I knew a woman from around Ardboe in East Tyrone whose family narrowly missed being killed by the loyalist outfit now commonly referred to as the Glenanne Gang. They were fortunate to have been out of their farmhouse in the fields and outhouses when their apparently friendly bread man who was a part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment delivered two masked men carrying guns to their house in his van. She watched in disbelief and terror as they entered her home, and then, finding no-one at home, left.  

It is estimated that this group murdered over 120 people. Almost all of them were randomly-selected Catholic civilians. According to the Cassel Report, Anne Cadwallader’s book Lethal Allies and Seán Murray’s recent documentary Unquiet Graves almost all of the murders involved serving members of the security forces. Now the terms of reference of a new inquiry, which should shed further light on that collusion, have been announced.

One of the leaders of the Glenanne Gang was Robin Jackson who was one of the organisers of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974. He was also present at the murders of members of the Miami Showband. Persistent probing by one of the band members who was fortunate to survive, Stephen Travers, proved that there was what is sometimes commonly referred to as “state collusion.”

That term barely covers the level of direct involvement, given that the Miami Showband murders and other atrocities were directly organised by a serving British army officer, Captain Robert Nairac. So while the gang was nominally part of the Ulster Volunteer Force and used various nomenclatures to claim its actions it was effectively operating as part of a British intelligence plan to strike fear into the northern Catholic population.

The gang got its name from its main base which was a farm at Glenanne near Markethill in county Armagh. The farm was owned by James Mitchell who was a member of the RUC reserve. Most of its operations originated there. The level of protection of this place is perhaps indicated by the fact that in March 1974 two members of the SAS were shot dead by the RUC close to the farm. It would seem that the RUC may have believed that the SAS men were republicans and it is anyone’s guess what the SAS were up to.

A former RUC sergeant John Weir had been part of the gang but became an informer – if that even makes sense given the state’s co-operation with the gang. He passed on information that Mitchell and a Stewart Young had told him they had been involved in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, but no action was taken. Weir himself was sentenced for his part in one of the gang’s murders so did not receive the usual reward due to an informer. Weir claims he had been recruited into the gang by two other RUC officers.  The Irish government’s report into the bombings, more of which anon, contains Weir’s testimony.

The Glenanne murders were redolent of the Peep O’Day Boys of the 1700s, a sectarian gang whose purpose was to randomly strike terror into uppity Taigs. It is not difficult to see why the Ku Klux Klan had such strong “Ulster Scots” roots nor why it was so virulently anti-Catholic as well as violently racist towards black people.

On January 4, 1976 the Glennane gang simultaneously killed three members of the Reavey family at Whitecross and three members of the O’Dowd family at Ballyduggan. That was the fate that had been planned for my friend’s family on the Lough shore.

Bertie Ahern established an inquiry into Dublin and Monaghan bombings under the direction of Justice Liam Hamilton but while it contains damning information regarding the involvement of the Glenanne Gang and its British state mentors, its conclusions are curiously ambiguous. While accepting that the gang had close connections to serving members of the security forces it claimed that it had been capable of carrying out its actions “without help from any section of the security forces in Northern Ireland.”

That, even on the inquiry’s own evidence, is clearly not true. Weir documents the entire chain of events which included members of the RUC, UDR and British army at every level. Indeed the quiescence of murderous loyalism since 1998 proved that they were incapable of maintaining a military campaign without state assistance. Now that same state rewards them by turning a blind eye to their criminal exploitation of working class Protestant communities in Belfast and elsewhere.

Perhaps the most damning part of the Hamilton report is the statement that: “The Garda investigation failed to make full use of the information it obtained. Certain lines of inquiry that could have been made [and] pursued in the jurisdiction were not pursued.” Furthermore, files on the Glenanne gang, and their British handlers, are missing. Garda Special Branch has files on the UVF dating back to 1966 and proceeding after the ceasefires, but none from 1974 and 1975.

That is quite incredible. It is also confirmation of the suspicions, and they are more than suspicions, that Garda Special Branch and perhaps the force in general was compromised by its connection to British intelligence. One suspects that the known involvement of Detective John McCoy, “The Badger”, in all that sordid business of the 1970s including the killing of John Francis Green in Monaghan is only the tip of the iceberg.

In November 2019, it was announced that former Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boucher had been appointed by the British government to conduct an independent inquiry into the Glenanne Gang. That followed an admission by the Northern Ireland Chief Justice Declan Morgan that the families of the victims had not been given proper consideration, and a British Court of Appeal ruling that a full investigation should take place. A previous decision to establish a full independent police inquiry had been challenged by the former PSNI Chief Constable, Sir George Hamilton.

The Boucher inquiry has set up a website Operation Kenova which is seeking information from anyone who had contact with the Glenanne Gang. If it is a genuine and transparent inquiry it will shed a withering light on Britain’s secret war in the Six Counties. I hope my old friend knows of it, and that she passes on the name of her neighbour who was happy to have them all murdered.