The Loughgall Ambush took place on 8 May 1987 in the village of Loughgall, County Armagh. An eight-strong Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit launched an attack on the village's Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) base, but was ambushed by a Special Air Service (SAS) unit of twenty-five. The SAS shot dead all eight IRA volunteers and a civilian. This was the IRA's greatest loss of life in a single incident during its campaign.
The IRA's East Tyrone Brigade operated in eastern County Tyrone, though it had launched some attacks in neighbouring County Armagh. Since 1985 it had been commanded by Patrick Joseph Kelly. The brigade had carried out two major attacks on RUC bases in eastern Tyrone, described by author Mark Urban as "spectaculars". The first was an attack in Ballygawley, and the second was an attack in the Birches. Both of these attacks involved raking the bases with gunfire, breaching the reinforced fences and exploding a bomb inside. In both attacks, the bases were destroyed and most or all of those inside were killed. It was therefore with some confidence that the IRA tried the same tactics on the unmanned Loughgall base.
The SAS, however, had set a trap to destroy the unit. They had placed an SAS soldier inside the base, and deployed a squad of 24 soldiers split into six groups around the building. It has been alleged, but never proved, that the RUC had an informer in the IRA group, and that he was killed by the SAS in the ambush.
Just after 7:00 pm on 8 May 1987, volunteer Declan Arthurs drove a digger carrying a 200 lb (90 kg) bomb through the perimeter fence of the RUC station. The van carrying the rest of the IRA unit pulled up; they then jumped out and opened fire on the station. The bomb detonated and destroyed a substantial part of the building, injuring three members of the security forces. However, within seconds, the SAS unit opened fire.
The SAS riddled the digger and the van with bullets. The soldiers fired more than 600 rounds; the IRA volunteers fired 70 rounds but did not hit any of the soldiers. All eight IRA volunteers were killed, all from head wounds. It was later alleged that one of the dead men was in fact an informant for the RUC, although this was denied by security sources, who claimed that the information on the IRA unit was gained from electronic surveillance.
The SAS also fired upon the car of passer-by Anthony Hughes, who was driving through the village with his brother Oliver Hughes. Anthony (36) was killed and his brother was badly wounded. Both were wearing blue overalls similar to those sometimes worn by IRA volunteers and so were thought to be part of the IRA unit. The SAS fired forty shots at the car as the two men tried to reverse out of the gunfire. Hughes' widow later received compensation from the British Government for the death of her husband.
The security forces recovered eight IRA weapons from the scene - three Heckler & Koch G3 rifles, one FN rifle, two FNC rifles, a Ruger revolver and a Spas-12 shotgun. The Royal Ulster Constabulary linked the guns to 7 murders and 12 attempted murders in the mid Ulster area. One of the guns had been taken from a reserve RUC constable killed two years earlier.
The East Tyrone Brigade continued operating until the IRA ceasefire ten years later. SAS operations against the IRA also continued. The IRA conducted a long investigation in search of the informer believed to have been in their ranks, although it has been suggested that the informer was killed in the 1987 ambush.
The IRA group became known as the "Loughgall Martyrs" among republicans, because the men's deaths were considered to be part of a deliberate shoot-to-kill policy by the security forces.
Thousands of people attended the funerals of the dead IRA men, the biggest republican funerals in Northern Ireland since those of the IRA hunger strikers of 1981. Gerry Adams, in his graveside oration, said the British Government understood that it could buy-off the government of the Republic of Ireland, which he described as the "shoneen clan" (pro-British), but added "it does not understand the Jim Lynaghs, the Pádraig McKearneys or the Séamus McElwaines. It thinks it can defeat them. It never will."
Shortly after the ambush the IRA released a statement saying: "volunteers who shot their way out of the ambush and escaped saw other Volunteers being shot ont the ground after being captured".
In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that ten IRA members, including the eight killed at Loughgall, had their human rights violated by the failure of the British government to conduct a proper investigation into the circumstances of their deaths. The court did not make any finding that these deaths amounted to unlawful killing.
An Irish rebel song was written as a tribute to the IRA members, entitled "Loughall Martyrs". Its lyrics state that the Provisionals were "brave volunteers" and that Lynagh was a "gallant soldier". The SAS are described as "butchers" and are accused of using disproportionate force, as well as not offering the opportunity to surrender. The final verse pays tribute to the eight men by name.
The ambush is alluded to in The Pogues' 1988 song "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" where the SAS are described as the "whores of the empire".