Killing the Irish Beatles

The Irish Republican Army formed in 1917 as a militant independence movement and went through a few transformations over the decades, emerging in 1969 as a Marxist organization advocating extreme violence. What’s interesting about Marxism in the United States is it was secretly dominated by spooks working for military intelligence, and it certainly seems possible something similar might have been happening in Ireland. Over 3,500 killed and up to 50,000 injured over a 30-year period of tit-for-tat terror, what came to be known in Ireland as “the troubles.”

The Miami Showband in 1975.

Originally formed as the Downbeats Quartet, in 1962 the name changed to the Miami Showband, led by Dickie Rock. The band went through a number of changes throughout the 1960s, earning numerous number one Irish hits along the way, despite the defections of a series of lead singers, starting with Dickie Rock. The Irish showbands, of which around 700 existed at peak, were different from American garage bands of the same era as they typically included horn sections and played covers of well-known pop and soul tunes, unlike those gritty four-piece guitar bands that proliferated in the USA. Think “Get Ready” by Rare Earth as an appropriate comparison.

By 1975, the Miami Showband had not scored a number one hit in years, but they remained the best-known band, often called The Beatles of Ireland. And the young new lead singer was a powerful teenybopper sex symbol. At the time, the band was composed of four Catholics and two Protestants, and although they had no overt political content in their lyrics, the fact they represented a successful mix of both cultures made the group a potential lightning rod for peace simply by drawing audiences from both sides into the same venue.

Paul Ashford was the bass player and lead singer in 1972, but was asked to leave the band after complaining playing gigs in Northern Ireland was putting his life at risk. Ashford was replaced by Stephen Travers on bass and the dynamic Fran O’Toole on vocals and keyboards. Even Ashford has to admit the change was an upgrade, as he described O’Toole as “the greatest soul singer in Ireland.”

An intense panic began smoldering in the north in the late sixties because Protestants feared the country would soon be unified, meaning Catholics would gain control of the north. Two warring militias supporting the Protestant cause had formed to fight against the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA). In May 1974, the UVF instigated a series of car bombings in the south designed to disrupt talk of unification, bombings that killed 33 civilians. The IRA retaliated by bombing two pubs in England, killing 21 civilians. Tit for tat.

In Christmas 1974, the IRA declared a cease fire and peace council, which only served to make the two loyalist militias in the north concerned they would soon be sold out during secret negotiations. Something big and transforming was required to keep hostile fires burning, and deep inside the bowels of MI5, a plan was formulated on how to reinvigorate the war.

Suddenly, the leader of the UVF Mid-Ulster Brigade, Billy Hanna was assassinated by his own organization. In hindsight it appears Hanna had refused to go along with the plan and swiftly replaced by Robin Jackson, known as “the jackal.” Many suspect Jackson murdered Hanna to prevent him from exposing the plot.

Robin Jackson.
Billy Hanna.

The plan was to intercept the band on July 31, as they traveled back to Dublin from a gig in the north, and surreptitiously place a bomb inside the van. They planned to announce to the press that the band had been carrying a bomb for the IRA which had gone off by accident. Everything went according to plan until that bomb unexpectedly went off while being placed under the driver’s seat. At the time, five members of the band were standing by the side of the road, and the UVF brigade was instructed by a British officer on the scene to kill all witnesses. Two of the band survived by playing dead.

Over the decades, many attempts to find justice have been initiated and although two UVF members were found guilty of the murders (out of a dozen on the scene), the links into England and identity of the British officer in command at the scene has never been officially investigated.

All these details are explained in the Netflix documentary, The Miami Showband Massacre. A couple of the killers were from the Ulster Defence Regiment — a government militia. “This would be the equivalent of uniformed National Guardsmen working with Klansmen and Neo-Nazis,” says researcher Michael Marinacci.