Every time Des McAlea travels the road between Belfast and Dublin he stops to pay his respects to his friends Fran O’Toole, Brian McCoy and Tony Geraghty. When he makes that same journey this week, it will be different.
“I’m going to have a chat with Fran, Brian and Tony, and I’m going to tell them about what happened, and that I’m so glad we got closure for their families.
“I’m going to leave flowers and I’m going to say a few prayers and I’m going to wish them a Happy Christmas.
“It’s going to be very emotional, but it’s something I want to do and I will do.”
On a summer’s night in July 1975 the friends – all members of the Miami Showband – were travelling home to Dublin from a gig in Banbridge, Co Down. Near Newry they were stopped at a fake checkpoint set up by Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldiers and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitaries. O’Toole, McCoy and Geraghty were murdered; McAlea and another band member, Stephen Travers, survived.
Last Monday they and relatives of the victims were awarded £1.5 million in total damages at the High Court in Belfast to settle claims against the Ministry of Defence and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.
“We got justice, and I just want to see all the others – there’s the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, there’s the Omagh bombings – I would love to see all these people getting justice,” says McAlea. “I hope our case sets a precedent.”
For more than 50 years, the “Miami” has been part of McAlea’s life. In his livingroom in Belfast he sits surrounded by photographs of his bandmates. “I wake up to this every day, it’s with me 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, and to be honest with you, that’s the way I want it.”
A talented saxophonist, he joined the band in 1967, aged 18. “It was very, very exciting. We would have 2,000 people inside a ballroom and 2,000 people outside a ballroom…The adoration we got from the fans was just incredible, the screaming at us and begging us for autographs and photographs, they were just incredible years.
“We had good times, and working with Fran – Fran was like my brother, as were all the guys, we were all one big happy family, and Fran was my songwriting partner and I miss the guys so much, so much.”
That night they were stopped at what they believed was a military checkpoint; they were told to step out of the van and line up facing a ditch.
“None of us knew they were putting a bomb in the van. That bomb exploded prematurely, killing two of them and blew me over the ditch into the field below… once the bomb went off they just opened up and all hell broke loose.
“There was gunfire, there was screaming, crying, it was just absolute mayhem…I remember watching the Vietnam war movies and the GIs used to lie face down on the grass and hold your breath as long as you can and pretend you’re dead, and I did that.
“The commotion was incredible that was going on around me, the ditch was on fire because the van had exploded…as I lay there on the grass I could see that the fire was coming closer and closer to me.
“There were people shouting things like ‘are you sure those bastards are dead?’ and I was scared stiff that they were going to come back and just throw a few more bullets into the ground to make sure we were all dead.
“I stayed and I prayed like I’ve never prayed in my life before and I waited until I heard running noises and I was hoping and praying that was the guys running away from the scene.”
In his victim impact statement to the court, McAlea described the lifelong impact on his mental and physical health, and how it had “shattered” his musical career and led him to emigrate to South Africa with his family.
“I’ll never get over it. This is something that will live with me until the day I die. Even the judge said in his closing statements, he said the same, he said he was absolutely appalled by what he heard.”
A 2011 report by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) raised “disturbing questions about collusive and corrupt behaviour” regarding the involvement of suspected RUC Special Branch agent Robin Jackson, a notorious UVF boss and former member of the UDR linked to scores of killings.
Two serving members of the UDR were subsequently convicted for their part in the attack.
“I was glad to see that it did come out that it was collusion,”says McAlea; though – as is customary – last week’s settlement was made without any admission of liability, that the case only lasted one day “to me is like admitting liability” and he believes the UK government was afraid of what might have emerged during a five-day trial.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg. On the night of the Miami massacre there was at least six more men there who were never traced, never found, never charged and never will be.”
He believes they are owed an apology by the UK government and is adamant plans to introduce a statute of limitations to block all Troubles-era investigations, civil cases and inquests cannot be allowed to proceed.
“Murder is murder, no matter what side it’s perpetrated on, and I believe that any murder has to be investigated, and for Boris [Johnson] to want to push this all under the carpet is absolutely disgusting.”
“Fran has a microphone, Brian has a trumpet in his hand, Tony has a guitar, and it’s on a plinth and at the end of the plinth are their names.
“That’s what I want to see for the lads, I want to see a decent monument for Fran, Brian and Tony. It wasn’t murder, it was a massacre, and I want to see them remembered in history forever.”