Ireland were were shown to be terrorists, then anyone could be. There would be no excuse not to extend stop-and-search to everyone.”
There was never meant to be a border in this part of Ireland. It was created when the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty severed the predominantly Protestant and Unionist six counties from the 26 counties that formed the Irish Free State. There are 275 roads that cross between the two nations. One route in Fermanagh traverses the two countries four times within a kilometre. Before the Good Friday Agreement, many of these lanes were blocked by the British Army. For more than 20 years there has been complete freedom of movement.
The borderlands are a difficult place to police. The roads are narrow and potholed. The landscape is rural and isolated. In the dark it is disorienting. Memorials to victims of the Troubles pop up every few miles. They are more than memorials to the past.
Some ten miles from where the Miami Showband were attacked is the Kingsmill memorial wall. It marks the remote spot where, in 1976, gunmen stopped a minibus taking 12 textile workers home. They were halted by a man in combat fatigues and forced to line up along the bus as more armed men appeared. The leader asked who was Catholic. There was only one. His workmates tried to stop him identifying himself, fearing he would be shot. Instead, the lone Catholic was forced to walk down the road and his 11 Protestant workmates were mowed down by republican terrorists. Only one survived.
This is not ancient history. Last year, the wall that commemorates the atrocity was vandalised. An Irish tricolour was nailed to the monument. Feelings remain raw in border country. Shrines to innocent victims, RUC men, soldiers and loyalist and republican paramilitaries are commonplace. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) brought peace. Now it is under threat. Brexit has exposed the fragility of the political situation.
“The trauma of 40 years of conflict lingers on,” said Sorcha Eastwood, who stood as an Alliance candidate in West Belfast in the 2017 general election. “Lots of people never talk about what happened to them. They pull the curtains when they turn on the lights. We still have paramilitaries.”
The divisions run deep. “We have separated housing and segregated schools,” she continued. “People use leisure centres and hospitals in ‘their’ areas, and because of that they do not mix.”
That divide exists in the Northern Irish Assembly. The Democratic Unionists (DUP – see panel) and Sinn Fein are the largest parties but are perceived to have pursued “separate but equal policies”. It is hard to imagine the two sides coming together, and the assembly has been suspended for more than two years after relations between the opposing factions broke down.
As a member of a party that has tried to break the sectarian political logjam, Eastwood – like Travers – believes Brexit has made things worse. “What it has done is it has ripped away the umbrella that we were under as European people, and what you see underneath it is a divided and separated place where this unifying concept of being European has been taken away,” she said. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU for its own very good reasons.
“What’s left? We’re too divided. In the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement nobody’s made any attempt to figure out Northern Ireland or what is a Northern Irish identity.”
The separate identities are cemented in the culture and the folk memories of people. At the Museum of Orange Heritage in Loughgall, the informative guide emphasises to visitors the events of 1641, when the Protestant English settlers were rounded up by the Irish and imprisoned in a local church which was eventually burnt down. Survivors were thrown in the river and forced to drown at pike-point.
The museum is in Sloan’s House, where the victors of the 1795 Battle of the Diamond met and formed the Orange Order. The table where the leaders pledged to defend “the King and his heirs as long as he or they support the Protestant ascendency” still sits in the room where the pledge was signed.
The guides – volunteers, so often a loaded word in Northern Ireland – brim with pride at the exhibits: a warrant signed by William III, huge and ancient Lambeg drums from the marching bands and a vast array of sashes and banners. This is, for many Ulster Protestants, one of the highest expressions of their British culture. The sorrow for Unionists is that few from the mainland recognise the connection beyond the flying of flags. The Orange marches and bowler hats are as bewildering for most Brexit voters as a Polish folk dance.
In a bar in Belfast, a local articulated the problem. “I grew up a proud Unionist, British, and loyal to the Crown. Then I went to England to work. I found that to them I was just another Paddy.”
The DUP are propping up Theresa May’s government and are vehemently against the backstop, but Sloan’s House has one incongruous plaque on its walls: it details that its expansion and refurbishment came courtesy of a European Union grant.
It is hard for those who have never been there to comprehend how damaged the population of Northern Ireland was by the Troubles (see panel). People are understandably cagey but when they tell their tales – most often with a “don’t use my name” proviso – they are harrowing. The tentacles of trauma have an insidious reach. There are too many stories to tell. The man who was shot by paramilitaries who came to murder a neighbour but, getting no answer from their intended victim, went next door on the basis that whoever lived there must have been from the same religion as their target. The family of a woman blown up with her unborn baby. Grief lurks under the surface.
These are just the headline tragedies. Few people consider the emotional impact on those who heard bombs and bullets in the night, whose journeys to school and back were terrifying because their uniform identified their faith, and those who kept their heads down and tried to cope in this dangerous, divided state.
Travers is one of the founders of the Truth And Reconciliation Platform (TARP), a group that seeks to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. “Very often, people who were injured, who were directly impacted, are quicker to say ‘we must fix this and we must reconcile’ than their sons, their nephews, their cousins. The further you get away in a family, these are the ones who feel compelled to get revenge for their relatives. Someone who never met his grandfather will say: ‘The Brits did this, the Brits did that,’ or ‘the loyalists did this…’ The reason we have TARP is to get as many people as possible to stand up and say: ‘This happened to me. I don’t want it to happen to you.’”
Eastwood is also concerned for the next generation. “Young people’s suicide rates have been higher post-1998 than during the conflict,” she said, quoting official statistics. In 2017, 305 people took their own lives in the province, double the 150 who died by their own hands in 1998. “What happens to families affects them so badly they get passed down through generations. There’s a professor called Siobhan O’Neill [professor of mental health sciences at the University of Ulster] and she says it’s now in our DNA. How terrifying is that?”
Back at the border, both sides of the political divide are opposed to anything that affects normal life. “I’d take a tractor and knock down a customs post,” one man says. Another shakes his head in dismay. “It will bring the men with the guns out again.” At the moment, only cigarettes, alcohol and fuel carry different duties in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and a significant smuggling operation already exists. Regulatory divergence will offer many more opportunities for the criminals. Even the backstop creates dangers. Estimates by Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food Strategy Board suggest a lorryload of cheap beef repackaged as meeting EU standards could generate profits of more than £40,000. “Who has the organisation and muscle to carry something like that off?” a man in Warrenpoint asks. There is no need to answer.
Travers, whose life is devoted to stopping violence, is not optimistic, unless the British government changes direction. “The Miami Showband massacre was an attempt to seal the border,” he said. “Brexit is another attempt. It will cause a resurgence of violence. The minute you put up a camera on a pole or a tree, someone will shoot it down. The minute someone comes to guard it, they’ll take potshots at them. If it’s customs posts they’ll bring the police and then the army to protect them. It’ll all start again, but this time it will be worse.”
Northern Ireland is holding its breath while Britain pushes the borderlands to the brink.